The taste of warm, sweet fruit filing and crisp, flaky crust glittered with sugar — a freshly baked pie from the oven, gathered around by family and friends is a holiday tradition in many homes this time of year. As delightful aromas fill kitchens and relatives travel to visit, the word "pie" may be on the minds and taste buds of Southwest Iowa residents this year. And if one were lucky, they would sit down to a homemade slice of pie served fresh from the kitchen of Creston resident Janice Fain.
Fain, who's been baking for more than 60 years, has passed on her baking knowledge to her children and grandchildren. But even she had to start somewhere.
"I learned some from my mother and the rest of it I think is just what I've taught myself. I self taught a lot of it. ... I've always liked to bake," Fain said.
Fain describes her baking space as being well-organized with all her ingredients nearby, either above or below her countertop. She said she was given a rolling pin as a wedding present that she still uses today. She enjoys baking in the quiet as opposed to listening to music or television in the background, always works at her customary baking space in her kitchen, and has a large KitchenAid mixer she likes to utilize.
Fain said in her family she is famous for her pecan pies, especially with her grandchildren and son-in-laws. But that's not the only pie she can make.
"I bake all kinds. I bake apple, peach, chocolate, just about anything," she said.
Tips and tricks
Fain always makes her own pie dough from scratch but follows a simple recipe, like the "Classic Crisco Pie Crust" one found on the back of Crisco products. She concurs with this recipe, as it calls for a pie crust made with salt.
"I used to always enter in the Union County Fair and I had a judge there ask me if I used salt in my pie crust, and I said, 'Yes,' and she said she thought so, because she said, 'Pie crust is not good if you don't have salt in it.' So, I've always remembered her saying that, but I've always used salt in my pie crust," she said.
Fain recommends using one teaspoon of salt per double crust recipe. She said it takes her about an hour including baking time to make pies for company. And she recommends putting the dough in the refrigerator for a while before rolling it into pie crust.
Fain said she likes to make peach pies using canned peaches in the winter and fresh peaches in the summertime.
"I love fresh peaches. And I always put in — whether they're canned or fresh peaches, when I make a peach pie — I always take a small can of apricots and I will cut those up and put them in that pie. It gives it a little different flavor," she said.
With her peach pies, Fain said a little tip to keep a pie from being runny is as simple as stirring into the filing mix three tablespoons of a dry Jell-O mix of a same flavor.
"It enhances the flavor, plus I think it helps them set up. ... And I like lots of fruit in my pies. I do not skimp on fruit in my pies," she said.
Fain was also willing to share a pie filling recipe passed down from her mother called "Mom's Pecan Pie" and the adjustments she has made to it over the years.
"Sometimes I change or add, but it takes three eggs, three-fourths of a cup of white sugar, but I use a little less and I put a little brown sugar in there with it — not much, maybe a tablespoon or so. And then, one cup of the darker Karo syrup, not light, the darker. ... And maybe just a scant less on the cup, I use a little bit of pure maple syrup (instead)," she said.
Fain said her mother used to use oleo, or margarine, but she has decided to switch the recipe to real butter. She uses three tablespoons and melts it in the microwave. She also uses a teaspoon of vanilla and a pinch of salt. Fain said to beat the eggs first before mixing in the rest of the ingredients. Lastly, add the pecans, after the mixer is turned off, she said. And while the recipe calls for two single handfuls of pecans, Fain said since her hands are small, she uses three.
"Cause my family loves pecans. ... And then I bake it, and I don't know why she said 345 instead of 350 (degrees), so I just left it at that," she said.
Fain said after adding the mixture to the pie crust, to bake it for 40-45 minutes. No top crust is required.
If one is interested in baking pecan pies, Fain said some of the highest quality pecans in the area can be purchased right across the boarder.
"They have a pecan farm down there and that's where I get all of my pecans for my pecan pies. ... Missouri pecans are the best," she said.
Fain said there are several pecan farms in the general area of the one she frequents, King Hill Farms, located at 22842 Highway 24 near Brunswick, Missouri. Fain also said she gets her apples in the fall at Peters Orchards and Market, located at 32651 on Highway 65 near Waverly, Missouri.
Fain instructs people new to baking to start by simply trying different things. She said that even if someone doesn't have time to make everything from scratch, they can still buy cookie dough or refrigerated pie crusts to fill before baking in the oven. The critical thing, she said, is to actually bake something.
