Today I am a farmer, baker, and small business owner, making it hard to believe my career started with a degree in civil engineering, and what might be even harder to believe is that I wouldn’t be any of the things I am today if I hadn’t studied in university. My journey to farm ownership started with a mental health crisis during my PhD studies in Civil Engineering and is a story for another time because in honour of Pi Day I want to share how my journey to becoming a professional pie baker started during my engineering undergraduate studies.
In an engineering undergraduate degree, everything feels like life or death, sink or swim, pass or fail. And the more this pressure built up, the more we needed to find ways to release it to survive. There were lots of different ways people dealt with it, but my friends and I found that baking was a perfect outlet for the stress. We baked many things: cookies, muffins, bread, and other treats, but what brought the most joy was baking pies.
Orchard Skating. How awesome is that?
When we had some free time on a weekend (or sometimes when we simply couldn’t look at our computers and textbooks anymore) my friend Sarah and I would make pies. Sarah and I met during the first week of university when we happened to sit beside each other on the cold and dirty floor of the campus pub for a church service and we formed a quick bond over both being first year engineering students. We would go on to live together off campus for many years, giving us lots of opportunities to bake together. Sarah grew up on a fruit farm so she was well-versed in making pies—something her family did every week. I had never made a pie from scratch before I started baking with Sarah. When so much of our time was spent solving theoretical problems it was great to do something so tactile and practical. Baking pies also created a social pull to bring people together. The smells of baking pie would bring our housemates out to common areas, and other friends would come too. It was so easy to become isolated with our studies, but when we made pie, we brought people together.
What started as a fun way to relieve stress and get together during our undergrad has spawned a vibrant social community in Vancouver where Sarah lives, and a career change for me. In Vancouver, there is now a Star Trek and Pie Group that meets regularly to watch Star Trek and eat a plethora a pies (and other treats).
Katie with her family on their apple farm
Here in Ontario, my husband and I bought an apple farm and bakery in 2016 when we needed a change from the world of engineering. Now every fall, my team of bakers and I make thousands of pies to sell each year. While I frequently use my engineering background in how I design our recipes and procedures, really it is those late nights of social pie making that made all the difference. Those nights strengthened friendships and gave our brains an important break and boost in university, and now I’ve been directed to a career where I am truly happy. I may not be a practicing engineer, but it was at engineering school where I learned the skills and developed the relationships to become the person I wanted to be.
Happy Pi Day everyone.
Makes 1 Pie
Total Time: 1 hour cooking, 1 hour chilling, 1 hr 20 minutes baking
For The Pastry
For the Fruit Filling
For the Cheesecake Topping
(it is best to have these as close to room temperature as possible when mixing, so put them on the counter to warm up before starting)
Combine flour, salt and baking soda. Cut in shortening (you can use a pastry blender, a stand mixer, or a fork).
Once mixture is crumbly add cold water (start with ¼ cup), mix in with as little mixing as possible. Add more water as needed to make sure dough holds together. Wrap dough and refrigerate for at least 1 hour (and not more than 6 hours). While it is chilling you have ample time to complete all the other steps and likely a bit extra to do other things as well (I recommend enjoying a cup of coffee and reading an interesting article or two).
When ready to prepare pie:
Pre-heat oven to 400 deg F.
Mix Cheesecake Topping:
Note: the sides of the bowl will need to be scraped down a lot during mixing to ensure that the mixture is homogenous and thoroughly whipped. Using an electric mixer whip cream cheese until it is fluffy. Add sugar and continue whipping. Add eggs and whip until incorporated. Add salt, vanilla, flour, and sour cream, and whip until mixture is mostly smooth. Set aside until pie is ready to be topped.
Remove chilled pastry and put on a lightly floured surface to roll (I typically roll pastry between sheets of parchment paper to reduce how much it sticks to my counter and to make it easier to transfer into the pie plate, but it’s not necessary). Using as few strokes as possible and working from the centre out, roll the dough into a rough circle or square shape bigger than your pie plate and approximately ¼ inch thick.
Carefully transfer pastry into your pie plate, pat it in to take the shape, remove excess pastry from the edges and use your fingers or a fork to crimp or twist the edges. Use a fork to prick holes in the pastry all over being careful to only go approximately half way into the pastry so it doesn’t have any holes.
Cover pastry shell with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove shell from oven and reduce oven temperature to 325 deg.
Slice fruit if using fresh, defrost if using frozen.
Place fruit in pie shell evenly. Fruit should mostly fill your crust. Sprinkle fruit with 1/3 cup of sugar.
Top pie with prepared cheesecake topping ensuring all fruit is covered and doing best to ensure that all filling stays inside the crust (although, if it leaks out, it’s not a big problem).
Put pie in the oven to bake for approximately 1 hour. Baking is complete when a knife inserted into the cheesecake topping comes out clean.
Cool before serving. Tastes great topped with whipped cream or on it’s own. Refrigerate leftovers and enjoy for breakfast the next day.
by Eva St. Clair June 29, 2020
This quarantine business is not easy for me. I am not good at sitting still or staying home, so I’ve had to find ways of doing both of those things over the last few months. I ended up (like so many other folks) doing some home improvement, and I found the perfect piece of clothing for all my projects - my Princess Awesome super twirler dresses! They’re super comfortable, light and airy, make me feel confident, and the huge, deep pockets hold all my tools and hardware.