It has been a surprise to me, to embrace my husband's family — that sometimes-forced relationship with people you might not love as much as your partner. And goodness knows they may feel ambivalent about you, too. I thought the relationship would be OK, kind of like an anthropological study, but I never imagined that I would actually like my extended family, and look to my father-in-law for counsel or comfort.
My father-in-law, Arthur, was from Brooklyn. He was a fussy eater and a straight shooter. It took developing some thicker skin — and when directed at me, involved making a lot of pie dough.
After my own father died a few years ago, I suppose something changed between me and Arthur. He was a wise person, and I found myself asking him for advice or to explain choices he made in his life as we ate lunch or drove to a doctor's appointment. He was a singular lawyer who argued and won a historic case at the Supreme Court and was careful about every word he spoke or wrote. I never heard him yell or curse, and he made me feel like I was in civilized company. But while he was a gentleman, he could be churlish about trash cans and micromanage my driving routes. I made my peace with his ways long ago.
Still, when Arthur told me, in sotto, as he left Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago, that the pie I made wasn't my best, I was hurt. I knew it was true — after all that crust was about a foot deep. I was indignant to friends and my immediate family, not that Arthur was right, but that he was honest.
I stewed on Arthur's comment about the pie for more time than I'd like to admit, and then got out of my own way, deciding that I actually needed, and wanted, to crack this whole pie thing. I signed up for a course at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, where I learned a remarkable thing: "Don't be afraid of the crust." When it falls apart, "smack it back together" (my instructor's exact words), wrap it in plastic, and throw it in the fridge for 20 minutes. And then try again and don't be a baby about it.
Of course, when a professional is watching (and helping), there's always a happy ending — but I had the benefit of learning that crust failure isn't the end of the story and that I could bring that mix of butter, flour, sugar, and salt back from the brink. I returned home bragging to friends about my triumph; when fall arrived again, I resumed my pie quest in time for Thanksgiving. By this time, my family was really sick of hearing about crust.
I called my friend Elizabeth and asked her what her favorite apple pie recipe was. Elizabeth is a writer and teacher and previously worked in the pastry kitchen at Lespinasse in New York City. She modestly told me she'd just made 15 of Rose Levy Berenbaum's apple pies for friends, and that's what I should do, too. She sent me the recipe and instructed me to make the pie that day, then put in the fridge and cook tomorrow. And, oh, to put on an egg wash topped with demerara sugar before I baked it. Just like that, I had an expert in my corner again. I knew it would be great because I'd have Elizabeth over my shoulder, smiling from her kitchen across the country.
Begin again — and this time, it worked. Flour all over the floor, but the pie was beautiful. And Arthur ate every bite with his customary chocolate ice cream.
I miss my father and my father-in law both fiercely. I long to hear their gravelly voices and stories always, but especially during this crisis. I think about them often when I cook now, referencing my Arkansas-raised father's recipe for skillet cornbread, and passing along the images of his handwritten instructions to girlfriends who are spread across the country.
Arthur demanded excellence and achievement in his own life and for his children and grandchildren. For some silly reason, making a great pie became my brass ring. I knew he respected and loved me, but I was eager to deliver this important bit of pastry to satisfy myself and please him.
Arthur passed away last year at age 92 and I loved him. I will always think about him when I make a pie, and continue to bolster myself against those simple yet formidable ingredients.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: A Failed Apple Pie Brought Me Closer to My Father-in-Law