Zach Bell, Yale University
Studying abroad in a small French town, population nine hundred, baking supplies were not easy to find. Despite the limitations, a few friends and I decided to bake enough pie to serve the twenty people involved in the program. This was a daunting, potentially disastrous, back to basics experiment.
Luckily, we found all the edible ingredients at the small grocery uptown or the weekly market: flour, butter, corn starch, peaches, and sugar. The first step was making the crust, an area of pie-making where I felt confident about my abilities. Using a simple one to three butter to flour ratio, I added butter until the consistency felt right. Without a recipe to instruct us, I had to use my intuition, always an uncertain prospect. In the end, I trusted my gut and wrapped up the dough in plastic bags, not having saran wrap, putting them in the refrigerator to cool down.
Next up was the filling. We had bought fifteen peaches, hoping to fill two pies. That would have been possible if we had had two actual nine inch pie pans. Facing the first major roadblock, the grocery store had no pie pans, nor did the kitchen where we were staying. In lieu of the requisite pans, I chose the two shallowest containers at hand instead, a football shaped, four inch deep, eighteen inch diameter ceramic casserole dish and a square ceramic dish of the slightly smaller dimensions. My heart sank with the realization that we could not fill those pans with fifteen peaches. So we asked around for additional fruit and came up with four additional peaches, four nectarines, four apricots and eight bananas. I could think of no recipe that matched this pie, we had driven way off the roadmap.
About five minutes later we hit another setback, the peaches were so ripe that they practically disintegrated in our hands. Too late to abort the mission now, we simply forged ahead and produced a fruit soup, at least a gallon of “filling,” maybe a gallon and a half. With fingers crossed I dumped half the bag of cornstarch and at least a pound of sugar into the soup and stirred it up, praying that it would thicken down the road.
As the filling rested, we decided to roll out the dough. Unfortunately there were no rolling pins to be found. Once again, we improvised, appropriating a skillet and using body weight to flatten out the dough. That took a while… a very long while. Eventually we managed to flatten the dough into sheets and lay it in the pans. We poured in the filling and covered the top with another sheet of dough, crimping the edge with a fork.
I peered skeptically into the untested, tiny oven, that measured in Celsius. Doing the proper conversions on an iphone app, we set the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. The pies barely both fit, the football pie almost scraping the roof of the oven. I was nervous about this, vowing to check every ten minutes. After the first time interval, everything seemed to be progressing well, no raging fires yet. But at the twenty minute mark, I checked the football pie and to my horror found the top charred black on the back half, but the square pie on the bottom practically raw. Frantically I removed the disaster and left the square pie in to bake some more.
I tried to scrape off the char and managed to remove the worst of it. Still, the filling was barely hot. I left that one on the table and checked on the square. Surprisingly, filling was bubbling out of the vents like it should. So I turned the oven down to 350 and rotated the pie 180 degrees. After another thirty minutes the top was golden brown and I set it on the table to cool.
I tried to think of what to do with the football pie. The top crust was clearly “well done”, but the filling was not. I needed all the heat from the bottom. Luckily, a symbol on the oven showed squiggly lines wafting up from the bottom edge of a square, a pictogram I interpreted to mean changing the direction of the heat to the bottom up. Praying for the second time, I pressed the mysterious button and shoved the football into the oven to bake at 350. Halfway through I rotated the pie, seeing as the oven was significantly hotter at the back. Through divine intervention alone, in thirty minutes the filling had bubbled out of the vents and this pie too was finished.
Impatient and frustrated, I decided to just serve the square pie without cooling it in the refrigerator. Lo and behold the filling spilled out in a soupy mess. The pie was too hot and didn’t have a chance to set. Taking some good advice, I put the football pie in the fridge overnight.
Shockingly the peach, nectarine, apricot, banana pie tasted like a well-executed fruit pie. The acidity of the nectarines and peaches played off the cloying sweetness of the bananas. I let out a sigh of relief that this adventure had not ended in catastrophic failure. The next night I served the big football pie and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it held it shape. The corn starch held it together after all, and one could barely tell the top had gotten a bit too tan.
This was a lesson in “making do,” in accepting what one has and making it work through problem solving. Without a pie pan, we used casserole dishes. Without a rolling pin, we used a skillet. Without enough peaches, we just threw in what was available. Under such limitations, my colleagues and I were able to make a successful pie at the end of the day. Even more satisfying than the heart-stopping quantity of butter and sugar involved, were the lessons learned. We learned that we could stretch ourselves to make a pie from scratch to serve twenty people, without a rolling pin, pie pans, enough fruit, or a reliable oven. If we could manage that, our creative potential has yet to meet its limit.
Edit: (Sorry about the poorer than usual picture quality, phone pictures aren’t the best.)