Baking is said to be a science, a simple exercise in following directions exactly that any fool—any patient, painstaking fool—can carry out. It's not true. Baking is rife with mystery, fraught with hazard. I failed right out of the gate at age 8 with a complicated, many-egged Mad Hatter tea cake from a misleadingly cheerful Alice in Wonderland cookbook. The cake emerged from the oven an unholy, inch-high, inedible sludge; I was crushed. The same people who say baking is a science say to persevere, which I have, with mixed results (that mix being of middling to very poor). Fairly recently, I baked a cake so objectively terrible that I threw it out a window. I did all right with pie crust for quite a while. Crust is notoriously difficult: touchy about being handled too much, involves a rolling pin. One bad crust, and I lost my nerve. Crust can sense fear. There's no going back.
Luckily I am surrounded by better people than I, Renaissance people who can do normal things with aplomb and, additionally, bake like angels in the most important area of all: pie. Pie possesses the beauty of restraint, of balance, of texture against texture; your savory pies—potpie, quiche, etc.—satisfy far beyond the sum of their parts. Pie is the true superfood, good after (or for) dinner, even better at breakfast, restorative, iconic, simple yet awesome.
My mother makes pie with rhubarb from her garden. We don't cotton to strawberries in our rhubarb pie; it's already a sweet-tart experience nonpareil, with the places where the filling bubbles out and caramelizes making life worth living. Also in her repertoire: huckleberry (summer; Priest Lake, Idaho; baked in a wood-fired stove), classic pumpkin (holidays, made from Libby's). My brother inherited the pie-making gene; he makes, among other pie-things, a goat-cheese-and-sweet-onion galette that sometimes shows up on my doorstep, like maybe there is a god. We have e-mail exchanges about minute adjustments to the crust recipe. Another friend makes pie so good and so pretty, it should be launched into space to show aliens the best of humanity.
If you're baking-impaired and your family/friends are far away/hateful/sub par, I'm sorry, but fear not. Store- and even bakery-bought pie has historically been only an approximation, the filling gelatinous, the crust a travesty—generally a rendered-horse-hooves-and-cardboard deal. But with the terrifying juggernaut of consumerism comes a few welcome specific steps in the right direction. Here is one: Shoofly Pie Co. in West Seattle.
Why did Kimmy Hsieh Tomlinson start a pie company?
"I just really enjoy making pies," she says.
(Peripherally, she noticed the sad lack of availability of good, handmade pie. Some people don't mind going to Costco and paying $5 for a giant [gross] pie. She's cool with that. These are not her people.)
Out at Shoofly Pie Co. last Saturday afternoon, an older lady with a tweed-and-leather hat ordered a slice of lemon meringue ($3.75), talking with someone else in line about her mother, who had 14 kids. "Did she make pies?" the someone else inquired. "She made everything—babies, pies." Laughter. (Later, across the room, eating her pie, in answer to a raising of the eyebrows, the older lady smiled and nodded once, emphatically.) Also in line: Two women with blond highlights and one baby, the baby being admired by a man in jogging tights who looked like a cross between Slade Gorton and Larry Craig. ("Let's give the pumpkin [$3.75 slice, $21 whole] a whirl!" he said.) Later: interracial gay couple, repeat customers, "I like cherry [$3.50/$20]. He's hard to please." They looked in the glass case, jammed gloriously full of pies. The hard-to-please one, the cherry-liker guessed, might be pleased by the chocolate tart ($4/$22).
In the back, Tomlinson and a few other people who just really enjoy making pies cut up bricks of butter for the all-butter crust, beat logs of dough with thin rolling pins, pressed star-shaped cutouts onto the tops of pale pies ready for the oven. Some pies get sprinkled with granulated sugar; most get painted with melted butter with a four-inch paintbrush. The back door stood open for fresh air.
Really good pie doesn't bear a lot of description. You know it when you taste it. Shoofly's pies are really good. The crust is fearless, light, with an extra-thick ridge around the outside (known in baking parlance as fluting). Apple ($3.50/$20) is one of the best sellers, all tart Granny Smith, with visible cinnamon, both crust and filling a pleasing uniform golden color, the apple pieces walking the fine line between getting saucy and still remaining firm. The namesake Shoofly pie ($3.50/$20), an exploration of cake-in-crust, has a gooey layer of molasses at the bottom; it's dirty-spicy-sweet instead of sugary-sweet. Quiches ($4.50/$24) are on the eggy-light rather than custardy-thick side. Chicken potpies ($6 mini, $25 whole) are both salty and peppery, with even the lowly cubes of potato tender and delicious.
A sign inside Shoofly Pie Co. says it all: "Pie Fixes Everything."