The first thing Joyce Maynard will tell you when you ask for her pie recipe, is that she doesn't use one.
A writer for over 40 years and the author of 11 books, Maynard is almost as well known for her pie as for her novels.
"It's not about the recipe," she insists. "It's the handling of the dough. The only way to learn was standing at the elbow of my mother, while the pie crust is being made, and that's the way I like to teach pie-making, with someone at my elbow."
Over the past few decades, she estimates she has taught at least 1,000 people how to make pie just like her mother made; just like she makes.
Those people have included actor Josh Brolin, who stars as Frank in a movie coming out later this year, based on Maynard's book Labor Day; and the film's director, Jason Reitman. In the story, Frank, an escaped convict who has taken a woman (played by Kate Winslet) and her son hostage over a long, steamy Labor Day weekend, teaches the boy how to make a peach pie.
She was such a good teacher, that when witnessing the scene in a private screening of the movie a couple months ago, one of Maynard's grown sons jumped from his seat and proclaimed that the method was, in deed, his mother's.
So, why Joyce Maynard and why pie?
I've been a fan of Maynard's for at least 25 years. She is the writer who most inspired me to finally put pen to paper, and to try to make a living at doing something that I love. I have read almost every one of her books, and hundreds of her magazine and newspaper articles.
In my first introduction to Maynard's work, Domestic Affairs, a collection of essays originally published in her New York Times column of the same name, Maynard writes about her life as a wife and mother of three, living in rural New Hampshire. Her stories at the time were similar to mine -- married to a creative man, raising children and produce, and trying, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to make ends meet.
When I decided earlier this year to write this column, in addition to my own family recipes, I wanted to not only reach out to area readers, but to others who were connected to comfort foods -- including celebrities.
I sent Maynard a Facebook message and I heard back from her within the hour. Over the course of our online chats, she told me about her latest book, After Her, and the re-release of a book she wrote 15 years ago, At Home in the World, and sent me both books.
I spoke with Maynard a couple weeks ago via phone. Fueled by three cups of coffee, I gushed a bit about how much her writing has meant to me, and then we got down to some serious talk about pie.
"My mother was a pie maker and made wonderful pies," said Maynard. "She never taught me how to make pie; I learned by watching her, which was the best way. Filling is not much of an issue; it's all about the pie crust. People are most nervous about the crust."
Maynard explained that her mother was always concerned about her weight, and despite being a beautiful woman, always thought she should be trimmer.
"She had this saying: 'If I ever get a brain tumor, I'm going to stop counting calories.'"
Sadly, in 1989 Fredelle Maynard was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
"She was young," said Maynard, "only 66. I wanted to be there and take care of her."
Maynard left her husband and her three children and went to Canada to be with her mother.
"Everything came apart that summer, but one of the things I did was to make a lot of pies. Her friends came to say good-bye and I always kept pie in the house. I found it very comforting, making pie."
Maynard returned home, and the same week her mother died, her husband ended their 12-yearmarriage.
"I made a lot of pie as an act of meditation. At Thanksgiving, I wasn't going to be with my children for the first time, so I invited a lot of friends to make pie with me."
That was the beginning of a tradition for Maynard, who in addition to teaching the art of pie-making, would donate the extra pies to a local soup kitchen.
When she moved from New Hampshire to California, she began teaching pie making as fundraisers for causes or candidates she wanted to support.
"Pie is a connector in all kinds of ways," says Maynard.
One of those ways is in her work.
"When writing Labor Day, I decided I would have the man in the novel teach the boy to make a pie," Maynard explains. "That's when you know he's a good guy. Now of course, that pie is in the Labor Day movie."
She says Brolin learned well.
"(His pie) really looks like the pie I make, kind of rustic."
Maynard says making pie is metaphoric.
"It's forgiving," she says. "It's not better if you take three times longer; then it's only one-third as good. It's free, casual and cheap. To me, it's an expression of love."
Pie is also a way for Maynard to tackle the big questions.
"If I'm in a stressful situation I've never been good at meditation. I do a lot of swimming or making pie. I do a lot of thinking about my books. The new novel (After Her) is the most complicated story I've ever written. There are a lot of plot twists. It's about a 40-pie novel," says Maynard.
