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Tucson baker's birthday bonanza: 52 pies for dad
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Tucson baker's birthday bonanza: 52 pies for dad

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Harriet Monroe is the best kind of gift giver.

She didn’t just bake a pie for her father’s 90th birthday. She promised to bake him a different kind each week for a year.

Before she undertook this long — but tasty — task, Kenneth Monroe always said that apple pie was his favorite, much to his daughter’s chagrin. Ever the food experimenter, she believes that “there’s more to life than apple pie.”

Monroe chronicles her weekly pie-ventures on her blog, “The Year of Pie,” and what she creates doesn’t always fit within the traditional bounds of apple pie-dom.

“For me, a pie is anything with a crust and a filling,” Monroe says. “It’s pizza, it’s pot stickers, it’s savory, sweet, anything.”

After 18 different pies, and despite her best efforts, apple is still her father’s favorite. “The way she makes it is just delicious,” he says in a phone interview.

On a recent Sunday — Sundays are her baking day — Monroe donned a classic white apron and set out to make a fruit and cheese brûlée pizza.

Her kitchen is small, but is it amazing what she can do in it. The limited space does not confine her as she whirls among the oven, sink and KitchenAid, all within a couple feet of one other.

One window, perched above the sink, lets light into the room, washing over Monroe as she demonstrates the proper way to roll out pizza dough — not with a rolling pin, she notes. Because the low ceiling doesn’t allow for her to throw the dough into the air, she settles with teasing the dough open with her hands.

When it’s finally time for the pizza and all its unconventional toppings to go into the oven, Monroe leaves the door open and crouches down in the only open floor space to watch, periodically rotating her creation to make sure all the sugar properly caramelizes.

While the end result is novel and enticing, it is the baker who commands attention.

Constantly redefining what exactly it means to be a pie, the 58-year-old Monroe herself is an enigma. If she were a recipe, she would be a traditional white bread, but with some vodka and rainbow sprinkles swirled into the mix — and then flambéed.

White bread — Monroe’s earliest cooking memory is of her grandmother.

“Whenever I visited her house, that’s where we ended up, in the kitchen,” Monroe remembers. “She would stand me up on a stepstool and wrap me in a gigantic white apron, and I would ‘help.’”

Often, Monroe would end up at her grandmother’s house on bread-baking day and spend the afternoon making dough in what Monroe calls “the most fabulous kitchen.”

Those days have since inspired Monroe, as her grandmother’s white bread recipe is a “bulletproof” one that she builds off of to create things like pizza dough and sticky buns.

Just as her grandmother’s recipes are the foundation of many of Monroe’s own creations, the time they spent cooking together is when her love for the craft grew.

After earning a degree in photography, an MBA, and spending nearly a decade raising money for several nonprofit organizations back east, Monroe realized she was making everyone else’s dreams come true except for her own.

She decided a career change was in order.

“I didn’t know until much later in my life that I wanted food to be the focus of my creative work,” Monroe says. “But I always knew I was happy when I was in my grandmother’s kitchen.”

Vodka — Monroe isn’t just a simple home chef; she has a deep understanding of food.

At 36, she attended the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, and has worked in restaurants on both the East and West Coasts. When Monroe’s parents moved to Arizona to retire, she followed them. She started and ran her own personal chef service for the elderly in Green Valley from 1999 to 2006.

“Then I decided that cooking in a commercial kitchen was for younger people than me,” Monroe says laughing, as she recalls when she decided to leave the professional chef world behind.

One thing she misses from her commercial cooking days is the space a kitchen provides and all the fun gadgets that come with it. Nevertheless, Monroe has built up her own impressive collection of tools, neatly organized on a tiered metal rack that takes up about a quarter of her tiny kitchen.

Monroe almost dances around her kitchen, navigating the small space with ease. She is happy to have help while she cooks, and laughs as she illustrates how to use a food processor. She takes delight in teaching the basics.

It is important to Monroe to encourage people to cook for themselves, which is one of the reasons she focuses on writing. Along with her “Year of Pie” blog, she has self-published a cookbook, “Grandma’s Home Bakery.”

She knows her stuff, and surprises with her scientific knowledge of her cooking process — like adding vodka to her pie dough, a secret she learned from another chef. Monroe explains that vodka serves to moisten dough, but doesn’t activate the gluten in the flour the way water does. By using alcohol, you can avoid creating gluten strands that cause dough to be too elastic and become frustrating to roll out.

“One of the things that training as a professional chef does for you is it puts a lot of resources in the back of your mind,” Monroe says. “I don’t need to go look for a recipe; I can just do it.”

Rainbow Sprinkles — Cooking is just like any other art; it’s a creative process that requires imagination and courage. This creativity is what draws Monroe back to recipes, questioning how she can make things better and add a little bit of herself to everything she makes.

Her process? “It just sort of comes,” Monroe says. “If I have to bake a chocolate pie, I think, ‘What would I like in my chocolate pie? Oh, I like raspberries!’”

Monroe creates and tweaks recipes based on what she enjoys and wants to eat, and always has to sprinkle in her personality to each and every culinary creation, in part to help keep herself interested in cooking.

“I think the hardest thing for people who are responsible for putting food on the table every night is boredom,” Monroe says.

She says she, too, falls into cooking ruts and ends up making the same meals on repeat. By challenging herself to reinvent recipes, Monroe continues to churn out delicious food and remain interested in cooking.

Flambéed — The best quality that a chef can have, Monroe says, is fearlessness. And that means when she goes out on a limb to try something new with a recipe, sometimes it crashes and burns — literally.

Monroe’s first pie fatality occurred when she tried to recreate her grandmother’s classic French lemon meringue pie, and it caught on fire in the oven.

“Just because you’re trained professionally doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes, or that things always turn out well,” Monroe says. “It just means you don’t panic.”

But extra-crispy pie will not stop Monroe; if anything, it fuels her to keep cooking and improving, and she wants every aspiring chef to know that it’s OK to mess up and charbroil your food every once in a while.

“Make something else,” Monroe advises. “Start over. Or maybe half of it is still good, and use it in something else.”

Mistakes (and burns) are just part of the cooking process, says Monroe, whose forearms are dotted with white scars. Despite food failures and injuries, she’ll always keep doing what she loves, and has loved since she was a little girl baking white bread with her grandmother.

“Cooking is ‘it,’” Monroe says. “It’s where my heart is.”

Elizabeth Eaton is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing at the Star

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