Self-taught baker Helen Nugent calls herself a "messy kitchen maker". Her pies, however, are anything but! It doesn't matter what angle you choose to look at them; everything from the pristine filling to the carefully designed crust looks absolutely gorgeous, just begging to climb into your mouth.
"I have baked as a hobby most of my life," Nugent told Bored Panda. "My mother was, and still is, an excellent baker so all the credit for any skill I possess goes to her. My career has been in corporate communications and I never thought about following baking as a career path. At the same time, I was feeling very burnt out with my career and looking for a new direction."
In her spare time, Helen started obsessing over decorative pies she saw on Pinterest and started figuring out how to make them. She kept at it and eventually got so good, she began to develop her own style. "That led to doing work for Food Network which led to a book offer which led to a new career! I know social media gets a bad rap but sometimes great things can come from it. I'm living proof of that."
Now, Helen shares her recipes and baking secrets via Instagram, her blog, and the book offer she mentioned has already materialized, too. It's called Pie Style and it has plenty of easy-to-follow instructions to allow anyone to bake their own savory and sweet tarts in the comfort of their own home. With the pandemic outside and Thanksgiving just around the corner, it sounds like the right time to pick up the rolling pin, right?
Nugent thinks people find themselves getting very stressed trying to make the "perfect" pie. The experience should be pleasant. "A good pie starts with an all-butter crust," the baker said. "No Crisco pies for me. While pies made with shortening are very flaky, they have no taste. A good, all-butter pie dough has all the taste with a crisp and flaky crust."
"A good pie [also] has a firm filling that is never gloopy or starchy like a pie made with too much thickener is," she continued.
Most importantly, a good pie is one you enjoyed making. "Pie dough shouldn't cause you to lose your mind. I love my food processor because it makes pie dough quickly and easily and it works every time. And it tastes great. Is a pie dough made by hand a little bit flakier? Sure, but pie dough with chunks of butter in it does not work well for latticing, cutting decorating or fine details. Food processor dough is smooth, pliable, and homogeneous so it’s easy to work with," Nugent explained. "And it's stress-free so you can be successful at it."
"A good pie is one you are proud of. Julie Child always said, 'No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize.' Don't compare your pie to others or apologize to your friends and family if it isn't 'perfect'. Making pie is a huge accomplishment so celebrate it!"
When it comes to Thanksgiving pies, some bakers look for ways to surprise people, but Nugent is a bit of a traditionalist. "I do love a good pumpkin pie. It's hard to beat that dense custard filling combined with warm spices and finished off with some whipping cream. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it."
People often ask Nugent where does she get her ideas from. But she doesn't have a magic hat to pull them out of. The baker just keeps an open eye on the world around her. "I get ideas from things like floor tile designs, ceiling mosaics, clothing patterns, and plaster medallions," she said. "A walk in the woods will inspire with bark designs and leaf patterns. Inspiration comes from all around us but we really have to look up, down, and all around. Inspiration is everywhere."
That's what she tried to show in her book Pie Style. "I wanted to create reliable recipes that delivered consistent results but I also wanted to give people practical techniques to help them create pies that were beautiful as well. A lot of pie books focus on recipes but don't spend a lot of time describing how to create the “looks”. This book includes really delicious recipes but also a step-by-step approach to creating all the decorations in the book. Users are encouraged to mix and match the decorating styles to create pies that are all their own."
If you, however, consider yourself a total noob and are afraid that baking a pie would lead to a kitchen disaster, just remember that you don't need to compare yourself to life-long bakers and begin with something grandiose. "Start with smaller, simpler decorations like cut-outs. As you gain confidence, take on more decorative techniques like latticing and braiding," Nugent advised. "There is no standard."