Sometime between 6:30 and 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning this month, a home-made freshly baked apple brown butter rosemary pie materialized in the back room of Print, a bookstore on Congress Street in Portland, one slice neatly removed.

This was not the first, or second or even 20th time “the pie fairy,” as he jokingly referred to himself, has struck. For several years now, bookstore staff have been feted, make that feasted, with plum pies, marshmallow pies, blueberry pies, mac and cheese pies, Earl Grey and lavender pies, crabapple pies, and many more of all sorts, barely a repeat among them.  

Unlike the city’s much loved Valentine’s bandit, the identity of the pie baker is no secret. When he is not selling books, writing for magazines and newspapers (including this one), schussing down the hill at Sunday River or chronicling the state’s vibrant craft beer scene on Instagram or in a book, Josh Christie, who co-owns Print with business partner Emily Russo, bakes pie from scratch, from the crust up. Lucky employees, friends, his girlfriend, family and bookstore customers number among his pie beneficiaries.

Christie picked up his “hobby” – he uses that word warily, with equal parts intention and anxiety – sometime in 2018 when he brought home a dented, unsellable copy (“donate or destroy” in publisher speak) of Kate McDermott’s “Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Homemade Crusts, Fillings, and Life.”

The son of two excellent cooks, including his dad, New England ski legend John Christie; the grandson of a lifelong elementary school lunch lady who effortlessly did “everything” in the kitchen – Christie snaps his fingers for emphasis; and an avid cook himself, Christie flipped through the cookbook, selected a recipe, and baked a pie, possibly a triple berry pie. His recollection is hazy.

And so it began.

PIE PACE 

It was not his first venture into baking. Pre-pie, Christie had taken a deep dive into sourdough bread and had dabbled in cakes and cookies. But more than these, pie-baking has insinuated itself into his daily life. It’s become a once or twice weekly habit – the pace picking up a little during the pandemic – even a ritual of sorts. Evenings after work and sometimes on days off, he comes home and makes the crust, letting it chill while he eats dinner or checks email. After dinner, he makes the filling, assembles the pie and bakes it. “Especially at this time of the year, it’s so lovely having pie in the oven baking – it smells amazing – sort of like a fire in the fire place,” he said. While Christie sleeps, the pie cools.

Early the next morning, he slices off a piece for breakfast and makes himself a cup of coffee.

“I am 100 percent a pie-for-breakfast advocate. I don’t think there is a pie that doesn’t go well with coffee,” he said. “If there is, I haven’t had it yet.”

Then he drives the pie to work, stylishly encased in “an aesthetically very pleasing” pie basket “that is just the right size for carrying a pie,” a gift from a friend. To bake the apple brown butter rosemary pie, Christie, too, is stylishly dressed, sporting a pink, button-down shirt; green pants; a handsome yet sturdy blue-and-white stripped apron; and snappy, color-blocked low-top sneakers.

Baking pie is how Christie, who says he is genetically incapable of slowing down – bear in mind, his dad was a ski racer – makes himself brake.

“I tend to be a workaholic, and even outside of work, I’m always moving,” Christie said while deftly rolling crust and slicing apples. “With baking pie, there are parts that you are just forced to slow down. You have to chill the crust. You have to put in the filling and chill the whole thing in the fridge before you put it in the oven. If you’ve ever made a fruit pie, I’ve learned – I’m still not great at this – but I’ve learned if you cut it open too early, it’s super runny. You have to give it time to set up. That all forces me to slow down and be a little more thoughtful. There is no way to cheat that stuff.”

He has mulled over the same idea on his Instagram account, which is filled with luscious pictures he has taken of luscious pies he has baked interspersed with photos of beer and skiing. On May 11, 2020, Christie posted, “PIE. Not sure exactly when baking became my preferred form of meditation, but I’m glad for a habit that forces me to slow down and be intentional almost every day. (Eventually I’ll get there with my crimping.)”

For the same reason, also for the sheer tactile pleasure of it, Christie makes his dough by hand, eschewing a processor in favor of a pastry cutter (an old-fashioned implement that cuts the butter and shortening into the flour for a crust), a fork, and his own two hands. “If I have both my hands in a bowl of pie dough, I can’t be looking at my phone,” he said. The pie-baking process forces him to disconnect.

