my first pie (or how my 80-something neighbour made me face my fear)

There are few things that scare me in the kitchen. Even when I’ve never made something before, I’m usually game to give it a go.

However, pie is one of those things that’s always been an anomaly to me. While I learned to do most of my cooking with my dad, he’s always steered clear of the baking realm. And so, my culinary lessons sidestepped that element of food preparation for the most part.

Although my mom does her fair share of great baking, it’s often healthy (meaning the stick of butter in a flaky pie crust is not so welcome). Once she finally did start baking pies during night classes at a college, I was getting older and I didn’t bake with her enough to catch on to the technique.

So when my 80-something-year-old neighbour showed up at my door last week and proudly presented me with a handful of enormous rhubarb stalks, freshly harvested from his backyard, all I could think was, “I have to make something delicious with this.” More importantly, “It has to be pie.”

This thought terrified me.

I convinced myself I could make a simple crumble or crisp. That I could add some tang to a Moroccan tagine or Indian curry with the rhubarb (which I still think is a good idea).

But I knew that was not the way to have my first rhubarb experience. It had to be pie. Strawberry rhubarb pie.

It was a slow process. I was careful to read the pie crust instructions carefully. I figured, if something that people say is so complex involves nothing but flour, butter, sugar and salt (plus some cold water), it must be pretty easy to screw up.

I was careful not to over-process the batter and cautiously added drops of water to the mixture. I took my time making a perfect little ball and wrapped it carefully in plastic. The rolling of the dough and making sure it was big enough, thin enough and unblemished was even more agonizing. I imagine if somebody watched me through this whole process, it would have been akin to watching paint dry. This makes me feel apologetic towards my friend in Montreal, who I was talking to on Skype through a large part of the ordeal.

But I managed to make a pie crust to be proud of. My hard work had paid off. (Unfortunately, I had been so focused on the bottom crust, I hadn’t prepared anything to put on top of the filling. Fortunately, I know that oats, brown sugar and a little butter in a food processor makes a great and super-quick crumbly topper.)

Although I used my trusty How to Cook Everything Vegetarian book and the wise words of Mark Bittman to make the crust, I was adventurous enough to create my own filling. It involved 4 cups of rhubarb, 2 cups of strawberries, a little flour and plenty of sugar. I also sprinkled in some cinnamon and 3 tablespoons of corn starch. (After baking the pie, I learned my corn starch had not done enough and I drained a bunch of liquid with a spoon – but I managed to hide my handiwork with a little redistribution of the filling so shhh!)

The great part about the whole experience – aside from the positive feedback I received from my friends, parents and boyfriend – was that I learned pie crust is NOT THAT HARD! Seriously, it’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m sure my crust will be better next time because I’ll understand what it’s supposed to look like along the way. And I imagine it will take less than three hours.

Bring on the apples, banana cream and chocolate pudding. I’m ready to have my way with them.

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