A Call to Nervous Bakers: Fail With Pride!

Now THIS is a pie! From Pie-Not...
Now THIS is a pie! From Pie-Not...
Photo by Anne Marie Panoringan

It's almost December. We're about to embark on all the people freaking out about roasting a large bird and making mashed potatoes, and now we're on to the biggest baking period of the year. Reddit is full of "please help me" stories about pie dough, cookies, bread and muffins. eGullet is too.

I blame decades of mass-market cookbooks giving dire DEFCON-1 type warnings. If you overhandle your pie dough, it'll be dense and gross! If your butter gets soft for your biscuits, they'll be (horrors!) bride's biscuits! It happens all the time.

A hundred years ago, people made their own bread, because there weren't bakeries everywhere. Now, breadmaking has attained this falsely artisanal aura. Are you going to start turning out Tartine's pain de mie or Cream Pan's ethereal baguettes? Probably not. Does that mean your bread is worthless? Definitely not.

Please, please stop being afraid of the food you're cooking. It's not sentient. It won't bite you.

Try something. Try making pie dough, and--stay with me here--try to fail at it. Every cookbook in the world says you must keep your pie dough freezing cold, lest the butter melt and you don't attain that harmonious juxtaposition of tender and flaky. Every cookbook in the world says you dole out water like a thirsty miser in a desert, lest your crust get gummy--and heaven help the baker who overworks the dough, lest the diners break their teeth on a tough crust.


Measure a cup and a quarter of flour sloppily into a bowl and mix in a half a teaspoon of whatever salt you have on hand. Cut up a stick of butter, without minding whether it's cold, and rub it into the flour and salt. Stop when you think it looks reasonable. Add some water, straight from the tap, at whatever temperature your pipes keep water. Mix it until it comes together. Not when it's all pebbly, but when it actually sticks together as a solid mass. Slap a towel on top and throw it in the fridge for ten minutes. Not half an hour, not overnight.

Now roll it out on a floured counter. Use flour to keep it from sticking. Roll it out to about the thickness of a two quarters stacked together, but don't fuss about it. Roll it up on the pin and then spread it out in the pie dish. Attack the bottom with a fork.

Make a quick filling by beating together four eggs and a half a cup of sugar until the sugar dissolves. Don't overthink this! Beat in three cups of milk and, if you have it handy, a little nutmeg. Bake the pie at 400ºF for half an hour, then take it out and let it cool.

Is it some blue ribbon-winning pie? No, probably not. It'd be better if you brushed the shell with egg white to prevent soggy crust, and the cookbooks did have a reason for all the dire warning. But I bet it tastes pretty decent even if it's ugly.

So now you've ignored all the rules and made the worst pie crust possible without literally skipping steps or ingredients. Work from that. Use a little less water. Work the dough a little less. When the dough feels slimy, put it in the fridge for ten minutes to firm up.

All of a sudden, your pie dough will be a lot better, because you know what the worst looks like.

No machines. No--no machines for now. Later, when you know your dish better, go back to the machines secure in the knowledge that THIS is what biscuit batter looks like when it's ready to be rolled out, and THIS is what it feels like when eggs and sugar are whipped together for biscotti or ice cream base or zabaglione, and THIS is what bread dough feels like when it's risen enough.

If you're truly scared, make food in secret. Don't advertise that you're baking bread on Facebook; don't tell Aunt Ida you'll bring a pie for Christmas Eve. If the food turns out wonderfully, hey, surprise, look, I was dithering around in the kitchen and made a pie!

If it turns out badly, no one ever has to know. Your shame--which is undeserved in any case, because even those of us who've practically lived in a kitchen for decades wreak some truly horrifying disasters from time to time-- goes into the trash or gets eaten en famille.

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