Thanksgiving is prime pie time. Some cooks might argue that summer pies, overflowing with glowing fresh fruit, are the true beauty pageant winners. But who takes the time to make pie when the weather is sultry and the beach beckons?
Cold weather offers so many more possibilities.
It’s a mystery to me why people celebrate special occasions with cake. Pie is so much more meaningful. In the film “Waitress,” Andy Griffith’s crusty character orders a slice of the Strawberry Chocolate Oasis Pie with exclamations of delight. After Jenna tells him it’s “just a pie” he says, “Just a pie! It’s downright expert. Athing’a beauty…how each flavor opens itself, one by one, like a chapter in a book. First, the flavor of an exotic spice hits ya…just a hint of it…and then you get flooded with chocolate, dark and bittersweet like an old love affair…”
A cake just can’t compete.
What holds cooks back from pie-making? It’s likely that they never mastered a consistent crust. The French divide pastry dough into three types: pate brisée with flour and unsalted butter (least forgiving), pate sucrée with flour, butter and sugar (a bit forgiving) and the cookie-like pate sablée with flour, butter, sugar and egg (most forgiving).
Fat coats the gluten/protein strands in the flour and “shortens” or tenderizes them. (Gluten forms an elastic structure that holds gases that yeast produces and creates theballoon-like rise in bread dough.) Sugar and egg shorten gluten strands further and egg gives a structural boost that renders the crust less flaky, more cookie-like.
The traditional pate brisée begins with all-purpose flour (or half whole wheat pastry flour) and salt. It seems that the fewer ingredients a pie crust has, the more important technique becomes. To transform your flour and fat into consistent and rewarding crusts all ingredients must be cold (freeze your flour).
Unsalted butter is most flavorful and lard most flaky; mixing the two is a good strategy. Vegetable shortening, frowned on by cooks against trans-fats, makes a flaky, but flavorless crust. Dice cold or frozen fat into small bits and cut/smear it into the flour with a pastry cutter, your fingers or a food processor in pulses. Don’t over work the dough — look for a pea-sized cornmeal texture. Overworked dough is tough dough.
Too much water results in a soggy, heavy crust; add ice water in small doses and toss with the flour-fat mixture. No food processor here, only a bowl will do. Immerse hot hands in ice water and dry before proceeding. Continue to add small amounts of ice water, toss and press untildough just comes together. Wrap and chill. Chilling hardens the fat so the dough is easily managed and will form flaky layers.
When the holidays roll around why not give the gift of pie? The American Pie Council says that three out of four Americans overwhelmingly prefer homemade pie. One-fourth of these pie eaters prefer apple, 17% like pumpkin or sweet potato, 14% love anything chocolate, 11% go for lemon meringue and 10% are cherry lovers.
Holiday Pie Tips
- Prepare dough ahead and freeze in zipper bags. Thaw overnight in refrigerator.
- To roll out dough, dust counter with flour. Flatten dough disk by hitting lightly and evenly with rolling pin. Roll from center — avoid rolling the pin off the edge. Instead, turn dough a quarter turn each time you roll. To transfer dough to pie plate, fold into quarters or roll up onto rolling pin.
- Freeze rolled out unbaked crust fitted in pie pans. Place frozen crust straight into pre-heated 400 degree F oven.
- To shorten cooking times, reduce dough shrinkage and assure proper thickening, pre-cook fillings like apple and cherry. Sauté apples or pears with butter, sugar, a little apple juice or liqueur and flour until fruit is softened but still holding shape. (There will be less shrinkage from the top crust.) Thicken peaches, blueberries or cherries with tapioca, cornstarch or flour and sugar in a saucepan. Cool fruit before filling pie.
- A good fruit pie filling is firm, with a little bit of juice. A general rule of thumb:4 tablespoons instant tapioca for 6 cups of juicy fruit, which works out to a generous, rounded 1-
1/2 teaspoons per cup of fruit. If your fruit is a little less juicy, use a scant 1 1/2
- teaspoons per cup.
- You can fill and freeze a pie, unbaked, with pre-cooked, thickened fruit filling. Take it straight from freezer to preheated 400 degree F oven to bake. Place pie on sheet pan in oven to catch drippings.
Pate Brisée: Really Flaky Pastry
Yields two generous 9-inch crusts
8 oz./1 C./2 sticks unsalted cold butter
or 4 oz. unsalted butter and 1/2 C. cold lard or shortening
2-1/2 C. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 t. salt
2 T. vodka, optional
2 T. to 1/4 C. ice water
Cut butter and lard or shortening into small bits and toss into food processor or a bowl. Measure flour carefully and pour into bowl with salt. Pulse or cut/smear fat into flour until it resembles pea-sized cornmeal. Pour processor contents into a bowl.
Make a well in the center of the flour. Pour in vodka and 1 tablespoon ice water. Toss to mix evenly. Add only enough ice water so that dough comes together. You don’t want a wet, tacky dough. Less water is better than too much.