In September, Christie, a 2007 political science graduate of the University of Maine, posted a video on Twitter that shows him making crust, the part of pie-making that strikes fear into the heart of many a would-be baker. Though the action is speeded up, the process somehow feels slowed down, and the video is mesmerizing. Maybe it’s the mellow mood transmitted by the smooth jazz he’s set it to. Or is it the quiet confidence with which he mixes the dough?

“Doing it this often I’ve probably reached my 10,000 hours or whatever it is that (‘Outliers’ author) Malcolm Gladwell says it takes.” Christie’s standby pie crust is a McDermott recipe. He has it memorized: “363 grams of flour, 3 grams of salt …” he ticked it off. He says it took him about six months of one to two pies a week to get to this place. “I can tell with my hands when it is coming together correctly. It’s a very satisfying feeling. You feel it in your bones.”

“Competence is greatly underrated,” said Christie, who worked for Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop for a decade before launching Print. “Feeling competent when doing something is very satisfying.”

What makes a good pie baker? “Patience and persistence,” Christie said.

Josh Christie adds brown butter to the filling for his apple pie. The butter will add nutty depth to the pie. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

THE RIGHT STUFF

Christie is not a fussy pie baker. He uses bottled lemon juice for his apple pie. It’s convenient, he said. If he needs to reheat a slice of pie, he puts it in the microwave and programs the appliance for 20 seconds. “It’s OK to nuke a pie,” he said. He uses shortening in the crust, not leaf lard, which is popular among some studiously farm-to-table bakers, because he rarely has lard in his kitchen.

He’s not judgy, either. Although he always makes his own pie crust, he’s perfectly fine with store-bought. “Oh it’s great!” he said with real enthusiasm. “I hardly ever use it but I have no problem with it.” For butter, he leans toward Cabot, but he’s not militant. He has noticed that Trader Joe’s has started selling jarred brown butter. “I’m not going to get it,” said Christie, who likes the process of browning butter on the stovetop, “but I’m glad it exists.”

“I like to use local stuff and organic ingredients as much as possible, but I’m certainly not precious about it. I don’t think you need it for a good pie.”

That said, there are two ingredients he is adamant about:

1. King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, which many bakers swear by.

2. Apples from Sweetser’s Apple Barrel and Orchard in Cumberland, his favorite orchard in Maine. Among the reasons he likes it, the place sells heirloom apple varieties, “limited edition” apples which remind him of limited release beer. For the day’s apple pie, he has combined Sweet 16 and Blanchard Nonesuch, and intended to add chopped rosemary from the plant on his patio but forgot (a hazard of being observed while baking pie).

Christie is relaxed about equipment, too. He has a slim, French rolling pin that he bought in western Maine. He didn’t test out a dozen possible rolling pills for the perfect heft, weight, shape and length. The store had two; he went with the thinner one. His tapered rolling pin lets him adjust the pressure on his pie dough as he rolls it out. It doesn’t stay cold, as a marble rolling pin would, which some bakers prefer (heat is the enemy of good pie crust), but Christie solves that come summer by storing the pin, mixing bowl and flour in the fridge or freezer. Lakeside in Maine, at camps and cabins, he’s rolled out pie crusts with wine bottles.

A cranberry pie cools in the windowsill at Josh Christie’s home in Yarmouth. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

At home, he weighs his ingredients on a scale, and rolls out his crust on a big silicone baking mat with outlines of pie-sized circles so he can judge the size. He collects pie plates at thrift stores. A pretty pile of Pyrex and ceramic ones, both scalloped and smooth, are stacked atop the microwave, not far from the stack of his favorite pie cookbooks, and a cooling cranberry pie – the cranberries also from Sweetser’s – that he baked earlier that afternoon. It’s sitting in a kitchen windowsill. He put it there, he jokes, “to set the mood.”

