Classic from December 1986
For me, nothing brings purpose to a day like making a pie. For me, nothing is more comfortable … comforting … than a pie.
Years ago, when I was first married and learning to cook, I resolved that above all else I wanted to be able to make excellent pies. The challenge of a pie lies in the crust. As a novice, I quickly learned that pie pastry that is tender and flaky, yet does not crumble when it is cut, requires more than carefully following a recipe. I found that a perfect crust resulted only when I had developed a feeling for the proper consistency of the dough, only when my handling of it was deft and knowing.
I began my apprenticeship as a pie maker under the guidance of an experienced cook whose skills were developed in a traditional Maine kitchen. Although she knew the old-fashioned technique of wrapping the edges of a pie with a strip of sheeting to seal its seeping juices, and the modern aberration of using vegetable oil for a foolproof crust, she shunned the regular use of either. She had learned how to seal her fruit and milk-based pies without the use of a fussy binder; she would not resort to what she considered ersatz methods for achieving a tender crust. Her use of hydrogenated vegetable shortening, rather than lard (which the true Maine cook will tell you gives pie pastry a superior flavor and texture), was her concession to progress. In all other ways she made her pies as her grandmother had before her.
I followed her sensible example and eventually approximated her skill as a pie maker. But my apprenticeship witnessed enough tough, misshapen crusts for me to gain a degree of respect for my successes that I have never lost.
The gestures and techniques of a pie maker are timeless. As the woodsman dropping his axe, the carpenter wielding his hammer, even the housewife with her broom all work with conventional motions, so too does the pie maker. I take comfort knowing that my homely task joins me in a simple way to homemakers of the past and, I trust, the future.
I begin with the flour into which I cut the shortening with two table knives crossed against each other again and again like scissors. I add ice water, rather than warm or tepid water from the tap, and achieve a ball of dough that is cool and smooth under my hands. I roll a circle of pastry, fold it, lift it, and lay it loosely (to allow for shrinkage) into my pie pan. If I am making a one-crust pie, I fold the raw edge of my pastry double, prop it up on the rim of my pie pan and using my thumb and first two fingers, press the dough into a neat, zigzag edging. For a two-crust pie, I roll out the top crust and mark it with openings to allow the steam from the cooking filling to escape.
These vents give me an opportunity to “sign” my pie. The “signature” I use for my everyday pies is three or four birds in flight. On the crust of my Washington’s Birthday cherry pie I carve a spray of cherries, using a doughnut hole cutter to make the holes that expose and imitate the glossy globes of fruit. At Thanksgiving I mark my crust with a primitive, spikey turkey with an S-shaped wattle. At Christmas I vent my mince pie with a Christmas tree cookie cutter.
When the top crust has been laid over the filling, I seal its edges with a fork, rotating the pie in quarter turns as I work my way around it. When it is sealed, I lift it, balance it on the palm of one hand and with the other cut away the excess pastry with the back of a table knife. The coil of pastry that mounds itself on my pastry cloth will not go to waste. When my pie is trimmed, I set it down and spin it between the palms of both hands, lightly pressing to seal again the edges of the crust.
I daub the top of my pie with milk before I put it into a 425-degree oven. The milk will help the crust to brown so that it will look as delectable as it tastes. There are other ways to treat the top of a pie. Some cooks smear it with a mixture of flour and shortening, which will cook into an extra layer of flaky crust. Others sprinkle their top crust with sugar.
One of the pleasures of a pie is the uses of the leftover crust. I make pinwheels or, if I have a generous amount of dough to deal with, turnovers. I make my pinwheels with ease, rerolling the little mound of dough, knowing it will not be tough from too much handling because I have been generous with my shortening. On the irregular piece of pastry I slather butter, which I sprinkle generously with sugar and cinnamon. I roll it like a jelly roll and cut it into 3/4″ pieces. Although the pinwheels go into the oven after the pie, they will come out first, and oh, the joy we will have eating the crisp, sweet, aromatic treats that have been a tradition in my family for at least four generations.
For turnovers, I cut the rerolled pastry into irregular shapes, drop a dollop of jam onto each, fold them over onto themselves, seal the raw edges with my fork, prick their tops two or three times, and pop them into the oven. The uncooked turnovers are heavy. They come out of the oven light and crisp, their browned crust drizzled with the seeping sticky syrup of the hot jam. They are for immediate eating, as are the pinwheels, serving to appease the hankering of children and spouse who have been drawn to the kitchen by the teasing aroma of the cooking pie.
One of the wonders of the lowly pie is that the choice of fillings seems limitless. For the most part my pie making follows a seasonal pattern. In February I make cherry pie. I make pineapple pie in late winter, using pineapple canned in its own unsweetened juice, and the look and taste of the golden filling seems to bring sun to cold, overcast days. I make rhubarb pie in the spring when the stalks of that old-fashioned “pie plant” are new. Only summer brings the possibility of a blackberry pie. The best apple pies are made in midsummer when the first green apples appear in the market, or in the autumn with newly picked Cortlands from a nearby orchard. And a mincemeat pie, made with Aunt Dotty’s homemade mincemeat rich with venison, apples, raisins, and brandy, is only for Christmas dinner.
There are one-crust pies that I consider seasonal, such as pumpkin (or squash). But all one-crust pies — custard, chocolate cream, coconut cream, lemon meringue — are superior when served in a pastry shell rather than in one of the sweet crumb crusts.
A pie can make a meal, too. There is Ham and Egg or Cheese and Onion Pie. Or pies made with leftover turkey or chicken or pot roast.
But my best beef pie is not made with leftovers. For my Meat and Potato Pie I cook cubes of lean beef in water with chopped onions and a bay leaf all day in a slow oven. When the meat is fork-tender I thicken the gravy and add cubed, cooked potatoes. Although Meat and Potato Pie, which came to our family by way of our English grandmother, was probably intended to be a two-crust pie, it has long been traditional for Butler family cooks to bake its crust in flat sheets. This “pie” comes to our table as a bowl of meat and potato cubes in rich gravy, accompanied by a napkin-lined basket heaped with squares of flaky crust. We crumble the crust over the serving of meat and potatoes on our plate or eat the squares as we would crisp crackers. I invariably make it when the snow lies around the door and the thermometer is plunging — what discomfort can a winter night hold when there is Meat and Potato Pie for supper?