How I Learned To Relax and Just Make Pies.

How I Learned To Relax and Just Make Pies. December 8, 2013

I used to have such a love-hate relationship with cooking, but especially with baking–the bane of my existence for many years. This is how I learned to love cooking and baking after my deconversion.

(Turku Gingerbread, CC.)
(Turku Gingerbread, CC.)

When I got married to my preacher ex, I couldn’t cook for anything really. I’d taken some classes as a child and I could do a few things, but I’d never had experience with that getting-meals-on-the-table-every-day stuff that women everywhere, all through history it seems, have had to do. I liked cooking, but in that abstract way that most non-egalitarian men think of it; I cooked for my family sometimes, but it was a “oh wow look at this special thing the kids do once in a while” situation, just like how most people can probably remember their dads having a few special dishes they cooked on special occasions, like a boyfriend of mine whose dad made a mean Korean BBQ beef (PS if he ever sees this, let me say: “I’m sorry I seem to have ended up with your marinade bowl, Lionel”).

But baking? I was inept.

I could manage cornbread–Southern style, not the cakey sweet sort that most people think of when they think of “cornbread.” Southern style cornbread is just cornmeal and leavening agents and buttermilk and salt, and it is amazingly good pretty much any way you turn it. I learned how to do that early on, graduating from the blue-and-white box mixes (you know the ones) to the real deal from a recipe on the cornmeal bag itself. I could do that. Not for nothing is there an Appalachian saying I read once: “That poor man–he married him a woman who cain’t even cook cornbread.”

But anything else involving flour? Nope.

The problem was, I was a fundamentalist wife, and that implied that I was a domestic goddess.

Cover of "Something from the Oven: Reinve...
Cover via Amazon

A long time ago I read (in a food-history book called Something From the Oven by Laura Shapiro, published in 2004 by Viking, and yes, it’s very good) about a survey from 1953 in which men and women were both asked what they thought were the most challenging dishes for a woman to cook. Number one answer from both genders was apple pie, of course. Even men knew that wasn’t an easy thing to make. But men thought #2 was roast beef, which is actually pretty easy to cook, while women–“who did most of the baking and knew very well what could befall them”–gave “cake” the second place (p. 71). That survey has stuck with me ever since, because it reflects my own experiences.

I fought so hard to learn how to bake. I didn’t really understand the science behind it, but I ached and yearned to be the kind of Christian wife who baked bread. Baking was about my only hope of reaching the ideal of femininity that my church preached. I didn’t want kids. I had these crazy egalitarian ideals. I had half-formed ideas of preaching one day (haha good luck there with that dang ol’ plumbing you got there, you’re saying, and you would be right). But baking. Baking was the epitome of the good Christian wife. It was the linchpin of all other successes. If you could bake, you probably could clean well too, and everything else. In my mind, baking was the skill to top all other skills. So I kept trying.

I made bread constantly, and it was always so hard and dense. I didn’t understand why. I’d knead and knead it, I’d do exactly what the recipes said, but it never came out fluffy and soft. Biff liked it anyway, and none of it was a total loss so that’s what counts I guess, but I could never get it right. And pies! Oh, I couldn’t even come close to the pies the church ladies made.

Pies were a constant feature of life around church. Newlywed wives made chiffon pie (a small tube of frozen juice concentrate mixed with a whole tub of Cool Whip, frozen in a pieshell and thawed jusssst enough to slice) in their tiny little Texas Bible College kitchenettes to serve to guests. Old hands went straight for apple and pumpkin and cherry. When someone died, out came the pies.

Biff’s mother died, I kid you not, a month before our wedding day. (Slightly tangential: A central facet of her life for the whole previous two years had been planting a huge Victorian rose garden in preparation for an outdoor wedding. By that point that garden was downright glorious and in full bloom. After much deliberation, we decided that it felt disrespectful not to have the wedding as planned considering all the work she’d done organizing it and everything else about the wedding, since we already knew that his dad was selling the house and moving away after that summer.) The funeral turned out everybody from church, surprising Biff’s largely-secular family, and many of those same church people would return the next month for the wedding. After the funeral, Biff and his dad came away with about a dozen pies and another dozen casseroles.

The casseroles went into the fridge and freezer–I don’t think those two men had to think about what to eat for a month. The pies, oh, those immediately were confiscated by his dad, who secreted them all in his private study fridge–the study with the lock on it that Biff couldn’t even break into. We never saw those pies. Forever afterward, his dad would look back fondly on those older church ladies and how nice they’d been and how good those pies had tasted–not that his son got a single bite of those. The casseroles were amazing too. I couldn’t have touched the quality of them. I got to have some of them from time to time and they were delicious. I tried in vain to recreate them. I got recipes from the church ladies and I tried things out and nothing ever tasted right.

