Tara Jensen and I both lived in Burlington, Vermont around the same time and had many of the same friends. I had heard about her and her art through various pals, but strangely our paths never crossed. Then she moved to North Carolina, and I moved to North Carolina and then left North Carolina, and unknowingly we gathered more common friends along the way. Then somehow through the small mediated world we know as Instagram, we made a connection. It took a few weeks of oggling the rustic bread loves and incredibly artful pie crusts of "bakerhands" before I realized who was behind it all, and then it all seemed to make sense.
Tara now owns and operates Smoke Signals Baking in Marshall, NC, just outside of Asheville. Tara comes to baking from a background in art (as evidenced by her beautiful work in pastry), and approaches her bakery as "a living entity that combines food, writing, and photography." I asked Tara if she would share a tutorial on her decorative crust tops and tell us a little bit about her baking practice. You can find her lovely and inspiring words and photographs below.
What is it about pie making that's inspiring?
I came into making pies a few Thanksgivings ago. I wanted to offer my customers something special so I started making sweet potato pies from the potatoes we grew on the farm. After a long day of difficult bread baking I turned towards my pie orders and felt a sense of relief. Pie was the kind friend I was looking for in the kitchen. I find pie to be a forgiving and creative process with the pleasure of immediate gratification. Bread feels so rugged and demanding, yet pie proposed a chance to be delicate, feminine even. And of course, sweet.
How has your background as an artist influenced you?
I enjoyed success as an artist through my twenties, but when I decided to turn my life over to baking and farming, making art took a back seat. This wasn't a painful transition; I was ready to welcome a new chapter of my life. I began to feel strongly that my entire life became my creative project and what made me an artist was not so much what I made materially in the world, but rather my perspective.
It's been a few years now since I've painted or attempted a drawing, but when I hold the pastry wheel and slice through a nicely-made dough I feel the same thrill and expression as when I would strike out on a fresh piece of white paper. There are movements of the wrist and body that I will always go to when making a shape or a line. Treating the pie dough like a creative material, rather than food, was helpful to making all kinds of patterns, designs, and forms. I also think there is no wrong way of making a pie or any kind of way a pie should be, which frees me up to experiment, fail, and learn about myself along the way.
Decorative Crust: A Tutorial
The top crust of your pie affords you a moment of reflection. The bottom crust is done, the filling has been prepared and you are left with a final canvas of flour and butter. When I would paint my favorite creative time was after the majority of the legwork was done and I got to sit back and decide where to put that final speck, that last mark which was going to tie it all together. I love the top crust because it's that special space, when most of the heavy lifting is done, when one can look with a discerning and excited eye.
I get really jazzed about decorating my pie tops. I like to clean up the kitchen first. Maybe make another pot of coffee. Definitely find the right song. Step outside the hot kitchen and look at the sky. And then just r e l a x. After I roll out the initial top, upon which I'll assemble different shapes, I imgine I'm cutting paper and let my hands guide me to whatever shapes they want to make. Think of pie dough as your material and egg wash as your glue. You can be literal or abstract. The goal is to have a little joy and embrace the process. There's no right or wrong here.
Things you'll need:
One fully filled pie ready for a top!
Things you might also want:
1. When you roll out your pie crust for the bottom, save any scraps.
2. Fill your pie. Now you can either make a top with a traditional cover boasting fun shapes or cut outs, or you can make a top by assembling many small pieces to cover the filling.
3. I like to put on a whole top-- makes it feel like a blank page to me. Be mindful when rolling out the dough for your decorative pieces to roll it relatively thin. That way you can do several layers and you won't end up with a top crust three inches thick and hard to bake thoroughly. Also keep in mind that shapes or pieces that stand tall above the rest of the pie will brown quickly.
4. Roll out the extra dough you've saved and go to town! Let your hand make whatever shapes it wants. I go for long lines and organic looking leaves. If you need a warm up try drawing on a huge piece of butcher paper to get your wrist in the mood. You can cut the dough with a knife, with scissors, cookie cutters, or with a pastry wheel: choose one or try them all.
5. Brush wherever you are going to lay down dough with an egg wash. The possibilities here are endless. I don't start with an idea; I just start cutting up the dough and place it randomly, letting a pattern, design, or image emerge. Express yourself!
6. I give the final pie one more light brush of egg wash and dust it with coarse sugar to add some sparkle. Bake it and eat with friends or alone, in between dance breaks to your favorite song*.
*My current favorite song: Take this Waltz by Leonard Cohen
Thanks so much to Tara Jensen for sharing this tutorial, photos, and bit of inspiration . You can find more of Tara's words and photos via her website, tumblr, and instagram.