When asked what is her favorite kind of pie, she says whatever fruit is in season at the moment. The day before we spoke, she had made a peach blueberry pie, and admitted to having had a slice about 4 o'clock that morning, before taking her husband to the airport.
She says soon, she will be looking forward to apple season.
In the meantime, Maynard is attending red carpet screenings of Labor Day and jetting back and forth across the country to promote her new books.
Since she travels with her pastry blender, you can be sure, if the need arises, Maynard will whip up a pie to suit the occasion.
Stories about Maynard's latest books were in Monday's TIMES NEWS, and are also online at www.tnonline.com/2013/sep/09/after-her and www.tnonline.com/2013/sep/09/maynards-home-world-re-released-new-preface.
Peach Blueberry Pie à la Joyce Maynard
Using Joyce Maynard's directions, I created a Peach Blueberry Pie. I've always been a good pie maker myself, but I think I've fallen in love with a new crust.
For a 10-inch pie
3 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup shortening (approximately), or lard
7-8 tablespoons butter, (approximately), cut into small pieces
7-8 tablespoons ice water, (approximately)
6 cups sliced peaches
2 cups blueberries
Sprinkle of Minute tapioca (maybe a tablespoon)
Sprinkle of cinnamon, maybe 1/2 teaspoon
1/2 cup sugar (or less)
2-3 tablespoons butter, cut up
Combine flour, shortening, butter and salt in a large bowl. Cut in with a pastry blender. If you don't have a pastry blender, you can use a couple of forks.
"I do not believe in making crust in a Cuisinart," Joyce Maynard insists.
If you don't want to use butter, which gives the crust a richer flavor, increase the amount of shortening or lard.
"I probably use a little more butter than Crisco," says Maynard. "Go by feeling. There's more than one way to make a great pie."
When combined, make a well in the center of the bowl and splash in only enough ice water for the top crust; gather up just enough of the flour mixture for one crust and just enough so that it can be rolled out.
Using a rolling pin, roll out the crust on a square of wax paper. If you don't have a rolling pin, no problem, says Maynard, just use a wine bottle with the label removed. Use swift, brisk strokes, rolling from the center out, into the shape of a circle. Where the dough doesn't hold together, use the heel of your hand to gently press it together.
Don't handle the dough too much or you will end up with a tough crust.
When the dough has been rolled out thin enough and large enough to fill the bottom of the pie pan, place the pan in the center of the rolled out dough, then flip it all over, into the pie pan. Peel off the wax paper.
On the bottom of the crust, sprinkle Minute tapioca, which will help soak up the juices and prevent a soggy bottom crust. Maynard, who never measures, says the amount should "look like salt on a road in winter, when there's ice."
You should also sprinkle some Minute tapioca in with the fruit, especially if you are using berries.
Note: When I made this pie, I sprinkled roughly a teaspoon of Minute tapioca on the bottom, and my pie, while delicious, was very runny. I contacted Joyce and she said I hadn't used enough. She also said the problem could be that I used frozen blueberries. When she uses berries, in addition to sprinkling the Minute tapioca on the bottom, she mixes some in with the berries to help absorb the juice. My berries, having been frozen earlier this summer, had a lot more liquid.
In with your sliced peaches and blueberries (or whatever fruit you are using), sprinkle a little bit of sugar and some cinnamon. Joyce doesn't use a lot of sugar and doesn't like sweet pies. The reason? Because you should always serve your pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side.
Cut up 2-3 tablespoons of butter and sprinkle over the peaches in the pie pan.
For the top crust, add a little ice water and gather the dough into another ball, then roll it out on a square of wax paper. Fold the dough, then lift it off the wax paper and place on top of the pie. This can be a delicate maneuver and takes a little practice.
Crimp the edges of the top and bottom crust together, then brush the top with milk and sprinkle with sugar. Pierce the top crust in three places with a fork to allow the steam to escape.
Bake in a preheated oven for 45 minutes. Serve warm and don't forget the ice cream!