“I realized that all the really good ideas I’d ever had came to me while I was milking a cow. So I went back to Iowa.” — Grant Wood
My friend Kelly recently had a really good idea, and while I’m pretty certain it didn’t come to her while she was milking a cow, it did involve Iowa. It also involved us making pie. At the American Gothic House.
We all know the American Gothic House, the quaint Gothic Revival style house — with its distinctive upper window — made famous in the 1930 painting, “American Gothic,” by Grant Wood. It’s an iconic painting … and an iconic house. Getting the chance to bake pies in said house? You best believe I signed up immediately … and this past weekend, The Chef and I, along with Kelly, her boyfriend (and our official pie making photographer) Corey, and our friends Steph and Jen, made the trek to the tiny town of Eldon, Iowa, for a pie making session we’re sure to never forget.
Before we get to the pie-making though, let me answer the question I know you’re dying to ask … just how does one come to bake pies at the American Gothic House?
Well, if you can believe it, someone actually lives in the American Gothic House. Not a caretaker, just a regular person who rents the house as if it were any other property to rent. I know … I was just as surprised as you to learn that too. Kelly learned this when she and Corey made a pit stop at the American Gothic House on their way to the Iowa State Fair a few months ago. And she learned that this person runs the Pitfork Pie Stand at the house in the summer … and teaches pie making classes there to boot. Once home, Kelly exchanged a few emails with the resident, and a few days later, we were set to make pies at the American Gothic House. It really was that easy.
So, who is this fabulous pie maker and teacher?
Ladies and gentleman … meet Beth Howard, the force behind The World Needs More Pie and the author of Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie, a beautifully written memoir that’s sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet, but always honest and authentic. (Prior to our Iowa road trip, Kelly, Steph, and I, along with some fellow food bloggers, read Beth’s book as part of an unofficial “St. Louis Food Blogger Book Club,” and I highly recommend it. Seriously, you should read this book, even if you don’t like pie. But if you really don’t like pie, I’m sorry … we can no longer be friends.)
Having read the book, I was eager to meet Beth and learn all about pie making from her … so to say I was excited when pie making day arrived would be an understatement. We got to the American Gothic House shortly before noon, and my pent-up excitement could barely be contained as I got my first view of the house. “Oh my goodness! There it is! It looks just like the house in the painting! I can’t believe we’re here! Squee!” (Yeah, that’s pretty much how it went.)
After taking the requisite photos of the outside of the house, we made our way to the front porch, where Beth welcomed us with open arms. Stepping into the house was quite surreal … I mean, we were in the American Gothic House! And lest you think that just anyone can tour this house, let me set you straight. While the American Gothic House does have a visitor’s center where you can learn all about the history of this historic home (and they even supply costumes and a pitchfork so you can strike the perfect post in front of the house too), the house itself is closed to tours. So, yeah, I think I can speak for us all when I say it felt pretty darn special to get to tour the house.
Tour over, we jumped right into the pie making! Beth began by telling us that her “recipe” for apple pie (available here) isn’t actually a “recipe” per se. Aside from starting with 2 1/2 cups of flour and 1 cup of fat (split equally between butter and shortening), there’s no measuring called for. Beth believes — and I now believe too — that pie making doesn’t have to be fussy. In fact, there’s no need to precisely measure out all the ingredients, no need to sift the flour, no need to use a pastry cutter (or even forks) to cut the butter and shortening into the flour into perfect pea-sized pieces, and there’s even no need to let the dough chill. No, in Beth’s pie making world, you only need your hands, your eyes, and a little bit of time to turn a few simple ingredients into a beautiful, flaky, and utterly delicious apple pie … and that we did.
We started by making our dough, quickly working the chilled butter and chilled shortening into the flour with our hands until they were broken down into marble-sized pieces. We then added a small amount of ice water — just a tablespoon or so — and lightly sifted the flour and water together through our fingers (as if tossing dressing into a salad) two or three times. We repeated this water/sifting process just until the dough felt sufficiently moistened and when a “squeeze test” proved that the dough held together. As Beth says in her recipe notes, “Do not overwork the dough! It takes very little time, and you’ll be tempted to keep touching it, but don’t!” And believe me … if Beth caught us touching the dough too much, she let us know!
Once the dough held together, we divided it into two portions. Beth instructed us to liberally flour up our hands — “flour mittens” as she called them — then hold the dough in our palms and, using our fingers, form each dough portion into a disk. (If you’re trying this at home, note that this dough is quite sticky so don’t be afraid to use as much flour as you need to keep it from sticking to your hands.)
When our dough disks were finished, we rolled one out, making sure it was thin enough to allow it to bake completely, but not too thin so that it would tear easily. Oh, remember those marble-sized pieces of butter and shortening? They were still visible in the rolled dough, and this is exactly what you want to get that flaky crust I mentioned before. After rolling the crust to the right size, we placed it in a pie tin and used scissors to trim off some of the excess dough, leaving a one inch edge for crimping purposes. (Again, if you’re trying this at home, make sure to sprinkle a liberal amount of flour under and on top of your dough while rolling it out … so sticking allowed!)
For the filling, we peeled a pile of Granny Smith apples and then cut them directly into the pie crusts. The apples were covered with sugar — using our eyes to pour in just enough to resemble “mountains of snow” — then a dash of salt, a sprinkling of cinnamon, and finally, another “mountain of snow” — this time made of flour. We added more apples, repeated the sugar, salt, cinnamon, and flour layers again, then placed a pat of butter on top.
We then rolled out our second crust, placed it in a pie tin, and — in an act of sheer genius — flipped it over on to our filled pie, where it rested perfectly, ready for crimping. So easy! (Seriously, that tip alone was worth the price of admission.) We then sealed and crimped the edges of the two crusts together, brushed the top crust with egg wash, cut a few slits to allow the steam to escape, and then our pies were ready for the oven!
The pies baked at 425°F for 15 to 20 minutes, then Beth turned the oven down to 375°F and baked the pies for another 30 to 40 minutes until the juice bubbled and the tops were golden brown.
The end result? The most beautiful pie I’ve ever made … and the most delicious too! It still amazes me how a few simple ingredients — put together with just a little elbow grease — can turn into one of the most comforting things on Earth. I truly can’t wait to make another one … and another one … and another one!
But, while my pie making journey is just getting started, sadly, this post must come to an end … but not without thanking Beth for having us into her home and teaching us her fabulously unconventional pie making techniques, Kelly for organizing a seriously epic road trip, Corey for all of the amazing photos (Corey Woodruff Photography … book him … now!), Steph and Jen for making us laugh, and last, but certainly not least, my hubby, The Chef, for just being the coolest husband around.
Happy pie making, y’all!