Pie crusts are finicky things. No matter how much you think you’ve mastered the ingredients, something as tiny as one minute too long in the bowl can make the whole experience unbearable. Well, unbearable for me.
You see, I don’t like change or things not going according to plan. It makes my hands shake, gets me in fights with my boyfriend and gives me weeks-long migraines. At least, I used to react like that. I’ve always had to deal with anxiety, and the older I get, the bigger life decisions I have to make, making my anxiety creep up to the surface more often.
Last winter, I had a small breakdown triggered by a pretty serious fight with my mother. We’ve never really seen eye-to-eye, but over time, we’ve tried to get along better and spend time together. After this fight, we did not talk for about 2 weeks and my stress levels were off the charts. It was crippling. I wasn’t able to write, a terrible thing as I am a freelance writer, and I was unable to focus on my regular job. It wasn’t healthy and I had to do something about it.
I’ve always liked to bake. Before she died, my grandmother taught me how to bake cakes and the Panamanian pastries that to this day are my favorite things to make. However, I’ve never attempted making a pie. I like eating pies, but I had no idea what went into them.
One night around Christmas, I was aimlessly scrolling through Instagram and saw a blogger’s post about her grandmother’s pie recipes and how she was going to attempt to make 100 of them. Something clicked in my brain and it just felt right. I figured if I could concentrate on learning a new skill in the kitchen, I could work through my feelings about my stress, anxiety and my current fight with my mom, all while I attempted to make pie crust.
I know, I have no idea how my brain made those connections. I thought 100 would be too ambitious for me, so I decided to make 50 pies by Christmas 2014, so about a year.
At first, I didn’t even know where to start. I searched for pie recipes on Pinterest, trying to figure out what would be an easy, yet a bit challenging to make. Then I heard about the gals at Four & Twenty Blackbirds. They were about to come out with a book and were guest blogging around the Internet with their Salted Honey Pie recipe. I grabbed the ingredients at the grocery store, including a very expensive, but good local honey. I’ve never spent more than $2 on honey and here I was, spending almost $20. I decided that since it was my first go, I would make the pie with a frozen crust.
Here’s the thing about pies – they are all about chemistry. The ingredients need to be a certain temperature, otherwise they won’t mix and the whole pie turns into a giant mush pile. Well, I didn’t know this. As I started to mix the dry ingredients, I went ahead and added the hot melted butter. That was a mistake. The whole pie filling became a greasy mess and I could feel my frustration rising.
I threw everything away and started over. The second time I used the butter at room temperature and it mixed beautifully, but then sometime between adding it to the pie crust and putting it in the oven, I spilled it everywhere. I walked away, crying, over literally spilled pie filling.
I got myself together because this was ridiculous and decided that a pie wasn’t going to conquer me. This was my personal challenge and I was going to complete it, no matter what. I felt empowered and I made everything for the third time. When it came out, it was a perfectly brown custard. As we ate this both salty and sweet creation, I knew I had to keep going.
I felt encouraged by the whole experience and one of my best friends got me the Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie book for Christmas. After that, each time I would get frustrated because I forgot an ingredient, the pie crust didn’t roll out, or the custard wasn’t jiggly enough, I took a deep breath, laughed about it and redid whatever I needed to do. I started having fun with it and it became a really fulfilling challenge. Even better, among all of this, I was able to get things right with my mom and I was generally feeling more relaxed.
The more pies I baked, the more my friends encouraged me. They started requesting them for parties. Everyone started asking me what pie number I was on or what my next pie was going to be. I started posting them on Instagram under the #muriels50pies hashtag. It became bigger than me and that was awesome. I started thinking of recipe pairings, what design to make next on the top crust, what fruits are in season, and planning my schedule around making these pies.
The more advanced I get, the more ambitious I get. I now know how make crusts from scratch and 8 out of 10 times, they don’t end up in the trash. I feel like a badass when I get it right on the first try. I’ve learned pie secrets like rolling out your pie crust with a cold rolling pin so I’m that weird person who has their rolling pin in the freezer, or adding vodka for flakiness so I mean, who are we kidding, I already keep vodka around the house.
As silly as it sounds, the pies have pushed me past myself and challenged what I can do. I never feel as calm as I do when I’m cutting fruits or mixing custards. I’m currently on pie #30 and with only 20 more pies to go in this challenge, it makes me sad that it’s almost over.
But if I learned anything about finding pie crust in weird places or realizing my dog is covered in flour after I finish baking, it’s that those little things that stress us out on a regular basis are not worth it. Who knew pies would be the recipe to a more relaxed, healthy life? Plus, let’s be honest, life is always better with a slice of pie.
You can view all of my pies so far on my blog.
Muriel Vega is a writer and editor living in Atlanta.