“Pie is not about perfection,” Beth Howard told the Beloved Book Group Gals of Newtown, when she was visiting in March 2013. Ms Howard, from Iowa, is the author of Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Pie, and travels the country bringing the message of “piece” — and pie making — to people needing comfort. Whether dealing with life or dealing with a testy pie crust, Ms Howard suggests always moving forward with confidence.
I am in total agreement with Ms Howard. There is no need for a battle ground of baker vs pie. And with local fruits at their peak this late summer and early fall, there are plenty of opportunities to practice, practice, practice. And, as we all know, practice makes…
Plums, peaches, nectarines, pears, early varieties of apples, and a few late berries are bowing the tables at farmers markets. That’s a good thing for pie makers, particularly if you are willing to let your creativity flow. A classic apple pie is a kind of perfection in itself, but there will be plenty of time this fall to dote on apple pie.
How about throwing in some pears with those apples, for now? Cut the cinnamon with a little nutmeg and ginger for a new combination of flavors that will please many a palate.
This is the time of year for peach pie. If you can round up some blueberries, though, peach (or nectarine) and blueberry pie is a sure winner.
Little Jack Horner may have had a Christmas plum pie, but there is no better time than now for plum pie. The flavor of red or black plums is heightened by the addition of a little cloves, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. As with any seasonal fruits right now, be judicious in dealing out the spices. You don’t want to overpower the fruit. The same goes for sweetener, whether sugar, honey, agave, or maple syrup. Err on the side of less, rather than more, and let the fruit shine through.
Pears pair well with raspberries or blackberries, or throw some in with the plum pie. Apple-peach, peach-nectarine, triple berry, plum-peach… any combination that makes your mouth water at the thought is probably worth trying.
Custard pies dotted with fruit are a delight to some; seasonal fruits, however, deserve to stand on their own, I think. Wait until winter cloaks the town, then pull out those preserved fruits for the custard and cream pies.
Admittedly, it is not usually the fruit that causes consternation when making pie. It’s the pie crust. Everyone has his or her own recipe to swear by, and I am among them. Purists will clamor for white flour and lard or shortening. I am compelled to add at least a smidgeon of fiber to my pie crust, though, with the addition of whole wheat flour. It does make for a trickier roll out, but again: practice, practice, practice. (I’ve yet to reach perfection, although there have been a few close calls.) I find that a combination of vegetable shortening and butter provides a flaky crust that is flavorful, and a little baking powder lightens the finished product.
Try to not add too much liquid to the crust recipe. It will vary from time to time, due to humidity in the air. The dough should gather together easily, but not be wet. Be generous with dusting the board, to prevent the dough from sticking. A gentle touch, rolling from the center outward to the edge will prevent a tough crust. After all, if someone was repeatedly striking you aggressively with a rolling pin, wouldn’t you toughen up?
Sometimes, crusts tear. Sometimes, crusts shatter. It’s okay. A patched up pie crust is just as delicious as one unfolded perfectly atop a pile of fruit. By the time it is cut into pieces and the juices are oozing to the edge of the dessert plate (with maybe a little ice cream melting in), no one will care.
Pie, remember, is not about perfection, so go for it. Perfection is in the smiles that pie elicits.
My Pie Crust
1½ C white flour
½ C whole wheat pastry flour
¼ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 stick plus 2 Tbs unsalted butter, chilled
1/3 C vegetable shortening, chilled
1 Tbs honey or agave syrup
1/3 C or so of ice water, with juice of half a lemon in it
Grated rind of half a lemon
Place flours, baking powder, salt, honey, and grated lemon in food processor with steel blade. Pulse several times to combine.
Cut butter and shortening into small chunks. Place butter in processor and pulse about 5 or 6 times.
Add shortening and pulse a few more times. The butter and shortening should be pea sized or smaller.
If you prefer, these ingredients can be cut in by hand, using knives or a special pastry cutter.
Add water 2 Tbs at a time, pulsing two or three times between additions. Dough should just come together when touched.
Form dough into two equal pieces. Knead briefly and gently press into a slightly flattened round.
Wrap one piece in plastic and refrigerate.
Generously flour a board and place one dough round in center. Dust lightly with flour and using a gentle touch, roll out to about a 12-inch circle.
Place rolling pin at top of circle and wrap dough forward, lightly, onto the rolling pin. Continuing rolling until all of crust is resting around pin.
Place rolling pin at one edge of a 10-inch pie plate and gently unroll to other side. Lightly press dough into inside bottom edge of pie plate.
If the dough breaks or cracks, dab with a bit of water and using some of the overhang, press a piece of dough into place. Chill.
Remove other dough circle from refrigerator and repeat rolling process. Fill pie plate with fruit mixture and unroll top crust over it.
Press crusts together at edge of pie plate. Cut away any overhang of crust, and crimp the edge.
Cut four small incisions into top of crust. Brush with 2 tsp milk and sprinkle with about 1 Tb raw sugar.
Bake pie at 425 degrees for 20 minutes, on lowest rack, with a cookie sheet placed beneath it. Reduce heat to 350 and continue baking for 30 to 40 minutes, or until crust is deep golden and juices bubble out. Cool on a rack.
(PS — The overhang can be re-rolled, cut into strips and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar for a pastry cookie. Bake on a cookie sheet about 10-12 minutes, or until golden. We call these cookies “crusties” in our house.)
Peach Blueberry Filling
8 or 9 large ripe peaches, peeled and cut into thin wedges
1½ pints blueberries
1/3 C honey or agave syrup, or combination
½ tsp salt
¼ C corn starch
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp cloves
1/8 tsp cardamom
¼ tsp ginger
Mix all together and set aside. If the peaches are very ripe, it may produce a lot of liquid. Strain fruit out into prepared pie crust, then pour only however much juice seems necessary over the fruit.
The pie filling will thicken up as it cools.