Love and Loss and the Secret to Perfect Fruit Pies

February is a complicated month for me. My youngest brother, Jake, was born on February 20th and died when he was 17. I miss him every day and I long for my son to have known him. My son was born on February 6th so we celebrated his 13th birthday yesterday with the above cherry pie. My husband and I went on our first date on February 14th (it was a cast party for a play he was in that happened to fall on Valentine’s Day!) 27 years ago.

 

I have a tendency to show love through food so there’s a lot of cooking and baking going on right now. As I’ve shared here a lot recently, when it comes to my son, that way of showing love has gotten a bit more complicated in the day-to-day. Birthdays, however, are still a pure joy. He tells me what he wants for his family birthday dinner and I get to work. And so it was when Jake was still alive and we children were all still at home. My mother would make us our favorite meals and I started taking birthday requests for cakes when I was about 12. I loved these occasions! I’d pour over the layer cake chapter in our old Joy of Cooking, dog-earing far more pages than the number of my siblings.

 

These days I make more pies than cakes and I’ve learned a few tricks over the years. My hands-down favorite pie dough recipe is the one below. I think it’s best with a little whole wheat flower in the mix. Somehow all that butter with the toasty, nutty flavor of some whole grain plus the salt in the butter (or added salt) is awfully good.

 

For the fruit pie specific tricks (especially those made with frozen and then thawed fruit), head over here and subscribe to the Collection and search for Cherry Pie to find the recipe. Use code love for one month of free access, and who knows, you may just get hooked. I hope you do!

 

With lots of love,

Katherine

 

Basic Pie Crust

–adapted from the now defunct ChezPim.com

 

I swear by this crust technique and ingredients—flour, salt, butter, water. It has an extra step but the results are worth it and after a time or two it becomes routine.

 

For flaky pastry dough; enough for two 9″ rounds, for top and bottom pie crust, or two tarts:

 

250 g (2 1/4 cup) all purpose flour or 100 grams whole wheat pastry flour and 150 grams apf

Scant ½ teaspoon fine sea salt (or use salted butter and skip the extra salt)

225 g (1 cup/2 sticks) cold butter (salted if you’d like and then omit the salt above)

60 ml (1/4 cup) cold water

 

Measure the flour and salt and dump it onto your clean countertop.  Cut the sticks of butter into slices ¼-inch thick and spread them out on top of your pile of flour. Toss the chunks so they are coated with flour.

 

Now, press the butter into the flour with the heal of your hand: the left one if you’re right handed, and vice versa. With your right hand holding the pastry scraper, scrape up some of the flour and butter and flip it over the pile.  Keep pressing and scraping until the butter becomes thin flakes pressed into the flour.  Keep working until you see more butter flakes than loose flour.  If your butter flakes are really big, break them up a little bit, you should end up with a combination of big flakes and some crumbs.

 

Make a well in the middle of the pile and pour the 1/4 cup of water into it.  Now, working quickly, use your finger tips or the bench scraper to gently blend and distribute the water evenly into the dough. Then, scrape up the dough again with the pastry scraper and press it into a somewhat cohesive lump of dough.  Gather it into a ball, and wrap tightly with plastic and let rest in the fridge for 20-30 minutes.

 

After 30 minutes, remove the dough from the fridge and unwrap it.  Flour the counter.  Place the dough on the board and lightly flour the top of the dough as well.  With a rolling pin, roll the dough out to an elongated rectangle. It will be crumbly and may only stick together in patches, which is just fine. Pick up one end of the rectangle, fold it 2/3 of the way in, as best as possible, again lots of crumbs are fine. Then pick up the other end and fold it over that section. Now you have a dough that is folded more or less into thirds.  The dough will crack and might even break, don’t worry about it.

 

Turn the folded dough 90 degree so that the seams are now on the sides, roll the dough out again into a rectangle, and repeat the folding again. You will see that the dough will become smoother and more pliable.  You can repeat this process once or twice more – I usually do it three times altogether.

 

What you’re doing here with the rolling and folding is working the dough a little bit to build the strength so that it is not so fragile when you roll it out later.  (Especially if you’re going to make lattice top, you’ll find this dough easy to work with.)  You’re also creating very thin layers or butter and flour, much like in puff pastry, so the dough becomes extremely flaky once baked.

 

Once you’ve done your three folds, or however many you want to do, roll the dough into a smaller rectangle. Cut it in half and shape the two resulting pieces roughly into rounds. Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze, wrapped in a freezer bag, for 3-4 months.

 

 

Perfect Pie

A sour cherry pie I made this summer.

