Thoughts on home-baked pie
I’ve baked pies since my college days. For a year or so I was the baker at the old Uptown Cafe in its original location on North Walnut. I I remember hours and days spent standing and working in the small back kitchen with a floury apron tied around my waist, peeling apples and crimping crusts. I still remember the evening when one of the waiters came back to the kitchen and told me “There’s a customer out front who lives up near Indianapolis, and he just told me he drives down here every Friday night to eat your pie.” This second-hand compliment still thrills me, more than 30 years later.
There’s an old saying, “easy as pie.” I beg to differ; it’s not pie, but cake that’s easy. With cake, you just mix the ingredients together, throw it into a floured cakepan, and there you have it. Now, pie filling is indeed simple; the generic formula is four cups of fruit, up to a cup of sugar, optional spices, and a thickener like flour, corn starch or tapioca. But the baker needs to take care that the crust won’t turn to cardboard or get soggy or become too brittle to be shaped.
Before we go any further, here’s my magic “won’t-fail” recipe for pie crust. Be sure to have your rolling pin and your pie dish on hand, because your hands will be too messy at the end of this mixing process to grope for tools at that point.
- 2 2/3 cups white all-purpose flour
- 1 cup shortening or lard
Using a pastry cutter, blend until the two ingredients are in small shreds. Cookbooks always say that the dough should be pea-shaped, but I’ve never observed the slightest resemblance to peas. It should look like a pile of finely crumbled DOUGH.
- 7 tablespoons of cold water, carefully measured! No more, no less. Distribute evenly over the top of the mixture in the bowl.
Then wash your hands, remove all rings, and begin to hand-knead the dough. It will be sticky and greasy and floury all at the same time, but within less than a minute of kneading it will begin to form a shaggy ball. Keep kneading another minute or so and it will begin to look much neater and presentable. STOP KNEADING AT ONCE or it will become tough-textured.
Divide in half. Using a well-floured board or countertop, take your rolling pin and flatten the first half of dough, and place it in the bottom of your pie dish. Using your fingers, tear off any excess around the rim, and use scraps to fill any parts that did not reach as far as the edge of the rim. Then roll out the second half, and place your filling inside only after the top crust is ready (filling the pie at the last moment helps prevent soggy bottom crusts). Use cold water, or leftover fruit juice from the filling, and paint with your fingertip all around the rim of the bottom crust; this wetness will help the two crusts bond together. Lift the top crust and set it in place on top of the filling; trim so that the crusts are the same size. Then crimp the edges together, using the index fingers and thumbs of both hands, letting them dance in tandem around the rim of the circle. Crimping is not rocket science; practice with Play-Doh if you have to, it’s just a matter of building up a rhythm.
Using one’s hands instead of a food processor is, I think, a superior way to do it. After one has built up enough experience, one can tell by the feel of the dough whether it needs a smidgen more flour, or another spoonful of shortening. You can’t achieve an intuitive understanding of the baked goods if you shove a machine between the baker and the product.
I can’t even estimate the number of pies I have baked over the years. I go for months without baking but then high summer rolls around with its ripe blueberries and its new apples, and I can’t resist. And when cold weather comes, I bake a butternut squash and use the insides to make “pumpkin” pies for Thanksgiving. Over the years I’ve made custard pie, Key Lime pie, mince pie, cream pies, strawberry pie, peach pie, sweet potato pie, sugar pie, pecan pie, and probably others I can’t remember. But my best pie accomplishment came on the two separate occasions I baked pies to give to the Community Kitchen to feed the hungry and the homeless. My goal each time was to bake enough pie so that 100 clients could enjoy a slice of home-baked pie with their dinners. The first time I stood in the kitchen baking non-stop all day long and managed to bake enough pie to serve 70 or 80 clients, counting separate slices, and the second time I baked for two days and managed a full 100+ by adding a home-baked cake and some cookies at the last moment. They told me when I dropped off the pies, “Carrol, you have no idea how much a piece of home-made pie is appreciated by our clients. This is something really special for them.” The satisfaction of having helped bring about a special moment at dinner for the clients is virtually indescribable, but it’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my entire life.
Pie brings people together, whether it’s at a wedding, a funeral, a family reunion, or a neighborhood party. Try it yourself and it could change your life.