In childhood, summers are so much more exciting. School lets out in time for long, languid days and you can spend them lying in the yard or going to the river or the beach, eating picnics and reading all the books you like, playing football in the street and riding horses and whatever else strikes your fancy. You’re not bound by the conventions and expectations of everyday life, instead riding high in some other world — a world that sometimes feels surreal as the rules about when to come in from the out of doors, when to go to sleep, what to do are strangely relaxed.
Of course, in adulthood, we are still working, even as we longingly look out the windows to the brilliantly sunny days outside. Some industries have perfected the summer escape, picking that particular period of the year for people to slowly retreat from the adult world. Even though we aren’t children anymore, there’s something that comes over many of us in summer — knocking off work earlier, kicking up our heels just a little bit more, feeling more forgiving and magnanimous, caring less about the minor details that would normally infuriate us. Almost as though the heat is enough to concentrate on without having to deal with the things that vex us in the winter, when we have to channel our frustrations into something.
Childhood summers for me were always the times of pies. I learned how to make pie crust from my grandmother in the cool of her kitchen when we visited for the summers, cutting butter into flour and adding ice-cold water, mixing until just combined, heeling it against the edge of the bowl so it would come out light and flaky, putting it in the fridge to chill while we moved on to the next stage.
Good pie dough is intimidating and challenging for many of us — there’s a reason storebought frozen versions are always brisk sellers. I say this not to shame those who go that route, or because I’m determined to convince them that ‘really, it’s easy, you should just try it,’ because I figure people can find their cooking limits and preferences on their own and I hardly need to tell them what to do and how to do it. But for me, I find pie dough immensely satisfying. It can be easy to mess up, especially when starting out, but if you get it right, it comes together as a beautiful and amazing thing as you carefully work the roller, twisting it at a different angle each time to make the dough spread evenly.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because all pies need a filling. Sometimes that meant going to the backyard and picking blackberries, fingers staining red and purple with juice, mouth turning the same colour as well, suspiciously. Overripe berries would burst open in your hands and underripe ones would sometimes tumble into the bowl, so you’d be forced to fish them out. Eventually you’d get the knack of knowing exactly how many to pick, and then you could take them inside with your scratched hands and carefully separate out intrepid spiders and lone leaves.
Sometimes it meant peeling and slicing apples, picking the firmest tart apples and slicing them thinly and evenly so you could ensure they all cooked through. Some people lay them out in a beautiful fan inside the pie, even if it’s not an open torte or galette, but we never did — each slice was its own self, mysterious and bursting with flavor. Sometimes it was painstaking cutting and pitting what seemed like an endless army of sour cherries — good cherry pies are made with tart, mouth-puckering cherries.
I suppose there are other fruits, other pies, but those were our mainstays, my father and I. We rarely tried things like lemon meringue, perfectly happy with simple fruit. Once our fruit had been prepared it came time to toss in seasonings, heedless to any recommendations or cookbooks, a dash of sugar, whichever spices seemed good at the time, lemon juice or vanilla, sometimes a bit of flour or cornstarch to thicken a particularly juicy filling — you don’t want the bottom crust to turn to mush. We could set it aside, then, to roll out a bottom crust, and carefully press it into the pie dish — a good, solid glass pie dish conducts heat evenly and makes a pie easy to transport — and then we’d roll out the top crust. With the clock ticking, it came time to dump in the filling and put the top crust on and race to crimp the edges and poke some fascinating design into the top and then rush it to the oven.
I don’t think we ever prebaked our bottom crusts like you’re supposed to do, but somehow they still came out flaky and delightful — perhaps it was our convection oven or mere fate, because as an adult, I learned that I had to prebake if I didn’t want a soggy mess at the bottom of a slice of perfectly good pie. The most difficult part of piemaking for me, of course, came while watching the pie cool, waiting, waiting, waiting for the moment when we could cut into it, eat thick slices of pie on the back porch while looking out into the afternoon, leave the dishes in the sink before taking a walk down the road to somewhere else, knowing that pie would be waiting at home, and wondering what manner of miracles lay ahead.