Pie season has arrived

By NANCY ZEMAN nzeman@prairiepress.net
Posted 10/21/19

The aroma of freshly baked pie wafting from a cozy kitchen instantly warms the hearts of those basking in its glory. Fall is prime pie-baking season, and there is no better time to try your hand at a …

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Pie season has arrived

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The aroma of freshly baked pie wafting from a cozy kitchen instantly warms the hearts of those basking in its glory. Fall is prime pie-baking season, and there is no better time to try your hand at a few new autumnal desserts than right now.

We have loved pie longer than we have loved baseball. Even before we had a flag, we had pie. And though Americans like to take credit for this touchstone dessert, especially around Thanksgiving, the truth is that pie existed long before the first Pilgrim set a buckled shoe on Plymouth Rock.

Today, pie is as iconic as ever, and though there are plenty of shortcuts, baking a homemade pie is still a feat to be proud of. That’s why so many virgin bakers dance around their first pie dough. Pie symbolizes everything we value: ingenuity, resilience and a mother’s love. Who wants to fail at those?

Every culture has made its mark on pie. As far back as 1300 B.C., Egyptian bakers were experimenting with a primitive pie dough. The Greeks were the first to mix flour and water into a thick paste that could wrap — and preserve — meat. The first published Roman recipe came from the Roman Cato the Censor, for a goat cheese and honey pie.

According to the American Pie Council, fruit pies or tarts and pasties were probably first cooked in the 1500s, when English pastries brimmed with pears, quinces and apples. English lore credits Queen Elizabeth I with making the first cherry pie.

When the Pilgrims landed, they made use of the exotic ingredients they discovered around them. Since the sweet apples and other fruit found in England had not yet made it across the Atlantic, settlers turned to their Native American neighbors who recommended a few tasty berries.

Resourceful colonial women heeded their advice. They added cranberries, eggs and molasses to the belly-filling pies they served with every meal. When they ran out of fresh fruit, they substituted dried fruit.

By the turn of the 20th century, pie had become the undisputed symbol of American plenty and national pride. Women were judged by the quality of their pie crust. Every county fair had a pie contest. Every country store sold homemade pie.

It’s unclear who coined the expression as American as apple pie. Some say it was growers trying to push apple consumption during Prohibition when hard cider was banned. One of the earliest recorded instances is attributed to an opera singer in Chicago, Alice Gentle, who in 1921 solicited money from a millionaire to fund an American opera.

The San Antonio Light reported Gentle saying that an American opera would be, “as American as apple pie, wheat cakes, corn on the cob, one-night stands and mail-order houses.”

The key to the perfect pie, in my humble opinion, begins with the crust. A good pie is all about the crust. A pie crust must be a flaky, buttery perfection.

What makes a great pie crust? One word: butter and the better the butter the better the crust. Those bakers who favor lard or shortening argue their chosen ingredient produces a tender, flaky crust and that may be true. But lard and shortening can’t compete with the flavor of butter — especially creamy, rich European style butter which boasts a higher fat content and less water than its American counterpart.

The good news is that a butter crust can be just as flaky as one made with lard if you make it the old-fashioned way — by hand, rubbing cold chunks of butter between the fingertips and into the flour. No pastry blender, no mixer, no food processor. This technique allows one to monitor the size of the butter pieces in the flour and creates flakes, rather than lumps, that remain in the dough when rolled.

As the crust bakes, the butter melts, creating steam pockets that leave behind a flaky texture. It’s a classic method and one well worth bringing back.

The two crust recipes I am including are the ones I have had the most success using in my baking. They are both from Emeril Lagasse. A sweet pastry crust, also known as pâte sucrée, is rich, sweet with a crisp cookie-like texture. It’s great for both large and small tarts — especially those filled with fruit or cream.

The key to success for both of these pie crusts is cold butter and ice water. Using anything room temperature, butter or water from the tap, will mean disappointment with the crust.

For a baked pie crust, preheat the oven to 425 degrees and prick the bottom of the pie all over with a fork. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool thoroughly and then fill as directed in the recipe.

Let me know how these recipes work out. Why not share a favorite pie recipe with me at nzeman@prairiepress.net and we’ll share them in the weeks to come.