Easy As Pie! An Interview with Pie Goddess Jessica Appelgren
Award-winning baker Jessica Appelgren with her mother—and pie idol—Marjorie Musser Mikels
Pie making anxiety?
You’re surely not alone this week if you are cursing whatever smartass came up with the expression as easy as pie. Turns out, however, that the phrase originally referred to the act of eating, not baking, America’s most beloved Thanksgiving dessert.
Devouring good pie is easy. Making good pie, not so much.
Pie’s simplicity gets us in trouble. It’s just dough and some filling, right? Sure, it’s a bit time consuming, but hard could it be?
What we don’t realize—until our crusts are crumbling or sinking or turning into cardboard—is that pie is an art as much as a science. You have to have a feel for the dough. You have to know if it’s too dry or too wet, if it’s too warm or too cold. Your dough is your baby and no recipe can tell you if you are doing it right. (And that’s just the crust. Don’t even get me started on the fruit.)
Easy as pie? Yeah, right.
Which is why I am totally awed by the great pie bakers in my life: My mother-in-law, Jude, whose buttery apple pie is the best I’ve ever had; my friend Maria Doss, a pastry-chef-turned-librarian who can whip up a pie faster than a batch of instant pudding; my local baker extraordinaire, the gobsmackingly-talented Phoebe Lawless of Scratch, whose Chess pies make me swoon every time I walk in the door.
And my friend Jessica Appelgren, who is undeniably a pie goddess.
Jessica is an award-winning pie maker who lives in Oakland, California. When we met, she rocked my world with a perfectly cooked deep-dish peach pie baked in a springform pan. (Why didn’t I think of that?!) Jessica makes great pie look easy and taste fabulous. But, more than that, she reminds us why pie is so easy to love—and why it matters that we keep making it for our families, friends and even for random strangers, even when it isn’t easy to make.
“Pie,” as Jessica puts it, “celebrates life.”
Life isn’t easy either, but it sure can be sweet. And for that, I think all of us can be grateful.
—Maya, Cultured Grub
Jessica's Apple Huckleberry Pie
Cultured Grub: When and why did you start baking pies?
Jessica Appelgren: My mom was one of ten growing up, and came from a family where you had to preserve fruit—the original purpose of pie—if you wanted to eat it. There was no buying peaches in the winter in her house. And so pie became a family art.
All my aunts had their own spin, their own style. My mom’s was the best, I always thought. The fact that my mom found a partner in my dad as connected to the land and cultivating fruit trees as she was, meant that I grew up with acres of fruit trees. Oranges all winter, apricots and peaches all summer, and persimmons (too many persimmons!) all fall.
After a career in social work and having my sister, my mom put herself through UCLA Law School commuting two hours each way while pregnant with me. She became a lawyer and opened her firm, employing all women lawyers, and yet still managed to bake at least a pie a week from scratch.
It was that pie, always there on the counter, that set the bar for me about what being a woman, a mother and a caretaker means. Pie came to symbolize a love of the Earth and its bounty, a respect for craft, and, more than anything, a way to show and share love.
It wasn't until I became a mother myself that I started baking my own pies. Soon after, I entered my first-ever contest in San Francisco at the newly opened Mission Pie (an amazing establishment) and took first place. My mom was likely more proud that day than at my college graduation!
I think I gravitate to pie because it feels very connected to people and life well lived. Cake is for an occasion; pie celebrates life. Pie needs to be shared. Pie brings people together. Pie reminds us to slow down, enjoy, and to savor the fruits of the season.
And the smell of a pie baking in the oven is better than anything. I wanted my kids to grow up with that smell.
Ready to roll!
CG: What is your favorite kind of pie?
JA: Hands down, apple. I make an apple huckleberry pie that is just a slight deviation from the standard apple pie, but the flavors and textures of straight-up apple pie are hard to beat.
Jessica's recipe for Classic Apple Pie with Maple Whipped Cream in a Gluten-Free Crust
Huckleberries are a bittersweet subject for me these days. I got the idea to add them after my parents divorced and my dad bought land on the Oregon coast with acres of huckleberries. Retired with time on his hands, my dad would spend hours every day painstakingly picking those tiny huckleberries for my sisters and me, and then would proudly present us with quarts and quarts of frozen huckleberries on every visit. It got to the point where our freezers were so full of huckleberries that we would pawn them off on each other just to make room.
