Don’t let this pie season intimidate you

If it’s November, it must be time for pie. Pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie, sweet potato pie — people are expecting pie on your holiday table. Your head is swirling with the possibilities, and you’re pretty certain you’re not up to the task. Pop a store bought pie into the oven and pass it off as your own? Or is this the year you’ll master pie baking once and for all?

Meet Lucia Nasuti Smeal. By profession, she’s an attorney and professor in the School of Accounting at Georgia State University. By avocation, she’s an award-winning pie (and jelly) maker with a rack full of blue and purple ribbons to show for it.

A trip to the Ohio State Fair almost 30 years ago was the impetus for her prize-winning ways. Smeal was smitten by the beautiful pies and jars of preserves. In the mid 1990s, she entered her red plum jelly in the Cherokee County Fair and won a blue ribbon. “It inspired me to do more. The next year, I won a blue ribbon for my muscadine pie. I boiled the seeded muscadines in sugar water, and they ended up tasting like raisins. From then on, I began regularly entering county and state fairs,” she said.

Smeal says she began concentrating on pies because they were easy to put together in the midst of a full-time working schedule, and they have a larger margin for error than cakes. She credits her award-winning success largely to her insistence that her pies look homemade but have just a little extra touch like streusel combined with a lattice topping or cinnamon sugar sprinkled on little separately baked cut-outs that decorate the top of a custard pie.

And she never compromises on the filling. “I give you permission to even use a store bought crust from the dairy case, but you should never cut corners with your filling. Pit your own cherries, bake a fresh pumpkin for your pie– those extra steps allow you to use farm fresh ingredients and your pies are just better,” she said.

There’s no dearth of classes for those who want hands on instruction. Shannon Marsh, of Salud Cooking School in Roswell, finds when the weather gets cooler and holidays approach, pies and tarts are just the kind of homemade rustic dessert people are craving. But it’s the crust that stops them. “They’re afraid they won’t handle it properly or that they’ll underbake it or overbake it. Finding that perfect crust is what a lot of our students come for,” she said.

Charlotte Terrell of Roswell is a baker who had never made a pie. “My mother made pies. But, by the time she was teaching me to bake, she had moved on to frozen pie crusts. I really wanted to learn to make a crust,” she said. After her class at Salud Cooking School, she now makes almost a dozen pies a year with the help of her husband, David, who has taken on the job of rolling out the crusts.

“We always have Thanksgiving with my sister, and we’ll be taking pecan and coconut custard pies. And our crusts will have those nice flaky layers you just don’t get with store bought crusts,” said Terrell.

Analia Serebrenik, of Viking Cooking School in Buckhead, says people enjoy pie baking classes because it gives them a chance to learn skills under the eye of an instructor. Her students are looking for a pie crust that works for them and a filling that’s flavorful and has a good consistency.

“Those are the things that are intimidating about pies. A class helps our students feel confident when they’re entertaining. For those who already bake pies, a class can give them some new recipes,” said Serebrenik.

Marcia Bryson of Smyrna baked her first pie in a Viking Cooking School class. “I decided with the holidays coming up I wanted to make everyone a pie. I would never have believed it, but making the crust is really so easy,” she said. She learned to make crusts by hand and with a food processor.

“When I tried to make a pie before, it never got as far as the oven. I’d just toss the whole thing. But the instructor showed me how to fix my mistakes. I learned to just jump in there and get it done,” said Bryson.

Have we convinced you to put a homemade pie on the table for Thanksgiving? Smeal offers a few tips to make it as painless as possible.

Bake your pies a day or two before. Cool them, then cover and refrigerate. No need to crowd the oven with pie baking when there’s a turkey to roast.

The crust can be made several days before you plan to bake and left in the refrigerator until you’re ready to put together the filling and bake.

If you’re taking your pie to someone else’s holiday meal, copy Smeal’s strategy. She frequents thrift stores during the year and buys glass pie pans that are in good shape. Now she can bake a pie and make both the pie and the pan her gift.

Since you can’t please everybody, make at least two pies – choosing from nuts, fruit and custard pies.

Make your own crust, but if you just can’t, use a pie crust from the dairy case. Make that your shortcut, not the filling. Then take a few minutes to put your own decorative touches on the pie. That’s what people will notice.

Follow a good recipe. It will have the right proportions for the filling. But don’t be afraid to add new ingredients like a little lemon in a sweet pie, or something colorful like a few berries in a pecan pie.

What pies will Smeal be baking this Thanksgiving? “Everybody in my family wants a different one. I limit them to two. What I don’t make for Thanksgiving, I’ll make for Christmas. Our go-to pies are buttermilk pie, pecan-cranberry pie, fresh pumpkin pie and a strawberry pie for my son who just can’t give up his summer pies,” she said.

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