Dec 5, 2008
Pie and the meaning of life
Pie is important. For Americans in particular, the cultural meaning of pie wraps up family, country, tradition and even patriotism (the good kind, not the Patriot Act kind). And, of course, a well-made pie is absolutely delicious.
I have always loved pie. I think my grandmother might have baked one or two when I was a kid, but usually when growing up I was treated to the frozen Mrs. Smith’s variety. People sometimes scoff at Mrs. Smith, but seriously, if you are capable of baking this frozen pie correctly, it is quite tasty enough. Especially for breakfast the morning after.
However, I truly discovered my love for pie while reading American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) From America’s Back Roads by Pascale Le Draolec, in which the author drives across the United States trying out pies. That book contained the best instructions for making pie crust (outside of Joy of Cooking) I have ever read — and it inspired me to make the apple-blueberry pie the author encounters during her trip.
The book, in fact, inspired me to make pie, period. I love to cook, but before reading this book I hadn’t tried making a pastry crust before, because it just sounds so intimidating. And you know that a badly made crust ruins the whole thing. However, since I love a challenge, and I love a good pie, I decided to give it a go. The first pie I ever made was all wrong — the kitchen was too hot; I didn’t know how to roll out the crust; I might even have put too much sugar in. But each time I made a pie I learned a little bit, and now pie-making is one of my favorite things to do.
I don’t do it too often, though, because pies are special. I bake a pie a few times a year for special occasions only — Thanksgiving, for example. Or one year I made a Pride pie because I felt really lonely and single, and I invited all my friends over to eat a strawberry pie filled with amazing, plump local strawberries. It cheered me up! I’ve even made a pie for camping, because I love camping, and eating pie in the woods is an experience everyone should have.
Most recently, I made a Thankful pie while I was in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving. It was a little odd to be baking a pie in the condo — and I had to bring my pastry cutter with me on the plane and hope that nobody would think it was a weapon (they didn’t) — but it turned out well despite my initial misgivings. And the thing is, when baking a pie one must always be calm; if you’re anxious or moody, the crust is liable to get messed up. This is not really a superstitious belief; it’s because when you’re nervous, you can’t pay attention to what you’re doing, and you’ll probably move rolling pin too quickly and rip the dough, or forget how much ice water you’ve put in.
So the first lesson of pie-making is: Pay attention. The second lesson is: Relax. In a way, making a pie is a lot like meditation, at least for me. Now, I’m not going to list out the entire recipe, because I just use the Joy of Cooking (the All New, All Purpose edition) recipe for Flaky Pastry Dough. I think this is the best crust recipe you’ll ever find. But I will tell you what I have learned to help make the pie-making easier.
(Tips plus mouth-watering pie photos after the jump!)
- Bake the pie in the morning, first thing. This is partly superstition, but also partly because the pie must cool for four hours after it comes out of the oven before it has set properly. So if you bake it in the morning, it’ll give you enough time for it to cool down.
- Use half-butter, half-shortening. Yes, Crisco. The shortening serves as a substitute for lard, and it makes a very flaky crust. If you make an all-butter crust, it will actually not be as flaky. I’m serious. If I ever have the opportunity to use real, pure lard (not the preserved kind in the grocery store with lots of chemicals), hell yeah I’ll do it.
- You must use ice water. Like put some ice in a cup and pour cold water over it, and let it get really really icy cold before you use it.
- Do not handle the dough too much. Touch it only enough to form it into balls, and then squish the balls together by wrapping them securely in plastic wrap and chilling them in the refrigerator.
- Chilling in the refrigerator is another key to making the crust flaky. After the dough has been formed, it chills for 30 minutes. After you roll out the crusts, they chill for 30 minutes. It takes some time. During this time, you can think about how delicious the pie will taste and how lovely it is that you have this wide-open morning to make it.
- When rolling out the crust, put the dough between two sheets of wax paper. This allows you to avoid using extra flour (which would make the crust really, um, floury), and the wax paper helps to keep the dough together. I know it’s cheating, but it works like a dream. You will see that even when you use wax paper, the dough (which you have not kneaded or touched except as little as necessary) will have a tendency to split apart in areas and crumble at the edges. I do lift the top sheet of wax paper from time to time and carefully stick it back together. It hasn’t done any harm.
- Also, when rolling out the crust I find it helpful to listen to something inspiring and ultimately positive. I like Patty Griffin or Jill Scott for this. They are both complicated but simple, if you know what I mean. And so is pie. But really, you should just be listening to something that makes you feel good and allows you to focus on the pie.
- If you’re making an apple pie, I suggest using a combination of Fuji and Gala apples, not Granny Smith. I got this tip from Joy, and the Fuji and Gala apples cook up really nicely without turning to mush.
- When you make the filling, taste the fruit before you add sugar. If the fruit is sweet enough, don’t add as much sugar as the recipe requires.
When you have rolled out the crust and filled it (follow the instructions in Joy — there’s even an illustration), it should look like this:
The only last tip is to actually let it rest for four hours (OK, three will do in a pinch) so that the filling is set. If it’s cold by the time you’re ready to eat it, you can reheat it in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes. And adding vanilla ice cream doesn’t hurt.
Here’s the pie I made just after it came out of the oven:
And my favorite photo of the pie:
And the glistening interior:
Damn, I’m hungry now. Bon appetit!
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