At bake sale fundraisers, people are always amazed when I bring in a homemade pie. Among the 37 different brownie batches, 42 different batches of chocolate chip cookies, and one unloved dozen oatmeal-raisin cookies, my pie sits, redolent of cherries and almonds. It's gone within 10 minutes. "How do you do it?" they all ask, because somehow, the art of making a pie has become lost in this country, along with our ability to manufacture our own steel and make our own clothes. I protest, "But pies are easy -- easy as pie. You make a crust, you add some filling, maybe you add a topping, you bake it 'til it's done."
Oh, but I can't make pie! they cry. Yes, you can! Oh, but store-bought pie crust is better than anything I'll ever make! they whine. No, it isn't!
Just in time for National Pie Day (and please note that there is no National Cake Day), on January 23, what's cooking for dinner is...PIE!
I. Some Pie Terminology and Philosophy
The French make tarts, and the English make puddings, but this diary is as American as apple pie. A pie has a bottom crust, a filling, and sometimes a top crust or other topping. The crust is, at its simplest, flour and a fat such as butter. A crisp is a bottomless pie with a streusel top (and the lowest in calories of all the pie variations); a cobbler is a bottomless pie with a biscuit-style top; slumps, grunts, and buckles are all old-fashioned American desserts related in varying degrees to pie, not references to your 401(k). The bottom crust is always baked in an oven, usually -- but not always -- after the filling is assembled and inside the pie.
Although pies have fallen victim to economies of scale, they are still less expensive when made by hand. A pre-made pie crust might cost $2.50 at the supermarket; pre-made frozen pie is $5. A pie crust by hand might cost sixty cents (50 cents per stick of butter, plus nominal costs for flour when bought in 50 lb sacks at Costco).
A pie pan is either "regular," about 1 inch high, in which case it will hold about 2 to 3 cups of filling, or it is "deep dish," in which case it will hold about 4 to 6 cups of filling.
And a pie recipe will either be exacting and persnickety, or it will be like mine. Pie making is a Zen process. It cannot be read about, and it does not lend itself to precision. It must be experienced in the Here and Now. Put your laptop in the kitchen, gather your ingredients, wear something flour-colored, and let's begin!
II. Crusts are Easy!
First, RELAX. Your first crust might not be perfect, but it will be made with your heart. Your second pie crust will be even better. Here's a pie-making song from a pie-making movie for inspiration:
Take one cup of flour and put it in a a food processor, a bowl, or on your countertop. To this add 1 tsp to 2 Tbsp sugar for a dessert pie (omit the sugar if making a crust for a savory pie such as quiche). Usually 1 tsp salt is called for, although if I'm using salted butter I will cut the salt down to 1/4 tsp.
Now, add the shortening, as follows. I use 1 stick of cold butter. Do NOT use margarine! Do not use fake food! Some people will use mixture of 1/2 butter and 1/2 lard (Crisco), although I don't cook with lard.
--In a food processor: cut the stick of butter into chunks, add to food processor bowl, and pulse about 5 to 10 pulses until the butter has been cut into small crumbly bits. Then, with the machine running, add 1 Tbsp of water and process for about 1 minute. If you process it for too long, about 1 minute and 1 second according to Murphy's Law of Piemaking, the dough will all clump together into one doughy ball. Try to stop processing just a few seconds before it gets to the one lump phase, while it's still in the several-lumps-plus-some-floury-bits-on-the-bottom phase. (If you got to the one lump phase, no worries! It won't be quite as flakey, but that's okay.) Remove, smushing the dough into one flattened ball, and refrigerate while you assemble the filling ingredients. Don't worry if you can still see tiny bits of butter, as that will give the crust a desired flakiness.
--By hand: Put the flour into a bowl (or dump it out on to your clean marble countertop if in Europe). Again, cut the stick of butter into chunks. Then mash it into the flour using either a D-shaped pastry cutter or a sturdy metal fork. Again, keep at this until the butter is in small crumbly bits. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp water over the flour-butter mixture, stir and smush together to make one doughy flattened ball, and refrigerate.
Pie dough is stiff. If it's completely impossible to get it to hold together, you may add up to 1 Tbsp more water, but no more than that. The temptation is to add more water (some recipes call for an egg yolk). Resist that temptation, or suffer the consequences later.
Pie dough should be crumbly, but not too crumbly. When you have the right consistency, you can pick up a chunk lightly and it will crumble, but will hold together if you apply pressure by pinching and squishing the same chunk. Picture of crumbly pie dough:
Picture shows same pie dough after smushed with palm of hand:
Yay! You have made a single crust pie shell! To make a double pie crust, engage in a simple bit of arithmetic, e.g., 1 cup flour + 1 more cup flour = __ cups flour? However, read below before committing to a double crust.
III. A Sampler of Fillings
I can't possibly give all the recipes for all the pies that ever were, but here's a few favorites.
