Author and baker Beth Howard finds peace, purpose and healing in pie.
By Sharon Selz
For Beth Howard, pie is more than comfort food—it’s a lifesaver. Which is why this passionate pie evangelist is setting out to change the world, one oven-fresh slice at a time.
“When you realize you can make a pie, you get a boost in confidence that empowers you to try other things,” says the enthusiastic baker from Eldon, Iowa. “And when you share a pie you’ve baked with others, it makes them happy—and that makes you happy. Pie naturally brings people together.”
Appropriately, Beth has floury fingers in all kinds of them—apple to zesty lemon meringue. A journalist, author and entrepreneur, she sings pie’s praises on her website, theworldneedsmorepie.com, teaches pie baking, and is working on a cookbook starring her favorite dessert.
On summer weekends, you can find Beth teaching pie-making lessons in the kitchen of the Iowa house pictured in Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic painting. An Iowa native, she has lived in the landmark for the past three years.
A Pie Primer
Her introduction to pie making came at age 17, on a bike trip with friends. “We were pedaling past an orchard and figured no one would notice if a few apples were missing,” she recalls. “But sure enough, the owner came storming out. He softened up when he saw we were hungry kids. It turned out he was a retired merchant marine pastry chef. He invited us into his farmhouse and taught us to make pie with the apples.”
Pie making remained a hobby as Beth went on to work in public relations, TV promotions, journalism and web development on a career path that crisscrossed the country like a lattice crust. “Finally, I got burned out from long hours sitting at my computer,” she notes. “I needed to engage my senses and work with my hands.”
Slices of Life
Beth landed her first professional baking job 12 years ago at a gourmet cafe in Malibu, California, a place that counted stars like Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg among its customers. “When the owner asked for my qualifications,” Beth recalls of her interview, “I said, ‘Well, I’m from Iowa.’”
Later, she called on those same roots after meeting the man she’d later marry. “My dad proposed to my mom after tasting her banana cream pie,” Beth says. “So I hand-delivered an apple pie I’d made to Marcus. It worked!”
Unexpectedly, a few short years into their marriage, Marcus passed away at the age of 43. “I was devastated,” Beth says. But once again, pie pointed the way. Slicing crisp, green Granny Smiths and tucking them under a blanket of crust soothed her.
“Pie making became therapy for me,” she remembers. In the midst of Beth’s grieving, a producer friend suggested they make a documentary together on the healing power of pie. So Beth loaded baking supplies into the RV she and Marcus had bought and set off in search of interesting pie shops and bakers. Along the way, they hosted pie classes and baking parties, handed out free homemade slices and collected people’s pie stories.
In 2010, her travels took her back to Iowa to judge pie contests at the state fair, which she recalls as “10 straight days of deliciousness.”
Back to the Future
Afterward, while visiting her hometown, Ottumwa, she happened upon a sign pointing to the American Gothic house just 6 miles away.
“I’d grown up 20 minutes away from this adorable little house and never knew it was here until now,” she says. “I remember standing outside looking at it and thinking, I have to live here!” So she signed a $250-a-month lease for the 900-square-foot house with the State Historical Society of Iowa, agreeing to keep the white lace curtains in the front window and to be pleasant to tourists. She moved in with her terriers, Jack and Daisy, and promptly got out her rolling pin.
“This place was meant for baking pies,” Beth says of the cozy space with bright red cupboards and a butcher-block table, which she licensed as a commercial kitchen. It’s also the perfect setting for pie-making instruction Beth offers to the public. Classes include a tour of her famous residence, a pie lesson for up to 10 people and a “victory shot,” with students posed in front of the house in American Gothic costumes with pies and pitchforks. All participants leave with their own finished apple pie.
Besides inspiring a bounty of baking, the house motivated Beth to share her story. During her first winter there, she wrote Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie. Currently, she’s completing Ms. American Pie, a coffee table-style cookbook filled with her pie-making adventures.
Recipe for Success
But Beth tells cookbook readers right up front: “Don’t follow these recipes.” Instead, she suggests using the recipes as a guide, and trusting yourself to determine by touch whether the dough needs more water or a longer baking time.
Although Beth is reluctant to call herself a pastry expert, she does have plenty of pointers to share. “A big one is not to overwork your dough,” she says. “If you knead it like bread, it will get tough. Use a light touch.
“And remember, pie isn’t about perfection. It should look homemade, and it should be uncomplicated. I don’t like pie disguised with heavy spices. I want to taste it and appreciate it for what it really is.”
That’s not far from how she has learned to approach life, Beth says. “Keep it simple—simple as pie.”
In her own folksy way, Beth gives instructions in how to make her favorite apple pie.
Beth Howard’s Apple Pie
BASIC PIE CRUST:
2-1/2 cups flour (white all-purpose)
Dash of salt
1/2 cup butter, chilled
1/2 cup shortening
Ice water (fill one cup but use only enough to moisten dough)
7 to 8 large Granny Smith apples, peeled (depending on size of apple & size of pie dish, have about 3 lbs. available)
3/4 cup sugar
4 Tbsp. flour
Dash of salt
1 to 2 tsp. cinnamon (depending on how much you like)
1 Tbsp. butter (put dollop on top before covering with top crust)
1 beaten egg (you won’t use all of it, just enough to brush on pie before baking)
- In a deep bowl, work the butter and shortening into the flour and salt with your hands until you see marble-sized lumps form. Think mixed nuts, but no bigger than almonds. Add ice water a little at a time, sort of “fluffing” the flour. Keep your movements light, as if you are tossing dressing into a salad with your hands. When the dough feels moistened enough, do a “squeeze test” and when it holds together you’re done. Do not overwork the dough! It takes very little time and you’ll be tempted to keep touching it, but don’t! Now divide the dough in two, form each half into a disk shape and roll flat and thin to fit your pie dish. Sprinkle flour under and on top of your dough, and keep rolling surface and pin free from gunk to keep dough from sticking. Trim excess dough to about 1 in. from the dish edge with a scissors.
- Slice half of the apples directly into the pie, arranging to remove extra space between slices. Cover with half of your other ingredients (sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt), then slice the remaining apples and cover with second half of ingredients. Add dollop of butter on top, cover with top crust, seal and crimp edges, then brush with beaten egg (this gives the pie a nice golden brown shine; be careful not to let egg pool in crevices). Use a knife to poke vent holes in the top (get creative here with a pattern), then bake at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. Turn oven down to 375 degrees and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes until juice bubbles. Keep an eye on the pie as it bakes. If it gets too brown, turn down the temperature. To be sure it’s done, poke with a knife to make sure apples have softened. Do not overbake or apples will turn mushy.
Yield: 8 servings.