A Brief Treatise On Pie

Editorial Notebook

November 21, 2009|By Andrew A. Green

Most people think of Thanksgiving as Turkey Day. Maybe it's my Midwestern roots, but no matter how succulent the bird, I have room in my heart for only one love on the fourth Thursday in November: pie.

I divide the year into two seasons, pie and no pie, with the pie season running from the first strawberries and rhubarb in the spring through cherries, blueberries and peaches in the summer and finally, to the fall, when the true glories of American baking emerge: apple, pumpkin and pecan. (Many add sweet potato to that list, including my grandmother, with whom I have a long-running dispute over whether I have eaten and enjoyed sweet potato pie, as she insists, or whether, as I contend, she has become a liar in her old age.)

Early in my marriage, I feared I had made a grievous error in wedding a woman who doesn't particularly like pie, but I have subsequently come to appreciate the virtues of her taste; when I do make pie, there's no pressure to share. Except on Thanksgiving. That's the one day of the year when everyone (my wife included) feels the urge for a wedge of pie after dinner, and maybe another for breakfast the next day. Consequently, I tend to go a little overboard on the pie preparation to compensate. On years when I spend Thanksgiving at my dad's house, we're talking four pumpkin, three apple, two chocolate pecan (minimum; my sisters are voracious) and two or three of a personal specialty, cranberry-apricot with walnuts. This is an in-laws year and, they being less numerous, I can get away with four, maybe six pies total.

Even so, this takes a substantial amount of work. Whoever coined the phrase "easy as pie" probably did so while picking up some pre-fab pie shells in the freezer aisle of the supermarket. I have heard that the Pillsbury pre-rolled pie crusts in the refrigerator section of the grocery store aren't horrible, but I have never sought to find out, owing to my desire to remain in my father's will. He, like any pie aficionado, will tell you, pie fillings are well and good, but they're really just an excuse to eat crust. There is nothing inherently complicated about pie crust - one part butter or shortening, two parts flour, some sugar, a little bit of salt and enough water to hold things together - but it is one kitchen activity that definitely rewards experience. To that end, I offer my own, doubtless incomplete and surely debatable, pieces of advice.

* Ingredients: The first choice in piemaking is the kind of fat you cut into the flour to make the basis of the dough. The old-school approach is lard, though this is generally hard for the modern palate to accept. A more conventional option is a mixture of shortening, such as Crisco, and unsalted butter. Crisco gives unparalleled flakiness and tenderness, but it's essentially flavorless. It's also loaded with trans-fats, the bugaboo of modern dietary science, created in the process of taking something liquid (vegetable oil) and turning it into a shelf-stable solid. Butter has the virtues of being a mere one step removed from something that occurs in nature, and it provides flavor to boot. These days, many people (myself included) are moving to all-butter recipes, but if you're inexperienced, the resulting dough can be more difficult to work with, so it might be a good idea to use a two-thirds/one-third butter-to-shortening ratio.

* Fat and flour: There are several different ways to combine the fat and flour, the easiest of which is probably a food processor. If you toss small chunks of shortening and/or butter into a food processor with your flour, sugar and salt, it will do an efficient and even job of producing a mixture that resembles coarse sand with some small pebbles in about 10 1-second pulses. The downsides are that it doesn't work as well for large batches of dough, and, if you're not careful, you can overwork things and overheat the dough, a big no-no. (More on this later.) Option B is to use a pastry blender, the brass knuckles of the kitchen. The cheap kind are like a series of round wires bent in a C-shape and connected to a handle; better are ones in which the metal resembles little flat blades. Either way, you cut through the flour and fat in a rocking motion until you have the same coarse sand consistency. The ultimate throwback is to smoosh the fat into the flour with your fingers. It's the gentlest approach, and the most tactually satisfying, but not good if you have warm hands.

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