I’m an Iowa girl-not to be mistaken for an Iowa FARM girl. No comparison. I couldn’t tell the difference between a corn crop and a soybean field until I was married and went road hunting with the Hubs. By late fall Iowa crops are a bleak beige color when harvested, leaving a short stubby field in their wake. The preferred snacking grounds for pheasants.
After becoming a mom, I became more of a loner, usually pretty content with my own company, home raising kids. But I was in for a huge cultural shock when we moved in the middle of rural Sticksville, Iowa in 1976. Talk about isolation. We had one car and that junker had to make it to Cedar Rapids, 40 miles away, lugging the Hubs back and forth to work five days a week. So there I was, in a farm house so far off the beaten path that it wasn’t visible from the gravel road. Without wheels. With a five year old Einstein (Shannon) and one year old Joshua. The prodigy was doling out wisdom to her teacher which left Joshua and me to our own devices. He was the best baby. Even tempered and easy going.
I was 25. Couldn’t call anyone because long distance calls were too expensive, so I wrote letters. I finally mastered cooking and baking during those long days on the farm. Halfway decent suppers after eight years of wedded bliss. Yeast and quick breads, cinnamon rolls, cookies, scratch cakes and something I would spend years trying to perfect. Pies. I blogged about the best apple pies I’ve ever made on that farm. There was this one particular apple tree in the grove (never knew what a grove was before). Really firm, tart apple that I’ve not found since then-40 plus years ago. While the apple type is vitally important to a good pie (I prefer Northern Spy or Winesap), my secret weapon for delicious apple pies was using Crisco (and not over working the crust) and a bit of nutmeg along with cinnamon. Bam!
After finding my newfound passion for baking, I had amassed nearly 7 dozen various fruit pies (raw) in our freezer for the coming year and long Iowa winter. Hubs was dinking in the basement and plugged in a power tool for something. After he finished his project he unfortunately forgot to plug the freezer back in to the only outlet down there, something neither of us would catch until day 3. The chest freezer was now a gigantic bowl of gooey raw pie crust dough and juicy, marinated fruit starting to ferment.
And Neese wept.
Including some gnashing of teeth.
With a major shitstorm to follow. After all, none of this was my fault.
Hubs felt so bad and knew it was his responsibility to clean up the mess. The farm was full of livestock (not ours, we could barely afford a pound of cheap hamburger). Some cattle but mostly hogs. The pigs used their snouts to lift the lid of their circular feeders. Hundreds of hogs, performing this high decibel ritual, thousands of times a day. And night. Sigh. Enough to drive one mad (where is that hearing loss when it would have been beneficial for maintaining one’s sanity)? John threw all the uncooked pie fillings and crusts (this little life altering incident cured me of freezing raw pies. From that day forward I would always bake pies before freezing) to the swine, who went batshit crazy, I mean hog wild over my culinary prowess-baked or unbaked.
Hubs home away from home after the pie incident on the farm, 1976…
My spouse (the shithead) convinced me a day later after walking in the door that several of the pigs were dead in the hog yard. Farmer Bob was visibly upset and had called a veterinarian, specializing in little known hog diseases to find the source of the deadly outbreak. Bastard (spouse, not the farmer) convinced me I would probably be arrested and serve some time for causing multiple deaths after the hogs went on a binge-fest, eating raw Crisco crusts with fermented infused fruit filling, causing immediate cardiac arrest (although they died drunk and sated). Happy days on the farm. Freaking nightmare. (He was just yanking my chain about the dying swine, none of them succumbed to my pie party. I still say God will get him for that one).
But my days on the farm gave me some much needed cooking skills and a real sense of accomplishment and joy from baking (my obsession with home canning would be another decade away). In the plus forty years following I don’t think a missed a year of summer/fall pie baking sessions for my favorite dessert (baked then frozen to be eaten later). Until 2019.
I had knee replacement in late spring last year and months later found standing in one spot by the counter, making multiple pie crusts, or peeling/slicing fruit was no longer in my kitchen repertoire, which wasn’t as devastating as I thought. And that saddened me. One of my favorite pastimes.
