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Pie, once despised, became her pandemic salvation

Brittany Volk of St. Petersburg found solace in meticulous baking of pie, pie and more pie.
When taking pictures of your beauty, set your pie next to some natural light. Open a window nearby so the colors shine naturally.
When taking pictures of your beauty, set your pie next to some natural light. Open a window nearby so the colors shine naturally. [ Courtesy of Brittany Volk ]
Published Mar. 9
Updated Mar. 9

“I hate pie,” I declared many times in my childhood. And my dad never lets me forget it. That’s because, right now, I can’t stop making pie.

Last year was, you know, not great. And it’s still not great. But it’s pie that’s kept me sane. Pie helps me stay connected with my friends, near and far. Pie brings me happiness.

Before the pandemic, I was already an amateur baker. Cookies, brownies, cakes, scotcheroos (a Midwestern delicacy) — I did it all. I had made a few pies around the holidays, but I never expected it to become my “thing.”

That’s because one of the first pies I made was almost a disaster. I had just moved into a new apartment the week of Thanksgiving, and apparently the landlord didn’t notice the black crust enveloping the entire oven — and neither did I until it was too late.

After spending four hours making the filling and caramel, rolling out the dough and stamping out little pie dough apples, I was ready to put my baby in the oven. I have no idea what the previous tenants were using the oven for, but turning it on unleashed the smoke monster from Lost into my apartment. Luckily, I was able to bake the pie at my friend’s house, but only after dinner was done. The pie hadn’t set yet when we ate it, but it still got good reviews.

The pandemic changed things for everyone. For me, it meant working from home, no longer having a social life and dealing with a newfound anxiety of being single and isolated. My family is spread out across the country, and I’m the only one in Florida. My friends are all paired up, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night sobbing that I’d die of COVID alone in my apartment.

Not only that, but in March the guy I had been casually seeing in the Before Times went back to his ex. So I went back to the kitchen.

Baking as therapy

Baking as a coping mechanism is nothing new. It requires your full attention. Last spring, everyone seemed to become a breadmaker overnight. But while y’all were feeding your gross sourdough starters and worrying about the flour shortage, I was already sitting on a stockpile of all-purpose, unbleached flour (King Arthur is my go-to brand) and pounds of butter — the main ingredients of pie dough.

Professionally, I’m a graphic designer — I meticulously comb over text and graphic placement for ideal readability. But that means looking at a screen all day. I also love watching TV while also looking at my phone (who doesn’t!), and the pandemic didn’t offer much more in the way of entertainment. Making beautiful pie creations was a way to keep my creativity flowing, but was something outside the screens.

So as the COVID-19 numbers rose last spring, I was rolling out pie dough, trying to figure out how to make it a circle and not a deformed square. The trick is to press lightly while slightly rotating your rolling pin when going back and forth. Be mindful to keep an even thickness, and don’t roll all the way to the ends of the circle.

As everyone doom-scrolled, I was Googling pie designs. I may be a creative soul, but we all need inspiration! YouTube is full of video how-tos, where I learned to make roses and figure out just how to shape the edges for the perfect crimp. This is where I learned to accept it’s probably not going to be perfect, and that’s okay.

Trying to find rhubarb in any grocery store last summer was much harder than this lattice and rose pie creation. The pie knife was a gift from Brittany's thoughtful sister a few Christmases ago.
Trying to find rhubarb in any grocery store last summer was much harder than this lattice and rose pie creation. The pie knife was a gift from Brittany's thoughtful sister a few Christmases ago. [ BRITTANY VOLK | Special to the Times ]

As stores ran out of toilet paper, I bought more pie tools. We all made some questionable pandemic purchases just to feel joy again, but I do not regret a single one. I definitely needed a dough mat with measurements, a $40 Emile Henry white ceramic pie plate and the Baby Yoda cutout stamp.

As the never-ending mask debate continued, I was cursing my tiny oven. My apartment kitchen is comically small and comes with limited counter space and a 20-inch-wide oven. My Nordic Ware baker’s half sheet just fits inside, but the temperature is about 100 degrees off and the back gets much hotter than the front. I’ve since purchased a thermometer, and I rotate the sheet during the bake.

