28 May 2010

Easy As Pie

My mom's quite a gal. She can nail just about any jazz standard, whip up a batch of incomparable coffee ice cream, and maintain an effortless air of patience and calm amidst the storm that the rest of us constantly create around her. I count myself lucky to possess a good deal of her genetic material--responsible, surely for our shared impeccable taste for expensive shoes, jewels, and all the finer things in life.

And what, I ask, could be finer than a slice of homemade pie? Not much in my mom's book, or mine. The trouble is, Mom has a hard time getting pies to cooperate. Her numerous attempts at making the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie from scratch have almost always ended in curses (coming from my mom even curses are adorable) and gratuitous whipped cream toppings. Summertime desserts at my mom's table are peach and berry cobblers--delightful in their own right but just not quite pie. The problem, you see, is the crust. Despite trying all the tricks in the book, Mom's crusts have a tendency to stick to the counter, the rolling pin, or just fall to pieces. When baked, they like to slip and slide their way down the edges of any pie pan, ending up misshapen and not quite capable of fully containing anything. Fancy crimped edges or a lattice top? Forgettaboutit!

Now I normally wouldn't dream of airing my mother's culinary dirty laundry online for all to read. However, I'm sure she'll forgive me for doing it now because a) I'm confident she's not the only one with pesky pie problems and b) I am also sure that her dreadful days of disappointing pie baking are now a thing of the past. I know this to be the case because she is now equipped with a new set of pie-making know-how thanks to a private class we were lucky enough to attend together last Sunday.

My lovely sister, brilliant and generous soul that she is, came up with the idea of a pie-making class for my mom for Mother's Day this year. A few weeks after the fact, my mom, sister, aunt, cousin, and I gathered together to take a class with Marilyn, one of my parents' longtime friends and an accomplished cook and baker extraordinaire (check out her website here). We spent several hours gathered around Marilyn's massive butcher block island and watched as she whipped up three different kinds of pies (two sweet, one savory) all while sharing priceless pie-making pointers with us. She made it look easy as pie and gave us all confidence that when we stepped out of her hallowed kitchen we, too, could make something so beautiful and tasty.

I think my mom went home and baked up a blueberry pie the next day. I managed to wait a few days before I made this--my very first pie! I used blackberries, cheap and abundant at the grocery right now, and it was really, really good. Really good. And honestly, it wasn't hard to make at all! I'm sure my next pie will be even better...especially if I manage to acquire a few of the tools my kitchen is missing (note: fingers do not work as well as a pastry brush for applying an egg wash).

I am now even more convinced that some of the best gifts we can give and receive are not things but experiences--experiences that end up being something you'll have with you forever and also, preferably, eat.

Although I would love to share Marilyn's recipe for double-crust fruit pie with you here, I don't feel comfortable doing so since she does this professionally and I don't have her permission. I will say that her recipe used equal parts butter and shortening and resulted in a tender and flaky crust that is, to quote Jill Mason, "to die for." I'll see if Marilyn will allow me to share the recipe but meanwhile hopefully you will be content with using the following pointers gleaned from the class with your own favorite recipe. Try 'em out yourself and I'm sure you too will soon be rich in pie.

**pie making is easier with the proper tools. these include the following:
--a food processor or a pastry blender (either option works equally well but the manual route provides a bit more careful control)
--a pastry scraper to sweep under the dough as you're rolling it out to prevent sticking
--a simple 9" pyrex pie pan
--a pastry brush (you can use an unused paint brush from the hardware store)
--a rolling pin--any style will do

**the cold is your friend: make your crust with very cold butter and shortening and even flour straight out of the fridge

**don't potchky (mess) with it too much--this rule applies to the whole process, from blending the fats into the dry ingredients to rolling the dough out and placing it into the pan. Blending should just take a few short pulses in the food processor or with the hand blender--you need not worry about creating uniform "pea size" crumbs. As long as it is generally mixed together and wet enough to squeeze into a ball, you're golden. Too much fussing and your dough will warm up and become difficult to work with.

**refrigerate the dough balls (actually more like pucks) for at least an hour before rolling out

**make sure your work surface is coated in a thin, even layer of flour and use flour on your hands when messing with the crust to prevent sticking.

**when rolling out the dough just work from the center out and work around in a circle--no need to flip the dough just move it around to make sure it's not sticking and if it is, re-flour the work surface

**when placing the dough in the pan you can fold it into quarters, line the pointy part of the resulting triangle of dough up with the center of the pan and unfold--like magic your crust is perfectly centered

**instead of pulling the dough down and over the edges of the pan, you should actually lift the edges up with your hands and kinda coax the dough down as you settle it into the pan--maybe I'll add a little video demo of this soon? i think this is the step that helps keep the dough from shrinking back.

**after placing the top crust over the filling, tuck its edges under the edges of the bottom crust but on top of the edge of the pie plate--this seals the deal and creates a thick edge that you can decorate with crimps and press down onto the plate with a fork, etc.

**be sure to cut slits in the top of the pie for steam to escape--an odd number is better than even (aesthetically and maybe even, you know, spiritually)

**brushing the top of the pie with an egg wash (one beaten egg, one tablespoon cold water) and a sprinkling of turbinado sugar makes it purty.

**place the pie pan on a baking sheet in the oven to prevent nasty oven spills

**and (this is a tough one folks) you must let the pie cool before cutting and serving it--the fruit needs to cool somewhat to set otherwise your pie will be runny and sad (but still taste good!)


LaLaLaLeah said...

Complimenti, Nisa! This is a beautiful post! Thanks for the tips - now I know I won't forget them. Now, pie: get in my belly!

Melissa said...

Fabulous post! I bought my mom the deep dish pie pan for the pizza rustica for her birthday so we can get with the baking program!