This year I was determined to ‘make some pies.’ Oh the totals (and size) have fallen off drastically. Gone are the days where a nine inch pie was consumed after supper from the family of 5. But I wasn’t ready to give up my-bulk-pie-baking-days yet, I just needed to make some adjustments. Smaller pies and not as many. Sounds good. Found 6 inch glass pans (4 small slices or 3 nice size ones). Instead of 1-1/2 bushels of Spys, I settled for a half bushel. Any leftover apples would go into crisp or sauce. I thought a half dozen 6 inchers, a couple of 8 inch and one or two 9″ for gifts, that’s it. Doable in a long afternoon.
Although those 6 inch pies take less apples, they’re just as much work as a big pie. Still have to use a top crust, flute the edge, top with a bit of milk and sugar, wrap the edge with tinfoil so the crust doesn’t brown too much. Time consuming little shits, but they’re so good and a better solution for 2 lazy, older adults who should not be eating pie-ever. Our cross to bear.
Had all the necessary equipment ready and resigned myself that I would sit while peeling apples. I simply double or triple the recipe for a 10″ double crust pie, then roll out several bottom crust plates that will fit in the oven at the same time. (Remember they’re not very big, more like a giant pot pie). Thought I could get 8-10 pies baked in 2 batches. Then I measure enough sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and a dash of salt for 2-ten inch pies, which calls for 16 cups of peeled, sliced tart apples. Combine the apples with the dry ingredients, then fill the pie plates till I run out of apples, topping each with a couple pats of butter. I make slits in the top crust for the steam to escape, then do all the rest of the kanooey work, crimping, milk, sugar and foil. Told Hubs to set the oven to 425 and lay a sheet of tinfoil on the bottom for any juices trying to escape through the slits. (Terrible mess. Once the drips land on the bottom of the oven, they burn stinky until you clean up the blackened mess).
When the times goes off 45 minutes later, I slide a paring knife into one of the top pie slits to see if the apples are done when I notice none of the 4 crusts are as golden brown as I like, yet the apples are almost perfect. Soft, tender but haven’t broken down from their nice slice shape. I crank up the oven a few degrees and set the timer for 4 minutes. Finish the remaining itty-bitty apple pies which are now ready to go in. It perturbs me something fierce that the apples are done but the crusts are still too light but I don’t want applesauce pie so I take them out and put in the last batch of four.
About a half hour later the smoke alarm goes off. Usually means something’s dripped on the bottom and causing copious amounts of smoke. Hubs checks the first one, it’s not the culprit. He thinks the second one in the hallway might need a new battery but that’s not it either. It’s got one of those lithium batteries that last ten years. And it’s not the smoke alarm after he resets it. It’s the carbon monoxide alarm that’s going off for the first time since we’ve lived here. We open all the doors, windows and he takes the alarm off the wall so he can read the instructions. It finally stops serenading us when he’s out on the deck.
Something’s bothering me but I can’t put my finger on it. (no I’m not addled by carbon monoxide poisoning yet). Snap! And just like that it hits me. Why my crusts won’t brown today. It’s my oven. No, it’s the tinfoil in my oven. Grab a potholder and snag the long tinfoil sheet covering the bottom of my gas oven. There in raised letters is a small warning, “Do not place tinfoil on bottom.” Duh. I always used foil in my oven in North Muskegon. The difference was it was an electric oven.
We kept the doors open for a spell and nervously waited with bated breath after John rehung the alarm. The pies were done, (though still not golden brown). I turned the oven off. Absolute silence. What a great non-sound. I was upset about the pies. A lot of work for nothing. They’re supposed to turn out perfect (when you’re not trying to do great bodily harm). The next day I went back for another half bushel of Spys, allowed myself a day of rest and tossed out the piss-poor-pale-imitation-pies with the too done apples and started over for an afternoon of pie baking. This time lacking any murderous intent…