As quarantine boredom set in for many, I was learning how to turn pie dough colors. Pie baker extraordinaire Lauren Ko has an amazing Instagram account, and her pie cookbook came out this summer. She includes step-by-step photos of her pie designs and colorful dough recipes.

As the 2020 election never seemed to end, I was cutting out sports logos in pie dough. Drawn by my little brother, the logos were placed atop our dueling World Series blueberry pies. (He’s a Dodgers fan, and I live near the Rays.) I don’t freehand my designs. I make a paper template by printing or drawing a design on paper, cutting it out and placing it on top of the dough to cut out with a small paring knife.

During the World Series, Brittany was with her family, who are very big baseball fans. Her brother is a Dodgers fan, but the St. Petersburg resident also had to make a Rays pie to honor her home team. Her brother made the logos so she and her stepmom could cut out the baseball pie tops.
During the World Series, Brittany was with her family, who are very big baseball fans. Her brother is a Dodgers fan, but the St. Petersburg resident also had to make a Rays pie to honor her home team. Her brother made the logos so she and her stepmom could cut out the baseball pie tops. [ BRITTANY VOLK | Special to the Times ]

And as the COVID numbers spiked again, I was perfecting my dough braids. Braiding dough is a lesson in patience, but it’s probably the most impressive design to present to your pie eaters. My only tip is to use threads no longer than 10 or 12 inches. Any longer and they may break apart in your hands.

Pie baking became my meditation. It helps me practice patience, breathing and acceptance. Pie was a sweet way to celebrate the small things during a crappy year. I made pies for birthdays, friends’ newborn babies, work accomplishments and the election results.

I hear all the time, “You should open a pie shop!” And while I love my fans, I’d like to keep my love for pie a hobby. Once it becomes work, and I become financially dependent on it, I fear I might grow to hate it. Which would only make my dad joke that I went full circle on pie. No need to encourage that.

Pie for one, no fun

As I found peace within pie, I craved physical attention. Puzzles and porch dates with friends were not enough. However, scrolling through dating apps in a pandemic is more like a fantasy game. I wasn’t actually going to risk death, or someone else’s, and meet a guy who proclaims “Tacos are life!!!” But then I saw a profile: “Leave a comment if you wanna hang and eat pie.” Well, I thought, he likes pie, and I’m making a lot of pie lately. I reached out and asked what his favorite pie was. It’s key lime.

Whether you're into her politics or not, Kamala Harris broke a glass ceiling in January by becoming the first female vice president. To honor the occasion, Brittany made a shattered glass pie design using butterfly pea flower tea and powder for the blue color, and blueberry juice and powder for the purple.
Whether you're into her politics or not, Kamala Harris broke a glass ceiling in January by becoming the first female vice president. To honor the occasion, Brittany made a shattered glass pie design using butterfly pea flower tea and powder for the blue color, and blueberry juice and powder for the purple. [ BRITTANY VOLK | Special to the Times ]

Two weeks later, we couldn’t stop texting each other and had to decide how to meet up in a pandemic. (He came over to my house and promised not to murder me.) A month later, we were seeing each other nonstop, eating pie and watching TV (Lost) on my couch. I found my pandemic partner — and one I hope to keep beyond this current nightmare.

Eight months later, we’re still eating lots of pie and watching TV (Mad Men). When he finished a book, I made him a mango pie that said “You did a thing!” The lucky guy has also gotten to sample every pie I have made since we met: Blackberry Chai, Plum Ginger, Salted Caramel Apple and Sour Orange, just to name a few. His favorite was the New York TimesAtlantic Beach Pie. It’s a key lime pie with a saltine cracker crust. I don’t think he’ll love any other pie more than that one — and it’s the easiest one I make. Go figure.

By the way, there is one pie I still hate: pumpkin. It’s baby food in a pie crust.

No one could have predicted what 2020 would bring. When life hands you BS, make apple pie. That’s how the saying goes, right? And when I made apple pie, life handed me love.

