Monday, February 2, 2009

Easy as Pie?

Mmmmm, pie. I love pie. I am one of those people that craves dessert, pretty much all the time. I usually count down the hours in the day until I have an excuse to eat some sort of dessert. I can't do it too early, or the craving will resurface before I go to bed, which means I'll want another dessert. I have a love/hate relationship with desserts. I love to eat them, but I hate to gain weight, so it's a thin line I walk between the two.

When I think about the desserts I crave the most, the ones the rank the highest are sweet and fatty ... rich chocolate cake, pain au chocolate (dessert disguised as breakfast), and pie. Every kind of pie

Unfortunately, the reality is that most pie lets me down. As I picture the pie I'm going to eat, I think about biting into a buttery, tender, flaky, slightly sweet pastry. But most restaurants and stores don't sell pie this good, at least the crust doesn't measure up. This is when most people turn to their own kitchen, after all what sounds better than homemade pie

Actually, most pie tastes better than mine. I'm not an amazing cook or anything, but most of the time when I bother to bake something at home, it's better than what you can buy out. Perfect example ... chocolate chip cookies (Nestle tollhouse back of the bag recipe). They are delicious, and well, as easy as ... pie. Is that an expression? Because I don't get it. Pie is NOT easy

My pie sucks. Specifically, my pie crust is terrible. I've tried every recipe I can find. I've listened to all kinds of advice.

For a long time, I stuck with the Joy of Cooking's method. After all, six pages of 8 point font (no pictures) explaining how to make pie crust in painstaking detail. Surely if I follow their directions exactly, I can make "A light, flaky crust that shatters at the touch of a fork."1 That sounds perfect.

Making pie crust seems to be this infuriating contradiction of mix, but don't mix too much. Add ice cold water to a crumbly mix of butter and flour, but don't add too much or you'll make it tough.

I thought I'd try their food processor recipe, which they swear by, to quickly zap all the ingredients without melting them by using my hands.

Strangely, every time I make it, I seem to need almost twice as much water as the recipe says. As mentioned, adding too much water is a big no-no, so I'm always afraid to add more. But when I go to roll the dough out (after carefully refrigerating for an hour, of course), it's basically a big pile of flour and butter. I get it rolled out into a beautiful circle, then the minute I pick it up, it falls apart into, well the big file of flour and butter that it is. This is usually followed by profanity and then tears.

Next, I borrowed The Perfect Pie from my sister, who makes great pie. An entire cookbook completely devoted to pie.

This recipe definitely sounded more promising. Instead of being just flour, butter, salt and water, it had more ingredients. "The egg yolk contains natural lecithin, which helps make the dough easy to handle, and the lemon juice or vinegar slows development of the gluten to ensure a tender crust."2 My other crust (pile of crumbs) was definitely tender, but not at all easy to handle. This sounded better.

Although, I will say that this recipe calls for shortening (Crisco), definitely Not Real Food (NRF). I'll use butter instead.

Same results. Big pile of crumbs. Infuriating. My sister was there, she says I definitely need to add more water, whether it seems like too much or not.

Ok, finally, I thought I'd try my favorite, infallible The Art of Simple Food3 by Alice Waters. She can do no wrong, so definitely her pie crust will be great. It was back to the same basic ingredients as the Joy of Cooking, but she says to just mix it up with a fork.

Alright, I'll add enough water for it to stick, mix it gently with a fork, and voila, perfect, tender crust.

I first cut the butter and salt into the flour, until it resembled peas, just as instructed. I made sure my water was ice cold, then gently stirred it in until the dough just started to clump. Then I compressed it into a ball which I refrigerated for an hour.

As I rolled it out between two sheets of parchment paper, it definitely seemed more dough-like. I had a little flash of doubt when I noticed that there were patches of dough that seemed a little wet and sticky, but they passed when I was happily able to lift the dough into the pan without it falling apart. That was a first for me.

This particular pie was pumpkin, my last pumpkin of the season. I prebaked the shell, then put in the filling. When the pie came out, you might say it looked a little rustic. I couldn't wait for it to cool, mmm.

Alas, this story does not have a happy ending. This pie crust ranks down there as one of the worst I've ever made, not an easy feat. The crust was so hard, that when I tried to cut the first bite with the edge of my fork, I had to press so hard that the pie flipped off the plate face down onto my shirt. Note the whipped cream in the photo.

I've never been desperate enough to think this before ... maybe next time I'll see what Martha Stewart has to say.

1 Rombauer, Irma S., Rombauer Becker, Marion, and Becker, Ethan. The All New All Purpose Joy of Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1997)
2 Purdy, Susan G. The Perfect Pie: More than 125 All-Time Favorite Pies and Tarts (New York: Broadway Books, 2000)
3 Waters, Alice. The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution (New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2007)

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Emmy Lou said...
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