Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sweet pie o' mine

Honestly, I think I missed the butter bus. When I was a kid, I just did not understand it. Why, for example, did people put a layer of butter under the maple syrup on pancakes? This did not make sense to me at all--as far as I could tell, butter was flavorless or salty, and did not go with sweet foods. I did use it on my baked potatoes, but over the years I began seasoning them with excessive black pepper, and then garlic powder, and then crushed red pepper flakes...because these things had flavor, and butter was just, NOTHING. I remember a friend telling me she would eat spaghetti with butter...but no parmesan cheese. This completely shocked and revolted me. Today, I would rather dip my bread in olive oil than use butter.

Similarly, I never understood the draw of pie crust, which as we know is basically butter and flour. It was just this flavorless, starchy bottom to an otherwise delicious fruity filling. In high school, I spent a lot of time with my friend Grace, over at her house--she and her family LOVED pie. They were really into making pie crust, and eating pie, and had very high standards and strong opinions. But I never got what all the fuss was about.

Things began to change when I visited Grace in the UK where she lives now (this was in 2000, jeez she has been there for a long time) and we went on a four day-long road trip through Scotland. We had a giant thing of Walkers Shortbread, which I was initially not interested in at all...but grew to LOVE. When I think of that trip I picture looking out the window (on the wrong side) of a tiny red car (which, we later realized, had a donut spare tire on the whole length of our drive, oops) at beautiful, rainy hills and lakes and sheep, and the crinkly red plaid wrapper of shortbread. And the flavor: plain, a little salty mixing with the sweet, a little crunchy, a little tender...

Anyway, I guess now, nearly ten years on, I think I am starting to get it. Fat and flour can be magical together.

And yet--it is a HUGE DEAL. People never make pie crust, and if they do they talk about it like they parted the dead sea. Or red sea, whatever. I just don't think it should be so major. I've read and edited scores of pastry recipes, made a few over the years, and I reject the idea that it is so difficult. I mean it's basically two ingredients! Do we really need to be buying this stuff premade? (OK maybe puff pastry or phyllo--that is different. I'm talking here about ordinary, American-style pie crust).

So the first crust I have made recently was back in September or something, for the True Blood finale party. If you watch it, I recreated the maenad's human heart pie, BUT fortunately with homemade tomato sauce and turkey meatballs. The crust recipe is from my Joy of Cooking from the 70s (from Scott's awesome Grandma Harvey) and it used part butter and part veg shortening, aka, transfat. I happened to have some Crisco from when I made Christmas cookies a year or so ago (it is used in the frosting, I think so it doesn't go rancid), so I made the crust as directed. As you can see, it's kind of lumpy and bad looking, but people really liked it, and it was crisp and flakey and all that nonsense. But, I didn't actually eat more than a nibble of the crust, since I hate meatballs. It looks cool though. Yeah that's a heart on top, and that's a four pack of TruBlood type O negative. As you can see, I took very little care with rolling and making it smooth and everything.
This Thanksgiving I wanted to try again, and thought I would do better. I also didn't want to use the Crisco. It would be all butter. The principles are so could I go wrong?

You start with a ton of butter in a bowl of flour with some salt.

Then you use your hands to work it in till it looks like this. If you are fancy, you use a pastry cutter thingy, which I don't have. And actually I went a bit longer than this, till it was more like cornmeal, as the Joy said.

Then I sprinkled in the cold water. You then work it into a doughy mass. I know you don't want to overwork it, but that's about all I know. So from here I mushed it up till it held together, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge. It does best to chill for 24 hours. I gave it about two.

Then, I took it out and attempted to roll it. And here is where I ran into problems: I did not have a surface large enough. I seemed to have enough dough for a double crust, even though all I needed was a single. It overhung the cutting board and was a real pain. So I decided, why struggle to roll it thin and smooth, and then have a lot left over with no real purpose? I left it nearly a half inch thick, hoisted it into the pan, pushed it in by hand and smoothed it out as best I could.

It was uneven in color and texture. Does this mean I should have worked it more, or is it supposed to be this way? I did not know and still don't. I pricked it with a fork and put it in the oven.

ROUGH! Grace would not approve. But I had also made a kind of cookie thing which I ate when it was cool enough. It was good! It was crumbly and satisfying and not so different from shortbread.

As for the pumpkin pie...I have a lot of pumpkin related posts coming up. I made this from a roasted sugar pumpkin and a roasted acorn squash (because there was a pumpkin shortage this year!) Per the Joy, I mixed them up with heavy cream (no sweetened condensed crap), sugar and eggs and seasonings, and cooked it in this makeshift double boiler, then poured it in the crust.

The finished pie was...medium. It had good points and bad points. The crust was thick and crumbly and had a good texture on the teeth and was super satisfying, and the flavors of the filling were amazing. However, it looked pretty bad, and the filling was not thick enough. If you sliced it really cold it held its shape OK, but then tended to run. None of which stopped me from eating the pie for days and days until it was gooooooooooone....

The bottom line is, whether you love pastry or just think it's medium, it's worth it to try it out yourself. I think a lot of people aren't even sure what they like or don't like in crust--I know I didn't--and the idea that it is this impossible, magical food that no one can make at home has been foisted upon us by the devils at Pillsbury. I would like to try it out more, read some more recipes, and work on my rolling and shaping skills. But I am happy with my lumpy, ugly, trans-fat free crust just the way it is, too.

1 comment:

  1. o jessica, i am so proud of you and your pie adventure! you have seen the light. now all you need is lots of practice, you are definitely on the right road. and perhaps a trip to montpelier vermont for advanced coaching, oh and don't forget to get some exercise: you can enjoy more pie that way,

    love, karen j