Americans are a pie loving people. It’s part of the American myth to say that something is “as American as apple pie.” But pie is Protean. It’s pretty and geometric. A perfect circle. It’s used in math for fractions: “We can all share a piece of the pie.”
And there are also all the sayings about pie: “Fractions are as easy as pie.” To a busy body or someone who is involved in too many things we might say: “She has her finger in every pie.” We do pie charts (which we flesh out in next week's blog), and use the term “pie in the sky” referring to someone’s fantasy.
But let’s get down to the basics, pie is simply delicious. Now, with winter celebrations upon us, pie is once again front and center. Today’s pie bakers can find themselves treating the season as evidence of our home baking prowess and proof to ourselves and others that ours is indeed a wonderful life. Truth be told, any way you slice it, making a pie from scratch—especially the crust—for some like me can be a challenge. Mess it up? You might eat humble pie.
Back in the day, our grandmothers unhurriedly flipped through Ladies’ Home Journal to update their pie recipes. They prepped their pies and voila! As perfect as pie. And if not, so what! We’re the ones who have made it complicated.
Here’s why I think. Pie making is basically a controlled process directed down to every minute detail. There are those cooks, however, who will not follow a recipe to the letter, believing that slavishly following directions is an implicit admission that you cannot really cook. In baking, a little of this and a dash of that is not usually an option.
After Barbara sent me a book, “The Pie Project” by Phoebe Wood and Kirsten Jenkins, because I said I wanted to learn to perfect this skill, I didn’t realize there were so many kinds of pies and different techniques. In order to get cooking, I found online a pie making class in my community and signed up thinking it would be a fast, fun and tasty way for me to get pie on the table in one piece.
So on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I strolled into the class. Also taking the class were a mother and daughter, a mother and son, a couple recently engaged, a young man who was a junior in college, and some single women like me of various ages. We were put in pairs—my pie-baking partner was a young woman. We are both chocoholics and were assigned to make a chocolate cream pie. Others made apple, concord grape, plum, and maple nut cider pie.
The class kicked off with a group piecrust-making activity where we solved the problem of crumbly or sticky pie crust. The instructor made a few simple suggestions, gave us some tweaks, and was reassuring and kind. Recipe follows.
After the two-hour experience of rolling, mixing, beating and baking, we clutched the hot pies with our oven mitts for the “ah ha” moment and dug in. The hot pies were steaming and juicy. Our cold pie provided great cold comfort food. When asked for honest reactions to our culinary accomplishments, some groused about too much liquid in some of the pies. In reality, since the pies had just come out of the oven, there was insufficient time to let them cool down. Overall, everyone acknowledged that the pies were ably cooked and each had a delicious flaky crust.
What did I learn? Once I wrested a measure of control over the crust, the rest fell into place. I learned also that in the quest to make the occasional camera ready treat, we can lose sight of the fact that taste is more important than perfect. Whether your crust crumbles or the pie caves, laugh and enjoy. And keep this in mind as well, pie making doesn’t have to be backbreaking or stressful. It is so much better when it’s not.
Perfect Pie Crust
2 cups flour
1/4th teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
8 tablespoons butter
8 tablespoons Crisco shortening
Ice water as needed, about 2-4 tablespoons
Tips to make piecrust with you hands:
- Cold dough. Use cold butter, ice water and refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes before rolling. Do not leave the dough out on the countertop.
- Bigger chunks of fat. Cut the fat only until the pieces are dime-sized not pebbles because the visible chunks of cold fat will pop in the hot oven and produce a flaky pastry. The dough should look marbleized with fat.
- Equal parts of butter and shortening. Butter is used for taste and flakiness and shortening for tenderness.
- Don’t over handle the dough. Kneading toughens the crust and your hands will make the dough hot. You want it cold. Also, a messy dough (crumbles and all) will bake into a better tasting crust.
- 5. Just enough water. Too much water produces a wet dough, which will require more flour to roll out. Better to leave a few dry crumbs in the bottom of the bowl than adding more water. Then put into a ball—and there will be crumbles— wrap in a plastic wrap packet and refrigerate.
- Flour does not add flavor. It actually takes away the flavor and will overpower the flavor of the fat. Make sure the dough is cold and do use plenty of flour when rolling out the dough—which you do in only one direction—and then turn the dough and roll in that same direction. Brush off excess flour before gingerly fitting the dough into the pie plate. Tuck the crust on the edge under and then crimp the crust. Do an egg wash—egg and water--if you wish the crust to turn a golden brown.