"I always tell (my grandchildren), their children will remember that — taking cookies or something out of the oven that was baked in the oven. To me, that's important," she said.
Fain said that while she has baked with and taught her family to make pies and other treats in the past, now she usually prepares them ahead of time so that the pies have time to cool.
"I bake it ahead, the day before. Because when our family gathers, we gather for lunch, so you wouldn't have time. ... And then, they just come and eat it," she said.
A few apples from Fain's family tree
Fain and her husband of 64 years, Willard — deemed "the pie tester" — have four daughters, 10 grandchildren and soon-to-be 15 great-grandchildren. While the entire family is fond of her baking, Fain said her grandson Graydon Schmidt of Atlantic in particular expects to find her delicious desserts whenever the family has a gathering.
"If any of the kids or grandkids are coming, I always bake pie. I have, especially one grandson, who always expects pecan pie because that's his favorite, so I'm always sure he has pecan," she said.
Schmidt said that his grandmother's pecan pie is the one the family competes for most.
"Anytime she makes pecan pie it's about a family fight, because we wrestle for it every time she makes some," he said.
Fain said it is a pet peeve of hers when someone from her family tries to eat a piece of a pie with their hands. Her daughter, Juliann Sinn, recalled witnessing the consequences of not using a fork.
"One year, my brother-in-law thought he was going to be really funny and take a bite of pumpkin pie with whipped cream on it. Oh, mom caught him starting to and she went like that — and his head went into the whipped cream — and we all just died laughing," Sinn said.
Schmidt spoke of experiencing the fork and plate rule, as well.
"If you ever got caught eating a piece of pecan pie with your hands, like just picking it up and eating it like a bar, she'd just take your hand and just shove it in your face," he said.
Fain and Sinn reminisced on the playful family interactions together.
"And they all, of course, think it's hilarious to try to get me to see that they're going to do that," Fain said.
Fain has fond memories of teaching her grandchildren how to bake.
"I used to, if I was there to babysit with them when their parents were gone, I would show them how to bake pies and stuff. ... I would go down a day or two before their county fair and I would help them make something to enter in their 4-H fair. And I did that for several years. And I even made Graydon make a pie one time," she said.
Rachel Wallace, Sinn's daughter and Fain's granddaughter, said she was perhaps five or six-years-old when she recalls watching and assisting her grandmother make pie crust.
"I remember watching her bake in my earliest memories of going to my grandma's house. ... I remember she would make the pie crust and then she would let us butter it and then cut it in strips and put cinnamon sugar on it, and that was suppose to be our child version of helping and making pie," she said.
Although her grandmother had taught her to make many other things as well, Wallace said it was around seventh or eighth grade when she first made a pie on her own.
"It was a peach pie, and I called her about a hundred times throughout the process. And it turned out really good and I was so proud," she said.
Wallace, with her grandmother's encouragement, later starting entering her pies at the Union and Adair county fairs.
"I always got blues, but one year I got "People's Choice Award" where they vote for like their favorite thing, and I know that she just had all of her friends voting for my pie just because she was proud. ... It was very sweet, she was just so excited," she said.
Wallace said she would like to pass the baking skills she learned from her grandmother on to her own children — Reese, 3, and five-month-old Lincoln — when they are ready to learn.
"Reese is already very excited, (she) loves to watch mommy bake. We have not conquered any pies yet ... but someday, when she's a little bit older, we'll make one together," she said.
Wallace said her grandmother would give her tips and tricks on why things would sometimes go awry with her baking as she learned, and that the pair would go to the Union County Fair if they had both entered pies, sit together and watch the judging process unfold throughout the day.
"It was always fun," Wallace said. "... She's just the best."
Wallace said she is by no means the only grandchild of Fain's who has had baking wisdom passed down to them. In fact, she said it is more like a tradition that her grandmother wishes to pass down to all her loved ones.
"It's kind of a cute tradition that she does, every time one of the grandkids gets married, she gets them a KitchenAid mixer. That just tells you right there, baking is number one priority for grandma," she said.
Schmidt said his grandmother really has a knack for baking.
"She doesn't do anything from the box, I'll tell you that. ... She's probably one of the best around, she's got a lot of awards," he said.
Fain said for her, the occasions on which she makes things for her family is also special to her for the purpose of giving them memories.
"To me, especially at my age, I guess to cook anything for the family or pies or anything, it's because I want them to remember — that I guess, is my favorite thing. That they remember that grandma or mom made this for me," she said.