Josh Christie measures his ingredients by weight, not volume. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

PERKS OF THE JOB

Some might call Christie self-taught. Neither his parents nor his grandmother regularly made pie. Except for two Zoom pie-making classes he sat in on during the pandemic, he has no formal training. But he considers cookbook writers his teachers, and he relies on them heavily, in part because he is not an intuitive baker. He is a recipe follower. “It’s just the type of person I am. It’s how I’m wired.”

He rarely consults the internet for recipes. He thinks we are in a “golden age of cookbooks,” so he has no shortage of great teachers. When evaluating a cookbook, he looks for good design, good photos and good recipes, but above all, “voicy-ness. If I like the voice of a baker, then I want to support them. The best way to directly support them is buying their cookbook.” Certain bakers come up again and again. “I keep mentioning them by name because they and their recipes and texts are in my head.”

Cookbooks sell well at Print. “It’s one of our biggest turn sections, ‘turn’ meaning fastest-selling,” he said, “which I blame on Portland being a really foodie town and our staff, not just me but our staff as well, really loving cookbooks and being able to sell them.”

For the pie books, anyway, it helps that they can rattle off particular pies from those books that they have baked, eaten and loved. Not infrequently, when a new baking book arrives at the store, Christie gets requests. Russo, his partner at Print, took an informal poll of the staff on a recent morning, asking for their “favorite Josh pie.” “Mac and cheese pie,” “cranberry pie,” the staff called out, “they are all winners.”

Pie is a perk for the employees. “In addition to health insurance and staff discount, Josh frequently brings in pie,” Russo jokes that she tells potential employees. “We’ve had customers go in the back to get pie. I tell them, ‘It’s an employee benefit only,’ to which they’ve said, ‘Can I submit an application?’ ”

COMFORT AND JOY 

Every day without fail for the last four years, Christie and his best friend have texted each other a message in which they each list something they are grateful for that day. Small stuff, “like I made a pie that came out really well,” Christie said.

But the Christie family doesn’t make a big deal of Thanksgiving, the holiday dedicated to gratitude and – unless you count Washington’s birthday and cherry pie, and really who would? – the only American holiday with a dedicated pie. Christmas gets more of a splash in the family. “We are a winter people,” Christie said with a laugh. One strike against Thanksgiving: Christie has worked in retail for most of his adult life, and the day is inevitably followed by Black Friday.

But the family always gathers. This year’s guest list is small: his twin brother, his brother’s girlfriend, his own girlfriend and her dogs (including one named Penzey, after the spice company). There will be pie, perhaps quince pie baked by his brother’s partner with quinces from the brothers’ mom’s tree. Christie hasn’t yet settled on his contribution. It may be chiffon pumpkin pie, which he likes. It may be chocolate-caramel turtle pie, which he thinks his mom would like. Many families set out their greatest hits on the holiday table each year. Holidays are about traditions, after all. But Christie rarely repeats a recipe. “I am not really a re-reader, either,” he said. “I am always picking up the next book I am going to read.”

A piece of that is that the ever self-deprecating Christie doesn’t feel he’s mastered pie. There is more to learn, and he likes to learn. Unlike his other great loves – skiing, hiking, beer, which he often writes about – Christie is determined to keep pie-baking “as just a thing that’s for me, and a thing that I do for other people.” He doesn’t want to turn yet another avocation into a vocation. Even when he’s not on assignment, if he’s at a brewery, hiking or skiing, “1% of my brain is like, ‘What’s the angle on this? What’s the story?’ And it’s really hard to turn that off. I hear other people have hobbies, stuff they just do for fun? Maybe I should give that a try.” He laughed.

Christie began baking pie shortly after he was divorced. He doesn’t think he did it for solace, or because pie represented, metaphorically speaking, home, just as he was trying to establish a new one. He also firmly resists a comparison to the 2007 movie “Waitress,” in which actress Keri Russell bakes pies as a way to cope with an unhappy marriage. Instead, he brings up a poignant scene in the 2011 movie “Bridesmaids,” in which Kristen Wiig plays the best friend, a bridesmaid and also a cupcake baker.