During the pandemic, Brittany Volk created more than a dozen pies in her tiny apartment kitchen. Not only was it a way to get her away from doom-scrolling, but making pie was a good excuse to go over to a friend's house for a porch visit.
During the pandemic, Brittany Volk created more than a dozen pies in her tiny apartment kitchen. Not only was it a way to get her away from doom-scrolling, but making pie was a good excuse to go over to a friend's house for a porch visit. [ Courtesy of Brittany Volk ]

Follow Brittany Volk’s pie creations on Instagram at @bevolk. Contact her at brittany.volk@gmail.com.

Pie essentials

Butter

The best butter for crust is usually the generic store-bought brand. It has a lower fat content than the fancy European butters — those are best in cakes and cookies. The key to pie dough is keeping everything cold. I chop up the butter into ¼-inch cubes and freeze them for 15 to 30 minutes before combining with the flour and water.

Crust

I stick with my ⅔ butter : ⅓ shortening dough recipe because it holds together better when cutting out and designing. Even though they taste much better, all-butter recipes can be greasier and shrink in the oven. And yes, I will purchase store-bought crusts in a pinch. Trader Joe’s carries my favorite.

Dolly Parton

A baker needs their essential background music. And Dolly Parton just feels right when I’m hunched over my counter stamping out pie dough flowers.

Dough and fondant stamps

No, I’m not meticulously cutting out flowers and snowflakes and Baby Yodas with a paring knife. Stamp shapes will elevate any pie design.

Inspiration

Speaking of Instagram, there are plenty of other women making beautiful pies on the internet. Here are just a few: @lokokitchen, @pieladybooks, @batterednbaked.

Natural light

If I don’t post a picture of my pie on Instagram, did it happen? In order for my pies to shine, natural light is key. Place your pie near a window. Bonus points if you have potted plants or fresh flowers in a vase. A lot of my pie portraits are set on my front stoop that has painted white brick for a more rustic look.

Rolling pin

It took me a bit to master, but the French wooden rolling pin works better than the more iconic roller. You have more control over the thickness and shape. Plus, it makes for a better bat when shooing away kitchen visitors who “just want to take a peek.”

Parchment paper

Rolling out the dough on flour-covered parchment paper will save your pie design from being ruined when moving it from the counter to the fridge or freezer to the top of the pie.

Pastry wheel and clear ruler

This dual pastry wheel is probably the most essential tool in my drawer. And to get a straight edge, use a simple clear ruler.

Personalized serving knife

When you’re sharing your creations, it’s good to bring your own serving utensil. My wonderful sister gifted me a personalized pie slicer a couple of Christmases ago with my initials. So when I accidentally leave it at a friend’s house, they immediately will know it’s mine.

Pie cookbooks

I haven’t mastered baking without a recipe, which is why I refer to the masters: Kate McDermott (Art of the Pie, Pie Camp), America’s Test Kitchen (The Perfect Pie) and Lauren Ko (Pieometry).

Pie carrier

Unless you can eat a whole pie on your own, sharing some slices is a good idea. My plastic carrier has gotten good use this last year, carting my pies to friends’ houses for a pandemic-friendly front porch visit.

Supportive partner who will rub your shoulders after baking all day

This might be the most essential item on this list.