I’m compelled to post about pie several times a year, but especially and most regularly, this time of year. Cakes and quick breads are great, as are cobblers and cookies but pies evoke more superlatives for me than all else. Maybe it’s my family’s Thanksgiving tradition that involves more pies than seem reasonable but after all, it’s really about being able to have pie for breakfast (and lunch and dinner!) the day after Thanksgiving. It’s about crimping that dough and praying that it won’t droop in the hot oven in all its buttery goodness. And it’s about apples and pumpkins, nuts and even leafy greens with eggs and spices that fill those buttery shells, that makes me happy.

Apple Pie waiting to be covered and crimped (my favorite part).

I’m dying to try this pie and this crust (even though I’ve always stuck with all-purpose flour for pie crust) and finally trying butternut squash instead of pumpkin in a “pumpkin” pie  . . .as I’m getting ready for the annual Pie Class at Cook With What You Have. I’d love for you to come, share your pie stories, roll pie dough and slice fruit and enjoy a meal of pie, both sweet and savory (and a salad or two) on a cozy Saturday! Saturday, November 19th that is–the weekend before Thanksgiving–so you’ll have license to ignore other household tasks or work to come make pie because you’ll improve everyone else’s day the following Thursday with your home-made beauty!

Pie

Blackberry Pie and Pie-crust Cookies

I’m teaching a pie class (sweet and savory) this Sunday, November 14. I am a bit evangelical about pie. I love to bake most anything but there is something about pie that appeals to the minimalist in me. Just flour, butter and water for that crust and apples, a little sugar and thickener for the filling and the sum of those few things is just so much more than you’d expect. But there are a few tricks to pie and we’re going to tackle that all-butter pie crust and crimping those edges (that inevitably do sag in places when baked thanks to all that delicious butter!) and getting the filling cooked just right.  We’re going to fill those crusts with apples, pumpkin, and Swiss Chard and eat our results.

And for all that hard work we’re going to be rewarded with eggnog–my grandfather’s recipe with bourbon, rum and nutmeg–and of course eggs, cream and milk–completely unrelated to the stuff in cartons at the store.

Swiss Chard Tart

My family (extended) has a thing about pies. At Thanksgiving, ever since I can remember, we’ve had a pie-eating contest. Slightly vulgar, I admit, but oh so fun and delicious unless you over do it and then you need a serious recovery period. Here’s a photo from last year’s pie (and tarts and cake) line-up sans my mother’s pumpkin chiffon and chocolate pies which were probably still in the fridge. Not a very good photo but I guess I wasn’t thinking about blog-worthy photos in the moment.  I should add that the contest is not highly competitive and is informally held over many hours and tiny slivers (especially of rich things like pecan pie) count. There’s a lot more talk than actual keeping track. And since my aunt Jane (or her daughter Martha) almost always win it’s not much of a nail-biter.

From l to r, Chocolate Tart, Pumpkin Bourbon Tart; Chocolate Guinness Cake, Brandied Dried Fruit Tart, Blackberry Pie, Apple Pie, Pecan Pie, Mince Pie

The sum total was 11 pies and tarts last year and we probably had 18 people for Thanksgiving. That is an obscene ratio! However, we all get to have pie for breakfast and lunch the following day and everyone gets to go home with a quarter of this and a few slices of that. And contrary to some opinions, misshapen, slightly soggy and less than perfect looking slices of pie are just as tasty or more so, than those pristine ones on day one!

As you can see, Thanksgiving is not strictly limited to pie. My sister-in-law and one of my cousins and I always bring some other tart or cake we just have to try. Some of us read the same cooking magazines/blog and occasionally end up bringing the same new idea–a dense chocolate hazelnut tart one year and a pumpkin cheese cake another. My mother and my aunt Jane have their standards and there would be mutiny if any of those were missing. For Jane that’s lofty apple pies and dense, gooey pecan; for my mother it’s those pumpkin chiffon pies and chocolate pies with lots of whipped cream. Actually all the pies are served with lots of whipped cream–probably thanks to the heavy German influence of the bunch. I tend to contribute a traditional pumpkin pie, a mince pie (my favorite recipe is from the Grand Central Baking book), and apple pie or something like a pear frangipane tart.

Speaking of not-so-beautiful: Rhubarb Pie never sets up well but is so good. It's much better to have a delicious pie than a beautiful pie, though the combination is unbeatable!

So whether you can make it to class on Sunday or not, give pie a try if you’ve been hesitant and let me know how it goes. And if you have questions or want tips or have tips to share from your pie-baking adventures, leave a comment here.

Happy baking!