When my dad passed away on New Year’s Eve of 2013, my sisters and I had much to take care of and became a well-oiled machine working together like we were back in the orange groves picking fruit. What we didn’t realize is that with each passing month and no huckleberry picking going on, our supplies would dwindle. I’m down to a few precious bags now.
CG: Who is your pie idol?
JA: I take inspiration from everywhere! My mom, of course. My grandmother’s crust was always amazing to me. She used an egg and a tablespoon of vinegar in it to give it more heft, which just makes so much sense for her family of twelve—a very practical crust.
Jessica's maternal grandmother, Hope Isabelle Musser, raised 10 children and taught her daughters to preserve the season in their fruit pies
My pastry is much flakier, all butter, and I took some lessons from San Francisco bakers Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson (of Tartine) on technique. Then there was a woman, Hannah, that I met on the pie contest circuit in San Francisco, and struck up a great friendship with. My friend John Nikki is an amazing baker. He makes beautiful tarts and pies, so artfully. When Oakland’s Bakesale Betty came on the scene—selling her pies at the farmers market with her signature blue hair—she appealed to my feminist punk sensibilities and started me thinking about how pie is connected to women, providing, and work.
Maybe more than anyone though was a friend I met in London, Marika Gauci, who, like me, was music AND pie obsessed and actually taught classes on pie making. We stayed in touch, exchanging recipes and seeing each other on visits, and when she got a book deal to write The Little Book of Pies, she actually added one of my recipes in it. Again, a proud day in my pie life!
The fact that Marika could form her world around her love of pie was and is a major inspiration for me.
CG: What’s the last pie that you made?
JA: I just put a pear galette into the oven. Pears can be tricky as they are pretty soft, but with the right amount of cornstarch and a little apricot jam to add sweetness, it’s a great fall treat.
I generally make at minimum one pie a month for a family who bid on my “services” in our school auction. I drop it off warm to their house and I love to watch the kids checking out the pie and fighting over who gets the first slice!
CG: What’s your greatest pie triumph?
JA: Well, I have to say my most memorable pies are ones I invented from scratch. I made a creamy refrigerated Apple Pie-a-la-Mode pie with vanilla bean and diced apples. I also made a trail mix pie that was a bit like a pecan pie—hearty and sweet and thick—but felt like something you could actually take camping.
My most memorable pie ever, however, has to be the one I sent to a good friend’s dad who was turning 90, in Chicago. I had come up with an idea that it would be lovely for people who have done amazing things with their life to be recognized by a stranger, receiving a pie out of the blue. I called it #RandomActsofPieness, and chose Mary Catherine’s dad as my first recipient. The photo he sent on his birthday opening that box was priceless.
CG: What was your worst pie failure or disaster?
JA: Definitely the biggest disaster was when I attended the Crisco Pie National Pie Contest in Celebration, Florida. I didn't quite know what I was getting into.
We booked flights across country from California for my then-husband, our two-year-old-son and myself and stayed in the hotel where the contest was held. There was an option to bake there at the hotel the day prior to judging, so I took them up on that and figured everyone would be baking that way. Not so! Turned out that all the pros, including the reigning champ, Phyllis, from Wisconsin, rented condos nearby so they could bring their pies piping hot from the oven to the judges. While I spent my afternoon baking a pie in high heat and humidity in a hotel conference room (try keeping butter ice cold under those conditions!) and waiting hours to present it in the morning, the rest of the pros were taking advantage of precise baking conditions, and it showed.
But at the pie makers’ brunch after the judging, we sat at a table with several cool women who had spent the last decades of their lives building relationships around pie— coming to Florida to compete with each other, but also to share their love of pastry and family, and to commune over baking, and I couldn’t be too disappointed that I didn’t win.
CG: Which pies are you making this Thanksgiving?
JA: First, Roasted Pumpkin with Crystalized Ginger Topping. Then a Chocolate Whiskey Pecan Pie and a Caramel Apple with Crumble Crust. I generally try for one deep colored one as well—a Cranberry Pear or Berry. It’s always nice to surprise people!
For more about Jessica and her pies, look for her on Instagram @japplepie