Randy sends, in our CSA basket, a fat baggie of plump blueberries. Hmmm. Muffins? I ponder. There are not enough berries for a whole pie.
Then we have dinner with our old friends from Mount Vernon, and wonderful Larry hands me a gift bag as we are leaving. When we get home, I unpack it and discover a quart of sweet cherries.
Oh, that’s cool, I think: we can make a patriotic pie like the one I just saw on Facebook. One fourth of the pie has blueberry filling; the other is red fruit. On top, there are sugared pastry stars and stripes.
The cherries prove too tempting for Mark, though. By the time Friday–and baking leisure–rolls around, only a cup or so is left. We have blueberries, we have cherries, and we have a couple of apples.
Let’s, suggests Mark, put them ALL in a pie. So, aided and abetted by Joy of Cooking, which supports all kinds of adventurous fruity filling combinations [and inspired by our friend Wendy, a renowned pie-baker: Wendy visits each summer, scouts the farmers’ market and combines what’s ripe–peaches, maybe? Blueberries, perhaps?–into one glorious and unforgettable pastry-baked treat], we do. There’s actually enough filling for TWO pies, once all the mixing and seasoning is done,–two smallish pies in pie tins saved from store-bought pie experiences. The cherry-berry-apple pie is GOOD.
Mark takes one to work to share, and people like him for it. Debbie, who works in his office, says the pie is fine, but she really likes the crust. Tell Pam, she says, to try making pinwheels sometime…to pat the crust and butter it and sprinkle on some cinnamon sugar…
See there, I think. Pie is not just a dessert; it’s a theme and it’s a thread. It’s past and present all rolled up and hog-tied into one. Mark, too, has fond memories of leftover crust, buttered and cinnamon-sugared, and baked until it’s crisp…sweet crunch of innocence and youth…
We all, I think, have a story, we all have a LIFE, of pie.
The crust was the thing for my mother; she couldn’t get the knack of a rich, flaky crust. Hers were sodden and heavy, though the fillings were wonderful. We each had favorites. My father [insert groans and gagging noises] cherished minced meat pie, which he generally only got at Christmas–that must have had childhood connotations for him.
My skinny, bespectacled brother Dennis was renowned for his pie-eating ability, but he was especially partial to cherry. And he was known, too, for finding the one lone pit left in a cherry pie. He became so well known, in fact, for crunching on the cherry stone that a friend’s mother–the kind of freckled, outdoorsy woman who wore one piece gym suits to energetically clean house, grocery shop, and herd children–decided to make a joke. She put a cherry pit into a cream pie and marked the piece. When serving time came, she made sure Dennis got the pitted piece.
To her horror, he broke a tooth. But his cherry pit legend grew and grew.
Some of my brothers liked apple pie, and others liked chocolate pudding pie. I was partial to lemon meringue. If my mother didn’t have the knack for crusts, she certainly mastered meringues–hers were high and fluffy, dewed with sweet drops and limned in golden brown.
Often we would eat the filling and leave the crust, as if it were a cozy, inedible, legless chaise lounge on which the filling had sat.
Pondering all this all got me wondering about how long pie has been around, and I went to a site called What’s Cooking (whatscookingamerica.net) to gather some background. I found there that the concept of a pastry crust as food container has deep historical roots. I discovered that, for hundreds of years, the pastry was just the thing that held the filling–more of a dish or a carrying case than a tasty part of a pie. In fact, the author tells me, early pies in England were called ‘coffins’ after the pastry encasement (‘Coffin,’ the author points out, meant box or basket at that time, not a repository for a carcass. Although, now that I think about it, if we’re talking about a meat pie, maybe ‘coffin’ is not so far off.)
A pie without a top crust was known as a trap.
Crusts were thick and pretty unappetizing–made to stand up to hours of baking, and to travel and time. Crusts were, originally, basically just disposable baking pans. (I don’t know if that knowledge would have comforted my mother.)
What’s Cooking tells me that the making of pies goes back, far back, in human history–back, at least, to Egyptian cuisine in 9500 BC. In early United States days, it was pretty common for pioneer housewives to serve some sort of pie at every meal—think of those hard-working farmers devouring a big slice of apple pie with their bacon and eggs before heading out to hitch up the mule and plow the back forty.
Pie has global roots, but the United States has embraced pie, has made it a national icon; we jealously guard it as a national treat. Mark Twain–and one doesn’t get much more American, quirks and all, than Twain–was a dab hand for eating US pie, and a scathing critic of European versions. (He once wrote a recipe for English pie; the last step, he said, was to seal it up and let it petrify, then serve it to one’s enemy.)
(Perhaps it was Twain who coined the phrase “as American as apple pie.” I am pretty sure, though, that exquisitely wonderful pies exist outside these red-white-and-blue borders, Twain’s opinion or no.)
As I grew into cooking age, I found I longed to master the art of flaky pastry. It would be a score for me in that mother-daughter cooking competition. Our first friendly battlefield was the art of the chocolate chip cookie. The second could be the pie crust. Later, I was motivated by the fact that my significant other’s ex had a pie-baking reputation. I vowed, vain young person that I was, to equal or surpass her mark.
I learned about using ice water and about chilling your shortening. There were decided schools of thought about lard versus butter versus plain old shortening. Advice bounced and conflicted on what sort of mixing tool to use–forks or knives or wooden spoons, or maybe, even fingers. I found a wire pastry cutter in a bin at a second hand emporium; that proved to be the perfect mixing tool for me (and it was so well-made that I still cut the fat into the flour with that very same tool today).
But every pastry recipe would adjure me: handle lightly. Dough becomes tough with excess handling. There was something that went against my grain in not kneading a dough into a smooth, firm ball. I suspect my mother had the same challenge. I just HAD to work the dough excessively. And it was always tough.
And then came the day I poured out my plight to a lovely friend, Gretchen. And Gretchen shared a recipe she’d gotten from her friend Karen. This recipe incorporated a splash of vinegar and an egg, and one batch made enough crust for FIVE pie crusts. This crust was flaky and good no matter how long I man-handled it.
This recipe (shared at the end of this post) remains my go to crust recipe today.
So, I had a crust method that worked, and I went through long pie-baking phases. I saw a photo in Country Living magazine thirty years ago; it showed a pie with the top crust decorated with pastry roses. For a long time, I topped my pies with sculpted pastry glued to the crust with eggwash, shining with sugar.
I had a lattice crust phase.
I had my crumb topping era.
After a gentleman at a church potluck commented that no one made it from scratch anymore, I went through a militant meringue period.
But I calmed down eventually.
Today, I try to keep a batch of Gretchen’s pie dough on hand, in the freezer. Just in case, say, there are leftovers enough to make a chicken pot pie, lush with tiny onions and plump peas. Just in case sweet friends send over a variety of fruits and berries.
My friend, this summer, I hope crusts are flaky and fillings satisfy. This summer, I wish you all the happiness of pie.
Pie Crust Recipe Shared by Generations of Women (from Gretchen, who got it from Karen, who learned it from her grandmother…)
Mix with a fork:
1-3/4 cups shortening, 1 tablespoon of sugar, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 4 cups of all-purpose flour.
In a separate bowl, use the fork to stir together 1 tablespoon of vinegar, 1 egg, and 1/2 cup of water.
Combine the two mixtures, stirring with a fork until all ingredients are moistened. Mold dough into a ball. Chill at least 15 minutes.
Divide the dough into five portions. Each will make a top or bottom crust for a standard pie. It can be refrigerated for up to three days, or frozen. It’s always tender, even with excess handling…