Press dough with the heel of your hand to smear it lightly: this is called fraisage. Press dough into a flat disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate 20 to 30 minutes or overnight.
Single Crust Pie
Roll out dough to 1/8-inch thick, and 13-inches diameter on lightly floured surface. For less shrinkage and better browning, drape rolled out crust, without stretching, into a non-shiny 9-inch pie pan. Trim dough so it hangs over the edge by 1/4-inch. Tuck edges under and crimp. Chill pastry 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. If blind-baking, prick dough all over with a fork, place a piece of parchment into pie shell and weight with pie weights or another pie pan. Bake until dough is set, about 20 minutes and remove weight and parchment. Continue baking until lightly colored for pies where the filling will be baked again, about 10 minutes. Bake until golden for fillings that are cooked and poured into the shell to set.
Two Crust Pie
Roll out dough as for single 9-inch crust and chill. Fill with prepared filling, roll out top crust, brush rim of bottom crust with egg wash or water and set crust on top, trim edges to 1/2-inch overhang and crimp edges again with fingers or fork. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Chill pie 15 minutes. Bake 30 minutes and lower heat to 350 degrees F. Finish baking until brown and bubbly, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool pie before cutting.
Grain-Free Cassava (Paleo) Pie Crust
Yields one 9-inch crust
1-1/4 C. Otto’s Cassava Flour
2 T. potato starch
1/2 t. sugar
3/4 t. sea salt
1/2 C. plus 2 T. frozen unsalted butter or2-1/2 tablespoons frozen palm oil shortening
1 t. apple cider vinegar
Ice water, up to 1/2 cup
Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Grate frozen butter with a box grater or food processor and combine with dry ingredients. Cut fat into dry ingredients with a food processor (in pulses), your fingers or two butter knives or a pastry cutter to a pea-sized cornmeal consistency. Pour mixture into a bowl if using food processor.
Mix vinegar with 2 tablespoons ice water and toss (with hands) with fat-flour mixture. Continue slowly tossing with tablespoons of ice water until dough just holds together. Shape dough into a disk and wrap with plastic wrap. Chill in refrigerator 30 minutes.
Dust dough with a little cassava flour or tapioca flour on both sides and roll out between two sheets waxed or parchment paper into a 1/8-inch thick round.
Drape into a pie plate and trim then decorate edges (reserve extra dough for mini tarts). Chill crust 30 minutes in refrigerator.Crust may be blind-baked or filled and baked. To blind-bake: preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Prick crust with fork, cover with parchment and fill with dry beans. Blind-bake 25 minutes. Remove parchment and beans and bake until browned, 5 or more minutes.
Grain-Free Almond- Coconut (Paleo) Pie Crust
Egg gives this gluten/grain-free crust the structure that gluten gives wheat-based crusts.
Yields one 9-inch crust
1 C. blanched almond flour
2 T. coconut flour
2/3 C. tapioca or arrowroot flour, extra for rolling
1/2 t. sugar
1/2 t. sea salt
1/2 C. frozen palm oil shortening, coconut oil or unsalted butter, grated
1 large egg, beaten
Combine dry ingredients and grated fat in food processor. Process fat in pulses until mixture resembles pea-sized cornmeal. Pulse egg in just until dough comes together. Gather it into a ball, flatten to a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill 30 minutes. Proceed as with Grain-Free Cassava (Paleo) Pie Crust
Yields one 9-inch pie
One 15-oz. can unsweetened pure pumpkin puree, about 2 cups or 2 cups mashed baked butternut or other squash
3/4 C. packed light brown sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1-1/4 C. half-and-half (or pure coconut milk)
1-1/2 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/2 t. ground allspice
1/4 t. freshly ground nutmeg
9-inch pre-baked pie shell
Whisk together pumpkin, brown sugar, eggs, half-and-half, spices, and salt until smooth. Pour filling into lightly colored pre-baked pie shell. Bake on lower oven rack until edges of filling are set but the center is still slightly loose, about 50 to 60 minutes. (If the edges get dark, cover with aluminum foil.)
Two Crusted Apple
Yields one 9-inch pie
2 T. butter
4-1/2 lbs. mixed tart and sweet apples, 10 cups peeled, cored and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/2 C. sugar
1/4 C. light brown sugar
4 to 6 T. flour
1 T. fresh lemon juice, optional
1/2 t. cinnamon
Pinch of salt
Dough for two-crust 9-inch pie
Heat large skillet and melt butter over medium-high heat. Pour in apples and cook, tossing occasionally, until apples start to soften, brown and stick, 10 to 15 minutes. Toss with remaining ingredients. Cool apples and pour into prepared, chilled crust. Place top crust on top, slash vent holes on top, and bake in pre-heated 375 degree F oven until golden and bubbly, 50 to 60 minutes.