I didn’t realize back then that the main problem was that I was using bad recipes. I didn’t understand the science behind baking, but then, neither did the recipe writers I was consulting so earnestly. The church ladies knew how to compensate for the bad recipes thanks to many years of trial and error, but I didn’t yet. These church ladies didn’t realize I didn’t have the technical skills they’d acquired, so they didn’t know why the recipes weren’t giving me the same results they got.

Then–about twelve years ago at this point, I reckon–I turned out to have metabolic syndrome, also called pre-diabetes. I’d discovered it quite by accident. I knew I had about 50 pounds to lose (it turned out to be more like 75) and whenever you have that much to lose, you’re supposed to go to the doctor for something or other. So I went to the doctor, who did bloodwork on me and discovered I was ” this close to full-blown diabetes; he was shocked by my blood sugar levels, which were astronomical. I don’t remember what stopped me from having diabetes (there are two factors apparently but I don’t remember the other), but it was a tiny thing. I had to lose weight and I had to do it fast.

We tried a few things. I tried giving up sugar and white processed flour, which threw me into cravings and I ended up gaining 10 pounds in one month. We tried me on weight-loss drugs like Meridia, which gave me heart palpitations. Then finally he put me on a low-carb diet.

Say whatever you want about low-carb diets. I thrived on it. I mean I melted.  My bloodwork became the envy of the civilized world. I would be doing it now if I could afford it. I think most people have an “ideal diet” for their body type, and this one is mine.

But one common feature to most low-carb diets is that they cut out most forms of starches like potatoes and bread, which means that I got out of the habit of eating those things. Over time, I learned that most of the bread products people eat isn’t worth the sugar hit it produces in their bodies. So if I wanted bread, it was going to be good bread, worth the carbs I was eating. Buying bread of that quality got very expensive very fast. So I needed to figure this thing out once and for all.

So I embarked on a campaign to learn. At the suggestion of a dear friend, I picked up Cook’s Illustrated, a very science-y magazine for people who want to learn the whys and hows behind cooking and not just the rote steps, and I began to bake.

I learned about the science behind baking and I learned techniques that actually worked. I feel silly now that I bashed my brains out for years and years on recipes and techniques that were all but guaranteed to fail and all that time, I thought that I was the problem and that the failure was on my part. (If you’re seeing some parallels here with religion, that’s intentional. If you’re not, don’t worry about it.)

It took a while, but I began to understand what I was doing. One of those concepts was that whole-wheat flour, with its sharp bran in the mix, “slices” gluten strands and makes it harder for the dough to rise, so you can’t knead it that much. Whoopsie, I remember thinking as I reminisced about all the kneading I’d tried to do for whole-wheat bread and how frustrated I’d been that it never rose no matter how much kneading I did. Temperatures mattered a lot too, and I’d never done that right either. I bought a kitchen scale and a digital thermostat pen and watched my bread rise to the roof of the oven.

After all that effort, now I can pretty much bake anything. I can turn out a pear tart that would make anybody swoon. I bake my own soft, airy, delicious whole-wheat bread a couple times a week. I still make cornbread in my ancient cast-iron skillet. My fluffy mile-high biscuits and soft blueberry pancakes actually get requested regularly. I make coconut kisses from a recipe from my grandmother’s old cookbook and fudge from Alton Brown’s recipe. I can follow a Julia Child recipe even for the most complicated things and it come out right. I make my own Tuscan bread every week or so and freeze the leftovers into cubes that I use for bread salads, soups, croutons, and stuffings–and breadcrumbs, for the best chicken parmigiana you’ve ever tasted.

About the only time I remember being intimidated was the first time I ever made a flourless chocolate cake (readers of Bon Appetit probably even know the recipe–it was the one with gold leaves on it from that cover recipe some years ago). That was hard. I walked by faith, followed the instructions, and it came out beautifully. I’ve made it many times since.

And yes: I make my own piecrusts, both the crumbly sort for cheesecakes and the “official” sort for apple and pumpkin pies, and though it’s still not professional quality, I ain’t bad at it and I ain’t scared of it anymore.

You know what I eventually figured out? In the end, it’s true what one of my oldest cookbooks (Food Magic) says: just about any fool thing you do with flour and fat and water (or vodka, as Cook’s Illustrated taught me), if you’re even halfway careful and follow well-written directions, it is going to turn into pastry. In the end, any damn thing you do with flour and water and yeast (and milk sometimes, even eggs) is going to turn out edible if you’re even halfway trying and using a good recipe. And an honest loaf of bread or a homemade crust beats anything you could buy even if it comes out a little dense or a bit tough. If you just keep at it and you figure out why it works the way it does, you’ll get there.

So that’s how somehow, along the way, years after leaving Christianity, I became the sort of woman who bakes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some biscuits to attend.

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