Other quick pie tips

  • If you’ve ever read one pie dough recipe, you know the importance of keeping everything cold. While I roll out and design dough, I usually run my AC a few degrees cooler to help with Florida humidity.
  • Speaking of cold, in order for the detailed dough to keep its shape while baking, put the dough cutouts on a cookie sheet and place in the fridge or freezer for 10 to 30 minutes. This will also help when you start designing the pie top so the dough doesn’t break or melt in your hand. Once you’ve designed the pie, put the whole pie in the fridge while your oven heats. There’s really no foolproof way to stop dough from expanding or shrinking during the bake, so prayer is also helpful.
  • I love my glass pie plates, gifted to me by a former Times food editor, but the ceramic ones give me an overall better bake. The crust comes out evenly, flakier and crispier.
  • Crying is okay. Watching a design get ruined as the insides leak out the top is traumatizing. But I’ve come to accept that it adds character.
  • But also, don’t forget to place your pie on a cookie sheet while baking so if spillage occurs, it’s not all over your oven. In fact, put the empty cookie sheet in the oven while it heats — this will ensure no soggy bottoms.
  • Aluminum foil is your friend. Loosely fold 2-inch-wide strips of foil around the edges of the crust to prevent it from getting too dark during the long bake time.
  • To create a dough rose, stamp out four or five 2-inch circles. Line them up, overlapping each half of a circle, then roll up the row of circles to form a cylinder. Cut the cylinder in half and the ends will form a rose shape. This is also fun with Play-Doh.

Pie recipes

Classic Double-Crust Pie Dough

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons vegetable shortening, cut into ¼-inch pieces and chilled

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch pieces and chilled

6 tablespoons ice water, plus extra as needed

Process the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor until combined, about 5 seconds. Scatter shortening over top and process until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, about 10 seconds. Scatter butter over top and pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs, about 10 pules.

Transfer mixture to a large bowl. Sprinkle ice water over the mixture. Stir and press dough with spatula until dough sticks together. If dough does not come together, stir in up to 2 tablespoons ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it does.

Using spatula, divide dough into two equal portions. Transfer each portion to a sheet of plastic wrap and form each into a 4-inch disc. Wrap each piece tightly in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour or up to 2 days. Let chilled dough sit on the counter to soften slightly, about 10 minutes, before rolling.

Note: Wrapped dough can be frozen for up to 1 month. If frozen, let dough thaw completely on the counter before rolling.

Makes 1 (9-inch) double crust.

Source: The Perfect Pie from America’s Test Kitchen

Chai Blackberry Pie

This recipe creates a standard lattice pie top.

Classic Double-Crust Pie Dough (see recipe)

1 cup sugar

5 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, plus 2 tablespoons juice

¼ teaspoon table salt

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

⅛ teaspoon ground ginger

Pinch pepper

1 ¾ pounds (5 ⅔ cups) blackberries

1 large egg, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon water

Roll 1 disc of dough into a 12-inch circle on the floured counter. Loosely roll dough around a rolling pin and gently unroll it into a 9-inch pie plate, letting excess dough hang over the edge. Ease dough into plates by gently lifting the edge of dough with your hand while pressing into plate bottom with your other hand. Leave any dough that overhangs the plate in place. Wrap dough-lined plate loosely in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

Roll the other piece of dough into a 13- by 10 ½-inch rectangle on a floured counter, then transfer to parchment paper-lined rimmed baking sheet; cover loosely with plastic and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

Using a pizza wheel, fluted pastry wheel or paring knife, cut dough lengthwise into eight 13-inch by 1 ¼-inch-wide strips. Cover loosely with plastic and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees.

Whisk sugar, cornstarch, lemon zest, salt, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and pepper together in a large bowl. Stir in blackberries and lemon juice and let sit for 15 minutes. Spread blackberry mixture into dough-lined plate.

Remove dough strips from the refrigerator; if too stiff to be workable, let sit at room temperature until softened slightly but still very cold. Space four strips evenly across the top of the pie, parallel to the counter edge. Fold back first and third strips almost completely. Lay one strip across pie, perpendicular to second and fourth strips, keeping it snug to folded edges of dough strips, then unfold first and third strips over top. Fold back the second and fourth strips and add the second perpendicular strip, keeping it snug to folded edge. Unfold second and fourth strips over top. Repeat weaving remaining strips evenly across pie, alternating between folding back first and third strips and second and fourth strips to create a lattice pattern. Shift strips as needed so they are evenly spaced over top of pie. If dough becomes too soft to work with, refrigerate pie and dough strips until firm.

Trim overhang to ½ inch beyond lip of the plate. Pinch edges of bottom crust and lattice strips together firmly to seal. Tuck overhang under itself; folded edge should be flush with the edge of the plate. Crimp dough evenly around the edge of the plate. If the dough is very soft, refrigerate it for 10 minutes before baking. Brush surface with egg wash.

