The Path of Pie

When you grow up among Appalachian folk, pie is important.

Cake, yeah, yeah, some people liked cake, but really, a woman was measured by the quality of her pies.

Pies were where it was at.

If a woman could bake a pie, she was the mistress of the kitchen, the queen of the hearth, the lady who ruled the roost, because, gosh darn it, everyone loves pie.

And both of my grandmothers were wonders with pie.

Gram made delicious pumpkin pies, and Grandma–well, there never was a pie that came out of her kitchen that wasn’t delicious. And, as a farm wife with four kids, nine grandkids, fourteen great grandkids and numerous friends, fieldhands and neighbors just passing through, she made a whole passel of pies.

I hesitate to estimate how many pies my Grandma made in her life. I would not be surprised to think it over a thousand or so. That is a lot for a non-professional baker, working alone, making them by hand. (And what is even more amazing–by the time I was born, Grandma was a diabetic, and never ate any of the desserts I remember her baking so beautifully. She never even tasted them to see if they were seasoned correctly. She just knew.)

And really, I hesitate to even try and figure out how many -types- of pies she made over the course of her life. I will list a few, and probably bore everyone to death, but I am going to do it anyway, just out of my own sense of curiosity and adventure.

Apple, Dutch apple (that is apple with a struesel topping), apple-raisin, banana cream, blackberry, blackbottom, black raspberry, blueberry, blueberry-peach, caramel, cherry (sour), cherry (sweet), cherry chiffon, cherry-cheese (it was like a cherry-cheese danish in pie crust instead of sweet yeast dough), chess, chocolate creme, coconut cream, custard (plain and with any number of kinds of fruit), lemon chiffon, lemon chess, lemon meringue, mincemeat, peach, peanut butter, pecan, pumpkin, rhubarb, strawberry, strawberry chiffon, strawberry-rhubarb, sweet potato, and winter squash.

That is just what I can remember off the top of my head–I am sure if I asked my family to think about it, we could come up with another handful of pies that I forgot about. Also, those are only the dessert pies. She made savory pies, too–and quiches, but she called them pies, because a pie is Anglo-American (just like my Grandpa), and thus is good, hearty, stalwart food that can be trusted. Quiche is fancified French food and is not any good, nor to be trusted. But even if she called it pie, it was quiche, full of eggs and cheese and ham and asparagus and whatever else she felt like putting in it. She made a pie that was just her incomparable lard crust with sauteed onions, shredded sharp cheddar cheese and scallion tops baked to a bubbly browned perfection. Oh, that was good.

She even made something she called “succotash pie,” which had the ubiquitous mixture of fresh corn cut from the cob and lima beans baked with onions, a bit of bacon and some egg custard in a pie shell, then topped with cheese. I remember loving it, though I think that Grandpa sniffed at it, because I only remember her making it once.

Gram–she is my Dad’s mom–made lard crusts or lard and butter crusts. She had no use for Crisco or margarine. After having to use margarine during World War II, she swore off the stuff because she said, “There’s just something wrong with it. It ain’t natural to take something that is meant to be liquid and do something funny to it to make it solid. I bet you any old thing that it is worse for you to eat that then butter or lard.”

I was happy she lived long enough to hear the first findings that artificially hydrogenated vegetable fats are worse for the body than naturally hydrogenated animal fats. I remember her grinning at me and saying, “I told you so.”

Last night, while Dad was eating my blackberry-raspberry pie with the lard/butter crust, he said, “This crust has lard in it–I can tell–it is really flaky.” When I said, “Yeah, it is half lard and butter,” he nodded and said, “Your Gram used to make all lard crusts. In the summertime, when it was hot like now, she used to take a big bowl and fill it up with ice, and then set her mixing bowl down in it. She’d freeze the lard, and then put the flour in the bowl to chill down. Then, she’d cut the lard in in that really cold bowl, while the lard was still basically frozen. Then she’d add water and mix it together into dough, and chill it more before rolling it out.”

I had never thought of putting the mixing bowl down in a bowl of ice, but considering how hot it has been, and the fact that lard melts basically at body temperature, I might give it a go. I’ve never read about it in any of my cookbooks, either, so I suspect that it was a Gram innovation–if it makes the lard/butter dough easier to manage–I will certainly report on it.

So, this summer, I decided I wanted to live up to the family legacy of being good pastry makers. I have been making pie–one a week or so–with whatever fruit is available. I have made three sour cherry pies, one sour cherry and blueberry pie, two blackberry pies, and one blackberry-raspberry pie, and I have come to some conclusions.

One–a combination of butter and lard make the best pie crusts. Lard is hard to get–but I buy home-rendered lard from the farmers I buy pork from–but it really does make the best, flakiest crust.

Two–lard makes the dough that much harder to handle, because it is so soft and apt to melt or become gooey, especially in summer, when all that delightful fruit is in season, begging to be made into pie. This is the time to put your marble slab in the freezer, and chill your dough and utensils and ingredients at every stage of the operation. Trying to rush a lard-based or partially lard-based dough is a huge, ugly mistake.

