Summer in Michigan means it’s pie-making season. But in a stereotypically contrarian Slate piece a few weeks ago we are told that “Pie Sucks.” (I’m waiting for Slate to declare “Online News is Dead! Long Live Print!”)
Who but a sadist would take a basket of ripe seasonal fruit and bake it into mush? Who would labor over flaky pastry crust that’s destined to get soaked before it’s ever tasted? Unlike the tart, which sits low and topless in a shallow pan with a svelte layer of topping, pie requires a hefty piece of bakeware with outward-sloping sides, practically dooming the pastry to collapse. And unlike a torte—a short and modest cake combining fruit and nuts in balanced proportions—most modern pies rely on giant reservoirs of loose filling or inches of piled custard and whipped cream. A slice of strawberry tart with coffee is the perfect overture to a postprandial drink, a late conversation, or a night of love. Eat an oozing slice of strawberry pie, and it’s time to look for Tums and go to bed.
I don’t know what kind of pies Mr. Heller has been eating, but I’ve never required a Tums after eating a slice of pie. I would venture to say that if you don’t enjoy eating pie, you don’t enjoy eating.
Plus, I enjoy not just eating pies, but baking them.
Baking is one of those things I found I liked by accident. Had I not become a stay-at-home-dad, I never would have found out that I enjoyed baking. Because had I not become a stay-at-home dad I don’t know that I ever would have attempted to bake anything.
It started with pre-made cookie dough bought at the store. They were okay. I found them to be hard-chewy and not the delicious soft-chewy of fresh-baked cookies.
So I wondered, “Well, how difficult is it to make your own cookie dough?”
Not hard at all. I asked my mother what recipe she used for making chocolate chip cookies. She said the Nestle recipe but with another 1/3 cup of flour. This gives the cookies a bit more heft. I also use Ghirardelli chocolate chips in place of Nestle chips.
I like making the batter for various kinds of cookies. The kids like this, too, especially because I let them lick the batter off the mixing beater, which my mother used to let my sister and I do. Even now, I still take a lick or two of batter off the beater.
Back to pies.
Two years ago, my wife bought a lot of blueberries from our local farmer’s market. After using them on cereal, on pancakes, and in muffins, I decided, what the hell, we have so many left I’ll use the rest to bake a pie. I need to do something different.
I pulled out our very tattered and banged up copy of The Joy of Cooking from the shelf and read up on making pies.
Notice the burn marks on the side and that the binding is falling off?
We didn’t have any lard, but we had plenty of butter, so I opted for the flaky butter crust (pâte brisée). I only had time to make the dough that night. So I made the dough and put it in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, I got up early and rolled out the dough to make the crust. Then I made the filling. This is the pattern I still use for making the crust; mixing the dough at night then refrigerating it, then rolling the dough out in the morning and baking the pie. It’s what works for me.
(BTW, I find that egg yolk brushed on the bottom of the crust keeps it from getting soaked if the ingredients are wetter than usual.)
In the morning my wife asked me what I was doing and I said I was making a pie.
“You made your own crust?” she said with wonder, astonishment, and concern all in one tone.
“Yes,” I said, as if it was the most normal thing to do, despite never before having baked a pie or made my own pie crust.
“You do realize that no one makes their own pie crusts, right?”
“Really? They don’t?” I said, wholly clueless.
“Yes, because it’s a lot of work making your own crust.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.” For some reason, it had not seemed out of the ordinary to me to chop up two sticks of butter and work fast to cut the pieces into the flour quickly before the butter melted (until they’re pea-sized) and then do the same with the shortening, then cut cold water into this mixture with a spatula, all the while paying careful attention to the consistency, work the dough with my hands to form two large round discs which, wrap the discs in cling wrap to chill overnight, then in the morning scrupulously clean the kitchen counter, cover it with flour and use a rolling pin to roll out the two discs to make the shell and top for the pie, which were put in the fridge again as I prepared the blueberry filling.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s why most people just buy the pre-made pie crusts at the store.”
Too late. I had no idea making your own pie crust was hard. I just did it by closely following the directions in The Joy of Cooking.
After putting in the filling, covering the pie, and crimping the edges, I baked the pie.
My wife tasted that first pie and was blown away, running to Facebook to say something along the lines that she thought she had married a pastry chef. Compliments are great, especially coming from your wife. I’ve gone on to make cherry, strawberry-rhubarb, and apple pies, always making my own crusts. I like the crusts I make better than those on the pies of that much-loved Michigan staple known as the Grand Traverse Pie Company. My goal this summer is to get some leaf lard to use in pie crusts. So far, it looks like I’ll have to drive all the way to Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor to get some.
I love to bake pies because I love to eat the results, a la mode or not, after dinner, in the afternoon, or even for breakfast. Oh, don’t turn your nose up at the latter. What’s better for you for breakfast: a donut or a slice of fruit pie? They’re both sweet and go well with coffee.
So call me a “sadist” when it comes to fruit pies. I can live with that.