Who knew pies could be such a sublime feast? A feast for the eyes, to the taste, to one's imagination. I've spent the better part of a week with this book -- and I'm going to cut to the chase and say it's an amazing value and buy it now! -- practically sleeping with it under my pillow, dreaming of its contents.
As a pretty good home cook who's ventured into the realm of pies and quiches with fair success, I have to say that I've recently been looking at my collection of cookbooks and thinking of weeding out a bit. One gets to the point where there are useful books, and then a great weight of books that are never opened. Some of them are awkwardly bad. But there's a short shelf, about a foot long, of cookbooks I keep in the kitchen as a trusted resource, while the rest are relegated to bookshelves in the den.
Ashley English's "A Year of Pies" is going on the special shelf, along with James Beard and "The Joy of Cooking" and a few rarified others. I'm not a fan of niche cookbooks or specialty cookbooks for the reserved shelf. But Ms. English's book on pies, I expect, will inform quite a bit of my gustatory choices when it comes to feasting.
I love pies, and associate them with Thanksgiving (my grandmother's berry pies, mincemeat pies, and of course pumpkin) and summertime (Mom's lemon meringue), coconut creams at Easter, and others in-between. But Ashley elevates pie to more than a slice of sweetness on a plate. She has taken something quintessentially American and simple and unfortunately sometimes mundane, and made it into a yearlong song of amazement.
If you're looking for something special to take to a dinner, or to serve when hosting, there is no end to options in Ashley's book. I love that it is arranged by season, as I try to cook seasonally with fresh ingredients. I love that she devotes the first 35 pages to crusts, ingredients, and techniques -- the foundation. I love that the recipes are simple to follow, and have beautiful photos to accompany them. And I love the fact that as I read each recipe I can practically see how it will unfold in preparation, and how it will taste on the fork.
I mean, almost. I really need to make these pies. One pie's description was so provocative, I decided to set aside my dietary fears and order this book: rosemary bourbon sweet potato pie. Now let's just think about this for a second, shall we? I love sweet potato pie, but for many folks in Northern states, the closest cognate might be a pumpkin pie. And bourbon with sweet potato or pumpkin pie is a fine combination, one I've tried (via bourbon whipped cream). But this is what Ashley does, again and again, recipe after recipe: she takes the familiar, tastes that you know, and she ups the ante, puts a twist on things, and makes them magical. How does rosemary fit with sweet potato pie and bourbon? Just thinking about it makes me crazy.
My wife and I kept passing this book back and forth with amazement, asking "have you seen THIS recipe?" And I don't want to spoil all the fun, but there are sweet pies, and there are savory pies; there are round pies, square pies, and freestyle galettes; there are pies like the caramelized onion and blue cheese galette that take recipes I've used often and successfully and put a new spin on them. There are regional pies like the fried green tomato and pimento cheese tart, or the buttered rum shoo-fly pie. I live close to Amish country, and shoo-fly pie was novel when I was young, but you get over it. Until, of course, Ashley asks you to revisit it with her signature twist on the familiar.
That's the genius of this book. Every recipe, or darned near every one, seems like something you know and have eaten, with a whip-smart update or variation. There's no experimentation for the sake of showing off, there's nothing in this book that won't succeed. What you have is an entire year's repository of ideas when it comes time to bring something fantastic to the feast, whether you are hosting or attending. These pies don't require exotic ingredients, or exceptional patisserie skills, and yet recipe after recipe turns out something exceptional.
Here, let me taunt you with a few more. Nectarine and lavender crostada. Lemoncello lemon meringue pie. Peach and plum tart with walnut pesto. You see how the author takes the known, twists it a bit, and makes it sublime? Sublime is what you might call this book.
I'll offer a few criticisms now, lest you think I'm in the employ of Ms. English. There are guest recipes, one of which is a saltwater taffy pie. I have to admit to not being a fan of saltwater taffy, and this one recipe seems a tad cloying. I also wish that, alongside basic crusts of butter and shortening and all-butter, Ms. English would have explored crusts that used traditional fats such as lard or beef tallow (possibly in combination with butter). But these are minor quibbles.
I cannot wait to see what Ashley English does next. I see that she has published a series of homesteading books, but I think she can reach an even broader audience with her cookbooks. Unlike some cookbooks, one gets the sense that each recipe has been tested in a real home kitchen, and eaten by real people like you and me, and that the only disappointment has been that the pie ran out too quickly. This is good stuff, folks.