My Grandma baked the most beautiful pies.
Part of their beauty rested in her ingredients; she only used lard, rendered from the hogs she and Grandpa raised, and the flavor was exquisite. Rich and full of the wonderful brown flavors that still speak to me of earth and its bounty. The texture was perfection itself; when you bit into those crusts, they would shatter into multitudes of flakes, then melt blissfully into your mouth.
I was an odd child–while my cousins were all gobbling down the filling and the top and bottom crust, I ate the fluted pastry edge first, and then scavenged the edges that they would leave behind. That is not to say I didn’t like the sweet fillings–I did, especially when she made cherry pie from fresh sour cherries.
But pie has always been about the crust for me.
I watched her make pie crust countless times, but I was not allowed to help. I helped with bread dough and biscuits and cookies and cakes, but pie crust was a mystery that was best left to Grandma’s talented hands.
I remember that she never measured out her flour, lard and water out very carefully. If at all. It looked rather to me like she put flour in a bowl, plumped down a glob of lard and then cut it together with either a fork or two knives, depending upon how she felt at that moment, I suppose. When the lard was worked in to her satisfaction (as I recall there were lots of different sized lumps in the bowl, some the size of peas, some granular and a few bigger pieces–not quite the size of a butter pat, but almost), then she would take a spoon, and scoop out of her glass of ice water, then drizzle what looked like precious few drops of water. Then she would gather it together with her hands, and work the dough into a ball. She’d cut it in half or quarters, depending on how many pies she was baking, and then either roll it out that minute, or chill it for a short time while she peeled and cut up apples or stirred the pumpkin on the stove or pitted cherries.
I was allowed to help with those chores, so long as I kept the number of cherries I ate to a minimum and was careful not to drop my long hair into the pot of pumpkin as it cooked down.
Then, she would roll out the dough between two sheets of saran wrap or waxed paper.
They were perfect rounds, and were seldom shaggy at the edges.
Then she would fit the bottom crusts into pans, fill them up, then roll the top crusts and lay them over the fillings. And with swift, practiced fingers, she would flute the edges beautifully–tucking the fillings into bed, she would call it. Then she would give me a little knife and I was allowed to cut vents into the top crust (so the pie could breath, she said) in the form of leaves, flowers, or letters of the alphabet. If the pie was for me, a “B” would go on it, as fancy as I could make it. If it was just a pie because that was what was for dessert, then leaves and stars and cat’s faces it was.
After watching this so many times, one would think that I would have inherited some of her pie making ability.
No such luck.
Pie making keeps me humble as a cook; if I didn’t have a culinary failing, I’d have an ego the size of Emeril’s and would be unbearable.
Though I did learn a bit from Grandma, because I don’t overwork my dough and I am careful to touch it with my hands as little as possible. She always told me that my hands were too hot to play with pie dough much–I would melt the lard, and make the crust tough. I listened to her admonitions enough times that when I cut in the fat, I never do as Madeline Kamman does, which is rub it together with her fingertips. Madeline can do that because she is special and her fingertips are magic. In fact, it looks to me like she puts a pile of flour down, and a lump of butter and then diddles her fingers in the air over it and somehow, voila! Magically, pastry dough appears, and she smiles her twinkly Alsatian smile and I am left wondering, “How the hell did she do -that-?”
When I was in culinary school, even though I was in the chef track, not the pastry track, I had to take two baking and pastry classes. That was okay, the pastry students had to take a couple of cooking classes, so we could laugh at each other as we walked by each other’s classrooms. Baking students would giggle as they looked in the observation windows to see cooking students fumbling and dropping dough on the floor. We cooks, however, could always get back by observing a baking student staring morosely into a bubbling vat of stock, with a spoon in hand as they listlessly skimmed scum off the top and dreamed of making choux paste.
I didn’t mind my baking classes, though I did something stupid in my second baking class and admitted that I didn’t love to bake. In fact, it made me nervous. In fact, it gave me fits. I was the only one to raise my hand when our chef asked if any of us hated baking. He asked me why, and then I looked around and saw I was the only ass to have raised my hand. I scolded everyone else. “Liars! I know some of y’all hate baking–I heard you say so just outside five minutes ago.” The chef half-grinned and said, “So you are honest. Tell me why.”
“Because it is nerve wracking, and I am clumsy and you have to measure (even in culinary school I never measured–I just cooked. Drove the other students mad.) and it is all so precise and it gives me the willies.”
At least some of the kids nodded in agreement.
So, the chef divided us up into groups, and gave my group all of the hardest stuff–but the most fun stuff. At the end, when I presented my final project–an apple walnut strudel (yes, we hand stretched the dough) with caramel sauce and crème anglaise with a garnish of sugar stars (yes, we made those by hand, too), the chef graded it and then looked up at me slyly. “So, did you have fun?” I had to admit that I had. “And do you like baking?”
I had to admit that I did.
