Pie fans want no substitutes on the big day

November 19, 2008|By ROB KASPER | ROB KASPER,rob.kasper@baltsun.com

On Thanksgiving, the pies are plural, and that reason alone makes the day the best holiday of the year.

If we had any sense of restraint, or caloric guilt, we would defer dessert on this day. But on Thanksgiving, almost no one says no to pie. Instead, most of us - me included - profess to have "just a little sliver, of each."

The all-hallowed pumpkin pie, whose mild flavor and bland spicing are welcome at the end of such a rich meal, almost qualifies, I would argue, as a vegetable. Moreover, children - the torch-carriers of tradition - insist on its presence.

One Thanksgiving several years ago, in a fit of fashion, we made a cranberry trifle. The creation, a recipe that came from a celebrated New York chef, called for layers of fruit, whipped cream and cake. It required a last-minute dash to a store to buy a vessel, a clear glass number, to hold the towering dessert. When the dessert, a statuesque work of art, was presented to the dinner table, the adults were wowed. The kids asked, "Where's the pie?"

If you are so inclined, you can put a prodigious amount of work into Thanksgiving pies. That is what I surmised after talking pie theory with two experts, Christopher Kimball of America's Test Kitchen, which publishes Cook's Illustrated magazine, and Shirley O. Corriher, author of the recently published BakeWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking.

Kimball and his colleagues at Cook's caused a stir last year by advocating using vodka to make what he calls foolproof dough for piecrust. "It is one of the best recipes we have ever come up with," Kimball told me. Because the vodka does not create gluten in flour, the way water does, the dough is easier to roll out without being tough, he said. Other tricks, he said, are adding the flour to the dough in two steps and mixing the dough in a food processor. The entire process is outlined in a new book, The Best of America's Test Kitchen, 2009. I found a shortened version online by entering the terms "vodka pie crust."

Kimball told me he will use this recipe to make the crusts for the sweet potato and apple pies he bakes at Thanksgiving. He does not bake the pies a day ahead because "the crusts get soggy if you do that." Instead, he rises early in the morning to bake the pies in a wood-fired stove in the family's New England farmhouse.

In a telephone interview from Atlanta, Corriher, who has an undergraduate degree in chemistry, discussed several ways to avoid soggy crusts. One called for baking a frozen piecrust blind - that is, without filling - and positioning it upside down, while it rests on a pie plate of similar size, also upside down. There is a piece of crumpled parchment paper between the crust and the top pan. The crust is baked upside down for 12 minutes, then flipped over. The paper and the extra pan are removed and the crust finishes baking, right side up, for another 10 minutes. This procedure, she said, stretches the sides of the crust and gives you a slightly higher crust. It also avoids using weights to hold the crust down, which can result in uneven baking, she said.

Another way Corriher avoids soggy crusts is baking the components of fruit pies separately. The bottom crust is baked blind. The top crust is baked while it rests on an upside-down metal bowl. The filling is cooked in a large pot on the stove. Then the parts are assembled.

Warming fruit fillings before they go in a pie is, Corriher and Kimball said, one way to cut down the time the pie spends in the oven. The shorter time in the oven increases the likelihood that the bottom crust emerges crisp, they said.

Performing such piecrust gymnastics can take time on Thanksgiving, a day that already has the cook putting in long hours. Several good cooks I know have good things to say about Pillsbury frozen piecrusts. Corriher told me when she makes small hand-held chess pies, which she calls chess tarts, she uses phyllo shells bought from the grocery, and bakes them slightly before filling them.

In addition to pumpkin, each household has its "must-have" pies. Some of these preferences are regional - pecan and chess in the South, boysenberry in the Pacific Northwest. Others - apple and the killer creams, chocolate, banana and coconut - defy geography and have universal appeal.

My "must-have" pie is mincemeat.

Mincemeat pies hail from merry old England, where, according to an article I read in the November issue of Saveur magazine, they were loaded both with fruit and meat, including ox tongue. Brandy and rum later entered the mix.

English landlords would serve the pies to the help as part of a Christmas shindig - "payment in pies" as Saveur put it. After encountering some resistance in America - The New York Times in 1873 editorialized against them, regarding the liquor-flavored creations as decadent - mincemeat pies caught on, albeit without the ox tongue. Now the fruit - raisins, apples, lemons, currants - dominates the mixture, which is fine by me.

It is hard, I think, to find commercial mincemeat filling that isn't too sweet. I looked over a recipe in the magazine that spelled out how to make my own mincemeat. It was tempting, but labor-intensive and time-consuming. The filling, like the fruit in fruitcake, must sit for several days in refrigerated jars, melding. Maybe next year, I told myself, I will make my own mince.

Late on Thanksgiving night, after the last pot is scrubbed and no one is looking, I often cut myself another "little sliver." I consider it my reward, "payment in pies," for washing dishes, and it is a fitting end to an indulgent day.

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