Three–using kitchen shears to cut the edges of the pie crust after the pie has been filled results in the most even and nice looking edge.

Four–lard or partially lard crusts will not hold a tall fluted edge; use a different finishing technique that isn’t quite so showy. The tall flutes that will hold in an all butter crust, and harden, will droop in a partially lard crust.

Five–pie isn’t so hard as all of that, if you are patient, breathe deeply, go slowly and just do it.

Six–there are a whole arsenal of tricks and tools that can make rolling out the pie crust easier–I will outline them in a series of posts–do them. Try them. What works for me will probably work for anyone, because I was so utterly awful at making pie that if I can do it, anyone can do it.

Seven–fillings–use fresh or frozen fruit, never canned. Canned is gross. I am firmly of the belief that canned cherry pie filling is what convinced Dan that he hated cherry pie, which I know he doesn’t because I have seen him gobble down my cherry pies with no fuss, and then ask for more. Also–do not be afraid to add a few little flavor enhancers to your fruit fillings. I use lemon zest and rosewater for blackberries and raspberries, and either almonds and almond extract or the contents of a vanilla bean in sour cherries.

Eight–have fun and be whimsical. The path of pie is a long and winding one, full of twists and turns and surprises behind every corner. Enjoy the process. The journey is as important as the result.

Nine–if you are going to eat your pies, take up an exercise program. Pie crusts are fattening, being as they are made of fat and flour. Walk an extra mile or two, or take up swimming. Or, do like I do and take a pie to every gathering of friends and family so you can have a piece and everyone else eats the rest. Give pies to the neighbors, take them to church, to school, everywhere. No one will refuse pie. You will make new friends and save your waistline at the same time, while still mastering the art of pie baking.

Ten–and this is just to make it an even number–never be afraid of pie crust. I was scared of it for years for no good reason, because really–it is fat and flour. If you screw it up a few times, so what? The world will not end. The sky will not fall. You will not have to slit your belly with your chef’s knife from the dishonor. Loosen up, relax, go with the flow and just do it.

There is my pep talk on the subject of pie. Look for a couple more posts this week with recipes and step by step instructions on how to make the lard-butter crust that is, in my opinion, the best tasting and flakiest crust you can make, and then with instructions on what to fill that crust with once you have it all made and shaped.

I cannot help but think that my two grandmothers are somewhere or another in the afterlife, sitting on a creaky porch swing, smoking cigarrettes, and nodding.

“Well, Deana–looks like she got over herself and learned how to make pie,” Gram would say with a toss of her white locks and a cackle.

Laughing, Grandma would nod her bandana-wrapped head. Exhaling a wreath of smoke from her nostrils she’d say, “Yep, Dolly, looks like she did. And she put a vanilla bean in with cherries. Have you ever seen the like?”

“Nope. But I bet it was good.”


RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Ah, pie. My favourite thing. All kinds of pie. I’m with the Appalachian view. Cake is fine; but pie is a necessity. I used to pride myself that I made the best pastry. But when I showed my husband how to make pastry, he surpassed me. We’ve always used ice water to make it and chilled the pastry before baking. But that’s a great idea to put the mixing bowl into a bowl of ice.

    Of course, I’m with you on the fresh or frozen fruit too. However, we have made great cherry pie from canned sour cherries – not that disgusting canned stuff with cornstarch and sugar – just sour cherries in their own juice with some sugar. We drain the cherries (reserving the juice) and add a lot less sugar than we would to fresh sour cherries. Really. It’s terrific pie. It works with peaches canned in their own juice too.

    And my husband agrees 100% with you about the lard. But I prefer half butter, half vegetable shortening. Pastry made with lard is wonderful when it’s hot. What bothers me is when a pie crust made with lard gets cool. The lard coats the roof of the mouth and stays there being gummy. But maybe it’s because we’ve never had good lard?

    Succotash pie sounds terrific!


    Comment by ejm — August 3, 2005 #

  2. I have never had that problem with lard crusts–I bet you would like a pie made with half butter and half lard, though–I bet that mouthfeel you are describing would be ameliorated with the use mixed dough.

    I don’t get that feel with the lard, but I tend to use home-rendered lard. If you use hydrogenated lard–it may cause that mouthfeel. You may have to either render it yourself (a process which I abhor, and thus avoid) or see if you can find a farmer who does it and buy from them.

    Canned cherries do make good pies–I have used them in the past. Home canned cherries rock! That is what Grandma would do with excess cherries–she preferred doing that to freezing them.

    Now that I have canning equipment, I should haul off and do that….or make jam!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 3, 2005 #

  3. I think you read my mind! I just made a post asking for pie crust help over on LJ. Pie crust is one of those things that makes me want to hide in one of my cupboard drawers.

    I will be following this series closely because… I soooooo need help in this department.

    Comment by Kitarra — August 3, 2005 #

  4. Well, sometime tomorrow, I will write a post on how to put together the half butter, half lard dough, roll it out, shape it, fill it and bake it. The pie filling I will use to illustrate it is blackberry or blackberry-raspberry.

    There will be lots of pictures, and discussion of tricks and tools, too.