But I get ahead of myself. Before that class, where we made croquembouche and strudel and spun ethereal veils of golden sugar out of syrup, I had to take the basic baking class where I ended up being in my own group by myself because the chef said that the kids in my group were so clueless that I was carrying them. So, I ended up working alone, which was great while we made bread, and wonderful when we did cakes, laminated doughs and pastry creams.
It was not so good when it came to pie dough.
By the time we got to pie dough, I had already shown that I could make tender biscuits, good baguettes, and wonderful croissants. My genoise was even up to par and the Italian buttercream and the ganache were great–they involved cooking, after all.
But when it came to rolling out the dough for a simple two crust pie, I sucked.
The chef came by and watched over my shoulder as I struggled with the rolling pin. Beneath it, my formerly round disk of dough turned into a shaggy-edged map of some unknown country where people apparently cannot make pies. There was an explosive sigh. “What the hell is that?” chef asked.
“The bottom crust?” I squeaked as he grabbed the pin from my hands and turned my map into a decent looking pie crust.
He went on, muttering, to help the other students who were turning out pies that looked like they were ready for Saint Martha Stewart to come by and bless. When we carried our pies up to have them graded, mine was lopsided, the fluting was ragged and uneven, and the cut-outs on the top were crooked. The girl behind me had made her top crust entirely of leaves cut from dough and arranged artfully over the filling. I was an utter failure.
Years later, after Zak and I bought our first house, we had my parents, my daughter and friends over for Thanksgiving. I made a sweet potato pie–mostly because it only takes one crust. I used a pate brisee recipe for the dough, and rolled out a god awful ragged edged thing, and struggled to put it in the pan, dropped it so that it hung off the counter and dangled over the floor where two cats were waiting to deposit hair on it. I scooped it up and plopped it into the pan, and struggled to get it to fit right. I ended up cutting the long edges off one side and mushing them onto the short edge of the other side. I tried to be all Martha Stewart with the scraps and cut out leaves and make the edge that way rather than flute it.
When it was ready to go into the oven, it looked pretty good. The filling certainly tasted good–I had spiked it with Bailey’s Irish Cream, so how could it be bad?
When it came out, however, it wasn’t quite so pretty.
One side of the pastry had slumped, making the edge crooked and rather pathetic looking.
It did taste good, however, and the pastry was flaky and flavorful.
So, I began the quest to make a pretty pie.
This Thanksgiving–three years later–my daughter and I made two pies–one for our household and one for my parents. The filling was apples, golden raisins and dried cranberries. I made the crust for one pie out of lard, the other out of half lard and half butter, not out of any spirit of experimentation, but because I ran short of lard.
I assembled the first pie crust, the all lard one, showing Morganna how to cut the fat into the flour, and sprinkle in just the tiniest bit of water. Then she put together the second one, and we put the crusts in the refrigerator, where they would rest until after Thanksgiving dinner the next day.
The next afternoon, we pulled out the dough, and I began rolling.
Morganna perched on the counter next to me and giggled.
“Oh my God, Mom!” she crowed. “You really can’t roll out pie crust to save your life.”
Beneath the rolling pin what had been a round disk was turning into something jagged edged and freeform and appalling.
“It looks like a map of Australia,” she declared mirthfully. “It is so weird to see you fumble something up in the kitchen!”
At least I was entertaining.
We put the first pie together and it slumped and slouched in its pan, the fluting resembling the rambling path of a crazed drunk. The acorn-shaped cutout I made in the center for a vent was off center and stretched so it looked like a lopsided circle. Morganna kept giggling.
While I rolled out the crusts for the second pie, I appealed to a higher authority. I appealed to St. Martha of the Pie Crusts and begged that her holy power enter my hands. (For the record, I don’t think much of Martha Stewart–I knew a chef who worked with her who never spoke ill of anyone else but her–he said she was a horrible person. On the other hand, she is the epitome of a person who makes pretty pie crusts.) As I rolled, this crust didn’t look quite so bad, as I began speaking a mantra of Marthaisms to myself.
Morganna still giggled, and the pie crust still looked like a map, this time of Germany instead of Australia, but, once the second pie was together, the fluting was straight and the crust looked quite good.
We baked them, and the first pie looked pretty bad, but the second one was quite decent. In fact, it qualified as the prettiest pie I had ever made.
Morganna said decisively, “Give Grammy and Poppy the ugly one.” I frowned. “That isn’t nice.”
She said quite matter-of-factly, “Mom, if you give them the pretty one, they will expect every other pie you give them to be pretty. Knowing your luck, this is the only pie you will ever make that will not only taste great, but look good, too. If you give them the ugly one, and all of the rest of your pies are pretty, then it will be a pleasant surprise.”
Her logic was impeccable.
We ate our pie–and we discovered that a mixture of lard and butter makes the best crust–flaky and tender, with a complex and utterly divine rich flavor.