A. Berry Pie: traditional double crust pie
Use 4 to 5 cups berries: raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and/or pitted cherries, in fact anything except strawberries, in any proportion that you like. Frozen berries are okay if thawed and drained well; canned "pie filling" should be avoided at all costs.Put this mixture into the pie crust, and top with a second crust, a lattice, or (my favorite) a streusel topping. Bake at 350 degrees until the pie berries are bubbling-boiling-hot, and the crust is browning, usually about 40 minutes.
Add 1/4 C. to 1/2 C. sugar, depending on the sweetness of the berries; 2 Tbsp flour; and seasonings (immediately below) and stir to coat each piece of fruit, more or less.
If you like, to spice it up, add 1 tsp. lemon juice (if the fruit tastes blah), OR 1 tsp cinnamon, OR 1/2 tsp real almond extract (do not use artificial almond extract! no fake food!) OR 2 Tbsp Amaretto, OR 2 Tbsp Grand Marnier, but not all of those at once, please.
B. Light and Dark Versions of Pecan Pie: traditional single crust pie
The Light version is taken straight from the Karo bottle:
1 C. light corn syrupIt's very sweet. I like the dark version, which is also sweet but has complexity and depth of flavor. Use the Karo recipe with one or all of the following changes:
1 C. sugar
2 Tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla
Mix all of these together, then add:
1 1/2 C. pecans, stir, and put in deep dish pie pan.
Toast the pecans for 10 minutes in the oven or in a pan to bring out the flavor of the nuts.Use a deep dish pie pan (or cut the recipe down by 1/3), and don't fill all the way to the brim. This pie does not need a second crust. It's baked about 30 to 40 minutes at 350 degrees, or until the filling takes on a semi-solid Jello-y quality.
Use dark (blue label) Karo, not light (red label) Karo -- blue is better than red, which is easy for Kossacks to remember.
Use brown sugar instead of white.
Add 2 Tbsp Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur) or bourbon instead of 1 tsp vanilla.
C. Fresh Fruit Pie : easy, fast, best for showing off pretty summer fruit
First, bake the pie crust "blind" (empty, without any filling) for about 15 minutes until it starts to brown. After it's cooled down, spread about 1/2 C. lemon curd thinly around the bottom of the crust (buy lemon curd in a jar if you really want to make it fast); or, your favorite flavor jam, jelly, or preserves; or anything with a jammy texture that strikes your fancy, such as Nutella or chocolate sauce. Fill with fresh fruit such as strawberries and nectarines. These are only examples; you can use anything you like, as long as it's not too runny (watermelon) or too large and crunchy (apple slices). Top, if you want, by dusting lightly with a bit of powdered sugar or brushing with melted apple jelly.
IV. Let's Roll
If the dough has been refrigerated for a long time, let it sit out for a few minutes. Roll it out 2 inches larger than your pie pan. If you don't have a rolling pin, you can use any smooth cylinder such as a wine bottle, tall glass, or soup can. Dust flour liberally on the rolling pin and the underside of the pie dough to keep the pie dough from sticking. Again, rolling out pie dough is an experience, not an essay, so get your hands dusty and dive in!
If your dough is very soft and sticky (you added too much water, didn't you? I told you to resist, but no, you didn't listen!), you will have to make a press-in pie dough. Press it in with your fingers, making sure to repair holes and cracks.
V. The Upper Crust
I'm not a fan of classic double crust pies, although I can make them if needed.
Getting the second crust centered neatly on top of the first requires a bit more coordination than I have and a bit more calories than I need. So, here are some easy alternatives.
You can bake a single crust pie such as pecan pie.
You can roll out a lattice: about 6 to 10 strips. Lay 3 to 5 strips east-to-west and 3 to 5 strips north-to-south. (This is NOT an easy alternative.)
An impressive-looking, but easy, alternative to a lattice is to roll out dough and use small cookie cutters to make shapes placed artistically, or autistically as the case may be, the filling, like this.
You can make a rustic pie by making a very big dough circle (12"); put this on a cookie sheet and fill only to 8", then fold the edges over so that some of the fruit filling shows in the center. This is best with relatively firm fruit, such as apples; berries will pop, the juices will run, and your crust will be a soggy disaster.
You can make a streusel (not strudel) topping.
1/4 C. white sugarFor further reference, I recommend the aptly named Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum (she has persnickety measurements, which are good for beginners) and the Joy of Cooking, 1973 edition.
1/4 C. brown sugar
1/2 C. flour
1 tsp cinnamon; also, if you like, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/2 tsp allspice, and/or 1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 C. nuts such as pecans, walnuts, or almonds (this is controversial)
Mix all together in food processor, then add 1/4 C. to 1/2 C. (one-half stick to one stick) cold butter and continue mixing until the streusel has the consistency of brown sugar. Cover pie completely with this mixture. You should have little nooks, crannies, and crumbs.
Some choices in one's life may seem easy on the surface, but they are indicative of profound and deeply held values: Democrat or Republican...ninja or pirate...pie or cake. Enjoy!
UPDATED: WOW! Pie is on the rec list! thank you!