    Later, when I write about the organically grown Tahitian vanilla beans I just got off ebay, I will give the recipe for the sour cherry vanilla pie.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 3, 2005 #

  5. Wow, that is some good-looking pie. I realize that I tend to overstuff my pie, which may or may not be a bad thing. 😛

    I look foward to the rest of the pictures.

    3/4 of the pie is gone already!

    Comment by allen wong — August 3, 2005 #

  6. my best friend and I went through a “pie phase” a couple of years ago, during which we tried to become good at making pies. however, lacking guidance and advice, our mission failed (but we still ate our experiments without complaining much!). your latest post makes me want to take up the challenge again…but now I’m living in Tokyo and I’m not sure where I would get lard. Plus fresh fruit is so expensive. I may have to enjoy your pie vicariously (when is someone going to actually come through with that fabulous Charlie the Chocolate Factory invention by which one can transmit food via TV waves?!) for now and put off taking up the challenge until we are back in the States.

    Comment by jamie christine — August 4, 2005 #

  7. That is quite possible. I would be very surprised if the lard we used wasn’t hydrogenated. We’ll take a look next time we are shopping. My husband will be ecstatic if I relent on this point…

    We have been known to make pastry with all butter too. Kitarra, the secret for me is to handle pastry as little as possible. I am really looking forward to seeing your recipe, Barbara. As the others have said already, that pie looks fantastic. For comparison sake, here is the pastry recipe that I use:

    We just came across a recipe for an amazing looking apricot pie in Patricia Wells’ book “At Home in Provence”. She calls for all unsalted butter in her pastry. If we can find some decent looking apricots (should be able to in Chinatown) we’re making it for tonight.


    Comment by ejm — August 4, 2005 #

  8. a question about pans:

    The Wells recipe calls for a removable bottom fluted pan. We don’t have one but plan to make the pie anyway. Is there any reason, other than aesthetic, that the removable bottom pie plate would be used?


    Comment by ejm — August 4, 2005 #

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone! This is just a quick answer for Elizabeth–no, unless you want to serve the pie whole out of the pan for presentation purposes, you don’t have to have the tart pan.

    I’ll be back later, with a couple of posts. I just lost one–blogger and I are not getting on at this particular time. Argh!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 4, 2005 #

  10. Hello, Allen–you know, it is hard to overstuff a pie. Most fruits will cook down a good bit after being put in a pie crust, so I don’t worry much about it. I usually use something along the lines of five cups of fruit, more or less, to make a standard-depth nine inch diameter double crust fruit pie.

    I am glad that your pie was so well received! Keep up the good work, now…the more pies you make, the more your hands, head and heart will work together to make better ones. It is an art that takes practice.

    Welcome, Jaime Christine–you might be able to get lard in a food store which caters to Chinese clientele in Tokyo–most Chinese pastries and many dim sum dishes traditionally call for lard, though I am finding fewer and fewer people who actually use it these days. The expensive fruit–that I cannot help you with. I know for a fact that fresh fruits are just beastly expensive in Japan, and that is how it is. You could try canned fruit in its own juice or frozen fruit, but I bet those are expensive, too. I hope you do take up the challenge again, because if I can do it, anyone else can, too.

    Patricia Wells is a good writer, Elizabeth, so I am sure her apricot pie is great. Let me know how it went!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 5, 2005 #

  11. The Wells’ pie has distinct possibilities. We really like it and would have loved it if the apricots had been better apricots. Drat. They looked and felt okay but ( – excuse me, I just have to go away and curse for a bit – ) those stupid people insist on picking the fruit green and letting it ripen off the tree. I wonder if we got the apricots too late this year. I thought they would be at their peak right around now.

    However, this pie could be made with any fruit. I’ll post about it on my blog as soon as we try it again using plums or blueberries instead of crummy dull-tasting apricots. (I do wish that I lived beside an orchard!)


    Comment by ejm — August 5, 2005 #

  12. Mmmm…pie. I LOVE pie with a passion. Just a plain old apple pie will do me although I’ve been known to branch out. I also make a yummy, super-simple chocolate cream pie that even the picky kids in my fiance’s family will eat and ask for seconds.

    Jaime Christine – I lived in Tokyo earlier this year…for cheaper fresh fruit and a limited selection of frozen fruit, I recommend you find a 99yen (Kyu-Kyu) store. The quality won’t be fantastic, but you can definitely get apples that way, often frozen berries, and you can’t beat the price. I also got bags of apples at one of the local – NOT expat – grocery stories, about half a dozen for a bit under $10 US. In fact, stay far far away from Azabu National and the like…if you need expat goods, there’s a small grocery store in Ebisu Eki that has many of the same goods for cheaper.

    Comment by etherbish — August 8, 2005 #

  13. Thanks for the information on good food prices in Tokyo, Ladi! I hope Jaime Christine comes back and checks your comment out.

    I am waiting semi-patiently for apple season so we can have some good apple pies….

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — August 8, 2005 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress. Graphics by Zak Kramer.
Design update by Daniel Trout.
Entries and comments feeds.