Chelsea’s Review: Now I know you can’t strong arm pie, you just need enough resources to gently will it into being.
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My mom could be described as a functional cook during my growing up years. She fried or stewed it up and slung it on the table to keep us all alive, and for that I am eternally grateful. My take-away from Mom’s cooking was pie. She was one of those working moms who used as many convenience food-preps as she could, but she always made her own pie crust. I used her rolling pin in my own kitchen for a long time. For Mother’s Day weekend, I decided to make a pie in her honor, though my current methods are a bit different from hers.
Since I never had as many kids to corral as she did, I had more time to perfect my culinary skills over the years, using the freshest ingredients and shopping for organic produce. Pie is a family favorite here at the Hobbit House. In addition to the many pie recipes in the vegetarian cookbooks on my shelves, I have two books solely dedicated to pie making. Pie perfection did not come quickly or naturally. I spent years in research and development mode but my family ate every slice anyway.
Mom made her own crusts, a skill I much admired as I watched her mix simple ingredients in our kitchen. She rolled out perfect circles with minimal fuss, then loaded them up with canned pie filling. I’m not complaining; I ate them with gusto. As I entered my own pie-making career, I decided fresh fruit was the way to go. Fruit pies are the perennial favorite in this house, though I sneak in a pumpkin or cold, yogurt-based pie on occasion.
My first pie was apple. Before I had the pleasure of owning a thousand cookbooks, I “winged it.” How hard could it be to make a crust and throw some apples into it? I didn’t understand the chemistry that went into making a pie crust, nor the alchemy of heat applied to fresh fruit. Plain old pie pastry has four ingredients: flour, salt, fat and water. When I first put these essentials together, I got such a crumbly concoction, I added more water from the tap. As a result, I could slam the rolling pin on top of that wad and lift it off the counter. It stuck to everything it touched, so I added more flour. By that time, flour coated most surfaces of my kitchen. Crust rolling became more like a snowy wrestling match than a simple baking skill. I finally got it to the point of uneven semi-roundness, flat enough to press into my pie plate as a holder of yummy fruity ingredients.
I cut up the apples and tossed them in with a bit of sugar and proceeded with buffeting the top crust into a suitable size and shape. The fun part was cutting a design into the top for decoration (and as I later found out, to let out the steam). I made a creative little slash, then crossed it into an X. There’s a trick to getting the top crust onto the top of the filling. I did not know that trick at the time of my first pie bake. I scraped it loose from the countertop with a butter knife and dragged it to the edge of the counter. I balanced the full pie plate just below counter level and slid the top crust onto it. Sort of. I placed the pie plate back onto the counter and made some drag and drop adjustments in order to get my fancy X into the center. I squeezed the top and bottom crusts together around the perimeter in an artistic recreation of an idyllic mountain range. Into the oven, 350 degrees sounded about right, for about an hour, I recalled from watching my mother making pie magic in my childhood home.
Here is the first (or maybe third) rule of eating homemade pie: It needs to rest. I don’t know how my mom kept us out of the kitchen while the pie rested, the smell is so attractive. I think now of the old tv shows where a kid steals a pie that had been resting on the window sill. It never occurred to me during my first pie attempt that there was a reason pies were sitting there in the window. I now know the crust should cool for maximum flakiness and the filling needs time to coalesce into a formative gel of juice and fruit.
I dug right in to my first apple pie as soon as I removed it from the oven and discovered making a palatable pie is not as easy as my mom made it look! Of course, without the benefit of recipe or instruction, my pie was structurally unsound and though it tasted ok, was not the flavor I had anticipated munching into. The crust was super-salty and had the consistency of well-aged cement, but with a lot more body and crunch to it. The interior can only be described as apple soup. So, here’s how I rescued it. I dumped it into a lasagna pan and got out the potato masher. The liquid from the apples saturated the smushed up crust, which, if topped with vanilla ice cream, could be consumed without too much fuss. So, not pie exactly, but a creative apple brown Betty or something along those lines. Adventurous cooks are not deterred by catastrophic outcomes or else we’d never make anything new. Salvaging is just another one of those necessary, creative cooking skills I’ve cultivated over the years.
My initial attempt at making a classic pie was a dismal failure, so I did what any 21-year-old would do after producing her first disaster—I called my mother. The wonderful thing about mothers is that they can usually relate to any stupid things you’ve done while cooking. (This may not apply to all the stupid things you’ve done in general). Mom divulged some her own culinary flops from her early attempts at domesticity. We shared a laugh over these stories as she assured me my methods would improve with practice. She ended up giving me some of her actual written recipes, which I wish I could say I cherish to this day. Other than her date and nut loaf (a full and sumptuous bread), I haven’t kept any of them since I eat more plant-based meals these days and cook from scratch. In order to further my cooking knowledge after the pie fiasco, I decided to do more research. I purchased my first cookbook (Betty Crocker) for guidance to be used along with my mom’s advice.
My pies got better once I learned to smash up the fat (in my case organic vegetable shortening) into multiple globs in the flour, use cold water sparingly and cut back on the salt. I also learned the secret ingredient to fresh fruit pies—tapioca!! Yes, it is a pudding ingredient, but the instant kind sucks up all the juices from the fruit and it tells you right on the box how much to use for different types of fruit. I also discovered spices! There’s a cabinet in my current kitchen exclusively housing my spice collection, so I’m never without inspiration for what to try in my next pie. Curried peaches?
The real pie revolution came after watching an episode of Cook’s Corner aka America’s Test Kitchen. Vodka. No, I didn’t belt it down and lose all concern about how my pie came out. I added it to my crust ingredients—cold. The more liquid is used in a crust, the easier it is to roll out, but the more cement-like it becomes when baked. I pour a little of that Russian sidekick into my water to ease the rolling activity (no more wrestling) and it evaporates as the pie bakes. Flaky pastry via sneaky, Bolshevik fire-water. Try it!!
These days, when I make pie crust, I make enough for two or three pies and place them in the freezer. During the pandemic winter, my husband and I ate a lot of pie. The act of turning the oven on and measuring, rolling and sculpting these simple ingredients brought warmth and happiness to our little mountain casita. The most valuable kitchen wisdom my mother passed down to me was creating a warm, comforting home. Pear-cranberry, strawberry-rhubarb, four-berry, pumpkin and so on. Mom would be proud of my accomplishments.
Me oh my, I love pie,
Guest Editor Chelsea edits by means of asking carefully crafted questions designed to make a few necessary words fall out of my brain. This method works well for me but she must feel like she’s on Jeopardy.