This used to be my grandpa’s second dinner.
He’d come in from milking in the barn, his final chore of the day, and sit down to a bowl of warm pie and milk. And I would sit with him. We didn’t talk a lot, but we had the pie between us.
Pie was present at every meal I can remember on the farm, even if there were molasses cookies with hard white icing. Along with the three carbohydrates at the dinner table – potatoes, butter or beef noodles, and bread – you had your choice, usually, of a couple different fruit or berry pies. Maybe a meringue.
Making pie, today, I realized how efficient a product it is. Fruit too ripe? Add tapioca. Fruit not quite ready? Macerate it in a little sugar. Same, if the fruit’s too tart. Overflowing with berries? Make one for your neighbors. Or freeze it. That is, if you have any problem with people simply eating it up.
Lots of people don’t want to make crust, but they should. There is something about cutting the shortening, shaping the pie dough into a ball, gently rolling it out on a cutting board or counter top that is therapeutic. I wonder, if more of us were involved in the actions that go into good food if we would be a happier people.
Oh, it’s true there are secrets to producing blue-ribbon, fair-contest- winning pies. Here are a few.
- Use ice cold water in your crust.
- Lard is better than vegetable shortening.
- The more you handle it, the tougher it gets.
- You can bake your crust for a few minutes to “set” it, before you add very juicy fillings.
- Cornstarch or tapioca will help absorb fruit juices. You can also slice them and let them set for 15 minutes, pouring off the liquid (which I hope you drink, for goodness sake).
- Cutting the fruit in same-sized pieces makes for even baking.
- Real lemon juice in the filling mixture will keep your fruit looking fresh. Don’t try lemon concentrate. It’s not the same. Blech.
Still and all, no good effort at pie baking goes unrewarded. Everyone is impressed, even with the attempt. You will have people willingly line up just to taste an experimental batch. You can’t say this about a casserole.
I bought this cookbook for a friend of mine who just graduated from U-M and is at Wayne State Medical School. It cost $5.25, a cheap “well done,” but he won’t care, because the insides are wonderful. I decided until I can get it to him, I’ll cook from it, since it’s used anyway. Here is my version of Basic Plain Pastry and Berry Pie (adapted for peaches), from My Better Homes & Gardens Lifetime Cook Book (Meredith Publishing Company, copyright 1930).
Basic Pie Pastry
There are two minds, in making crust. One is to make it before you handle your fruit, covering with plastic wrap or a damp towel, so it’s ready to go in the oven. The other is to make up your fruit and let it set, especially if it needs maceration or to set up with tapioca (see bullet points). The original recipe calls for smaller amounts, but as with so many other modernities, our pie dishes are bigger now, than 85 years ago.
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup shortening or lard
ice water (about 5-7 tablespoons)
Sift flour and salt together (don’t miss this step – it helps make a flaky crust – so if you don’t have a sifter, tap it through a strainer). Add the shortening and “cut” in (this process is easy if you have a pastry cutter, like the picture, but if you don’t, use a butter knife or fork and press through it for the same results). You want a crumbly mixture, pea-sized or course. Add the ice water a tablespoon at a time (you will want to rush this, but don’t – you can’t make pie dough more dry after you’ve made it wet and gummy, even if you add more flour — you just have to start over) until dough forms a soft ball. (Hands are made for this, although I’ve heard people use food processors…but why?) Divide the dough. Roll first ball out on a flat, floured surface with a flour-dusted rolling pin. Press into the bottom of an 8″ pie pan. Adding fruit filling goes here! Roll second ball out. Gently lift and place over fruit filling.
You’re lucky that today’s fad is rustic crusts whose sides are folded and pinched together. Back in the day, there were any number of fancy sides. My go-to is the pinched thumb and forefinger toward the inside of the pie, with the opposite forefinger pushing a crescent between them. Some people like a pressed fork edging. Have fun.
Berry Pie (adapted)
Know your ingredients. Fruit should be ripe and ready, although there are ways to work around this (again, see bullet points). How do you know if peaches are ripe? They peel like a dream, drip all over your hands, and make you want to eat them before they hit the bowl. If you’ve ever tried to peel an unripe peach, you will know what I mean immediately.
4 cups sliced fruit or berries (10-12 large peaches)
2/3 to 1 cup sugar
1-3 tablespoons tapioca or cornstarch (using flour is not the same, but can be used in a pinch)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon of butter, diced
1 tablespoon of lemon juice (if you need to hold the color)
Blend sugar, binder, and salt. Add to fruit mixture and stir until fruit is well coated. Add into unbaked crust. Add top crust – vent by making slits with a sharp knife (or go crazy and make a pattern). Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then turn oven down to 350 degrees and bake 20-30 minutes, until crust is golden brown.
Topping variations: sprinkle with sugar or make an egg bath (beat an egg with a little water and brush top crust).
Let cool to serve (or your pie will run all over, which is still delicious).
Note: Bill and I bought a peck of peaches at Uncle John’s Cider Mill (see Player), so I decided to try and freeze a pie. eHow says you can do it. I’ll let you know, sometime, how it went.