A few weeks ago, at Sur la Table, I taught a class in raclette. I decided that since the main thrust of the class was about melted cheese, which doesn’t much require a recipe, I should present other recipes that would round out a menu if people wanted to have a party. I decided on a puff-pastry (no, I did not make it myself–do you think I am nuts?) crusted cheese, bacon and onion “pizza” from Alsace called a Flammenkueche for an appetizer and an apple and pear galette for a dessert.
A galette is made with a single pate brisee crust that is laid on a baking sheet, and a single layer of fruit is laid on the bottom and the edges of the pastry are folded over and perhaps pleated. It is meant to look “rustic.”
Rustic is good if you are a fumble fingers when it comes to pastry.
The class went really well, though I started to beat myself over having to get up and make a pie crust in front of people. Morganna, who was assisting with the class started giggling early, just to practice up, I guess. The culinary coordinator, Shelley, however, pointed out that it was a hands-on class. Which meant–I could have other people demonstrate putting the dough together, rolling it out and shaping it.
As Peter Pan would say, “Oh, the cleverness of me!”
I went ahead and made the first dough disk in order to have it properly chilled. No one was watching, so they couldn’t hear me saying “hail Marthas” under my breath.
By the time it came to make the dough and roll it out in class, I admitted up front that I am terrible at making pies. I told my students, “That is what is cool about a galette–it is a pastry made for butterfingered, pastry-inept people like me. If I can do it, you can do it.”
I found that my admission boosted the confidence of the students, and when they came up to help put the dessert together, they did a great job. The older woman who came up to roll out the dough was a dear grandmotherly sort who swore she had never been able to roll out dough. I had her roll it out on a silpat, with a piece of saran wrap over the dough, and I stood at her side, encouraging her along the way.
She did great–it was a circle, with just a few shaggy bits at the edges. She grinned when she was done and said, “I never have been able to do that!” All she needed was coaching, I guess.
The woman who came up to shape the edges of the galette had never made pie successfully either. She was very tentative at first with the pinching and pleating, but buoyed by the simplicity of it, she ended up making it look fantastic in a rustic, informal way. Which is how it is supposed to be. Which means, it was perfect.
What was not perfect was the oven. The thermostat was off by fifty degrees, so it took longer to bake than normal. Of course, I pointed out that even if your oven is messed up, look how wonderful the result is.
And it was–I glazed it with melted apricot jelly and it really looked fine.
As I read the comments left on the form after class, several of the students said I should teach a class in how to make pies. I can only imagine the title–“Pasty for Butterfingers.”
So, for all of you out there who shudder with horror at the thought of baking pies, let me stand as a testimony for you–there is hope. You can do it, eventually. With practice and appeals to St. Martha of the Perfect Pies, you may be able to make a lovely pie.
Or if not, make a galette. They are supposed to look different. Rustic.
And take heart–as I said to my students–you cannot be more fumble-fingered than me.
I learned the trick of putting crisp cookie crumbs under the fruit so that they absorb some of the juices so there are not drastic overflows into the bottom of the oven from an article in Fine Cooking Magazine.
Do not use really juicy apples like Granny Smith in this recipe or there will be a drastic overflow, cookie crumbs be damned.
Ingredients for Pastry:
2 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 tbsp. sugar
½ tsp. salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch pieces and chilled
2/3 cup ice water
In a large bowl, mix together dry ingredients. Cut in the chilled butter using a stand mixer a food processor or pastry blender until the butter is evenly distributed but still in larger than a pea-sized (sugar cube sized is fine) pieces. Add the ice water all at once to the flour and butter. Mix together the dough until it begins to come together (If you are using a food processor or mixer, be careful not to over mix), and gather the dough with your hands. Cut the gathered dough in half and shape it into two disks. Wrap the disks in plastic and refrigerate for at least one hour. (This recipe makes dough for two tarts–you can freeze one of the disks for future use if you like, up to two months. Thaw in fridge one day before using.) Preheat oven to 400 degrees while dough chills.
Ingredients for filling:
½ cup crushed vanilla biscotti or crisp almond cookies
1 tbsp. all purpose flour
2 large baking apples like Cortland, Empire, Jonathan or Rome
2 large Bartlett Pears
1 disk galette dough
1 tbsp. melted butter
2 tbsp, sugar
2 tbsp. melted apricot or apple jelly–optional
Adjust oven rack to center of oven.
Combine biscotti crumbs and flour.
Peel, core and slice apples and pears thinly.
Put a silpat down on a rimless baking sheet, or use kitchen parchment.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out galette dough into a 15 inch round. Transfer the dough to the lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with crumb mixture evenly, leaving a 2 inch border without crumbs.
Arrange the fruit slices in concentric circles over the crumbs, overlapping slightly, still leaving the 2 inch border.
Lift edges of dough over the filling and pleat slightly to make a nice pretty edge. Brush with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar.
Bake 45 minutes–until crust is browned and the fruit is cooked and tender. Slide galette off silpat and onto cooling rack–cool 10 minutes before slicing. If you wish, you may brush with a glaze of warm apple or apricot jelly before serving to make a shiny finish.
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