Place pie on an aluminum-foil lined rimmed baking sheet and bake until the crust is light golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees, rotate sheet and continue to bake until juices are bubbling and crust is deep golden brown, 30 to 50 minutes longer. Let pie cool on a wire rack until filling as set, about 4 hours. Serve.

Makes 1 pie that serves 8.

Source: The Perfect Pie from America’s Test Kitchen

Blueberry Pie Dough

This recipe creates a dark purple pie dough.

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

½ tablespoon granulated sugar

½ teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons blueberry powder

½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes

½ cup cold pure blueberry juice (keep in the refrigerator until step 4)

Put the flour, sugar, salt and blueberry powder in a food processor and pulse several times to incorporate. Sprinkle the butter cubes evenly over the surface of the dry mixture and pulse quickly 20 to 25 times to break up the cubes into small jaggedy pieces.

Turn the mixture out into a large mixing bowl. Sift through with a spatula for unprocessed butter cubes and flatten any pieces larger than a pecan half with your pointer finger and thumb.

Remove the blueberry juice from the refrigerator. Add 2 tablespoons of the juice and stir through with a spatula. Continue adding juice 1 tablespoon at a time, pressing the dough with your hands or a spatula after each addition until it begins to come together. Avoid any heavy kneading, as overworking the dough will lead to a tough crust.

If the dough still has quite a bit of dry mix and doesn’t hold together when a handful is squeezed, add a little more juice. Be careful not to add too much liquid; usually 3 to 5 tablespoons total are sufficient. The dough should be smooth and supple.

When the dough begins to hold together, turn it out onto your work surface and gently form it into a mound with your hands. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap, then gently press it into a round, flat disc, about 5 inches in diameter and 1 inch in thickness. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight before rolling.

Makes 1 disc of pie dough.

Note: Lauren Ko recommends the blueberry powder and juice from Bow Hill Blueberries.

Source: Pieometry by Lauren Ko

My Favorite Peach Pie

“Of all the pies I make, peach pie is my absolute favorite in the whole word,” says Kate McDermott in her cookbook “Art of the Pie.” After making this pie, it’s now my favorite, too.

6 cups (about 1 ½ to 2 pounds) sweet, ripe, freestone peaches, halved, pitted, sliced and chopped

¼ to ½ cup sugar (adjust for sweetness of the fruit)

Small pinch fresh ground nutmeg (enough that you can small it when you lean down close to the bowl)

½ teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 to 3 teaspoons Cointreau or other orange liqueur (optional, but highly recommended)

⅓ teaspoon salt

¼ cup flour

2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca (see note)

Classic Double-Crust Pie Dough (see recipe)

½ tablespoon butter

1 to 2 teaspoons sugar, for sprinkling on top of pie

1 egg white plus 1 tablespoon water, fork beaten

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Place the peaches, sugar, nutmeg, lemon juice, Cointreau, salt, flour and quick-cooking tapioca in a big bowl. Mix lightly until the fruit is coated.

Roll out the bottom dough and place it in a pie plate.

Spoon in the fruit filling and dot with butter cut into little pieces with your fingers.

Roll out remaining dough, lay it over the fruit and cut five to six vents on top, or cut strips and make a lattice top. Trip excess dough from the edges and crimp.

Lightly brush some of the egg white wash over the entire pie, including the edges.

Bake for 20 minutes at 425 degrees. Reduce the heat to 375 degrees and bake for 40 to 45 minutes more. When there are 10 to 15 minutes of bake time left, open the oven, pull the pie out and quickly and evenly sprinkle the top of the pie with sugar. Close the oven and continue baking for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until you see steady bubbling in the filling coming through the vents or lattices.

Remove the pie from the oven and cool completely before serving so the filling can set up, although warm peach pie is delicious.

Note: If you can’t find quick-cooking tapioca at your local grocer, buy it online.

Makes 1 pie that serves 8.

Source: Art of the Pie by Kate McDermott