“It’s beautifully shot, of her going through the process of making the cupcakes and obviously getting a lot of joy out of it,” Christie said. “Then it’s all done and she has just this one perfect cupcake, and there’s a beat the camera holds on it, and she basically stuffs it into her mouth. The scene is over and it speaks to … ,” he hesitates. “The process is the enjoyable part, for sure. Not that the pie isn’t great. That’s great, too. But there is so much joy that comes from the process.”

Joy is a strong word.

“I mean it. I’m grateful for it, which is another strong word. I’m grateful to have found this thing that slows me down, gives me pleasure, gives other people pleasure when I give the pie away.”

Josh Christie sprinkles rosemary over Apple Brown Butter Rosemary Pie before putting it into the oven. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

APPLE BROWN BUTTER ROSEMARY PIE

Recipe from “You Wanna Piece of Me?” by Jenell Parsons. Christie used a mix of heirloom apples, Sweet 16 and Blanchard Nonesuch, from Sweetser’s orchard in Cumberland. If you don’t have golden sugar, you can substitute light brown sugar.

Yields 1 pie 

1 double crust pie crust

1/2 cup butter

4 cups peeled and sliced (1/8th inch thick) Granny Smith apples

3 cups peeled and sliced (1/8th inch thick) Gala apples

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 tablespoon lemon zest

1/4 cup flour

1/4 cup golden sugar

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) chopped fresh rosemary (or 1½ teaspoons chopped dried rosemary)

Pinch salt

2 tablespoons cinnamon sugar, for sprinkling

Roll out the pie dough and place the bottom shell in a 9-inch pie plate. Chill.

To make the brown butter, in a small saucepan over medium heat, begin to melt the butter. Swirl the pan gently – there is no need to stir. Continue to cook until the butter starts to foam and turn brown and develops a nutty aroma. Remove from the heat and cool completely to room temperature.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the apples with the lemon juice and zest. Add the flour, sugars, nutmeg, cinnamon, rosemary (reserve a pinch for garnish), and salt, and use a spatula to toss until the apples are evenly coated.

Carefully pour the cooled brown butter over the apple mixture, leaving the dark fat in the pan, and stir to evenly coat.

Add the apple mixture to the pie shell and smooth it out to have a nice even top. Add the top crust, seal the shells together, and crimp. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and the reserved rosemary. Cut four 1-inch slits to vent the pie. Chill the pie for 30 minutes in the fridge or 15 minutes in the freezer before baking.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Place the pie on a baking sheet that you’ve first covered in parchment paper.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes until the top is golden brown, and the juices overflow and appear sticky. Cool completely before serving.

A slice of Josh Christie’s cranberry pie. Photo by Josh Christie

CRANBERRY PIE

Recipe from “Art of the Pie” by Kate McDermott.

Yields 1 pie

1 quart, about 4 cups, cranberries, fresh or unthawed frozen, divided

1¼ cups sugar

2½ teaspoons cornstarch

A pinch or small grating of freshly ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon fresh orange zest or 1 tablespoon orange liqueur

1/2 cup chopped walnuts, optional

1 double-crust pie dough

1 knob butter, the size of a small walnut, for dotting the top of the filling

1-2 teaspoons sugar for sprinkling on top of the pie

Egg wash:

1 egg white, plus 1 tablespoon water, fork beaten

Place 3 cups of the cranberries in a food processor and pulse until they are slightly chopped. In a medium bowl, place the chopped and remaining whole cranberries, sugar, cornstarch, nutmeg, salt, zest or liqueur and optional walnuts, and mix well.

In a pie plate lined with an unbaked pie dough, pour in the cranberry filling and dot with butter.

Roll out the remaining dough. Lay it over the fruit and cut 5 to 6 vents on top, or cut strips to make a lattice top. Trim excess dough from edges and crimp.

Chill the pie for a minimum of 1 hour before baking.

Lightly brush some of the egg wash over the entire pie, including the edges.

In an oven preheated to 375 degrees F, bake on the middle rack for about 40 minutes. When there are about 10 minutes of bake time left, open the oven, pull the pie out and quickly and evenly sprinkle the top of the pie with sugar. Close the oven and bake until the crust is just golden, or until you see a steady bubbling coming out between the vents.

Remove the pie from the oven and cool completely before serving.


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