- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

M.F.K. Fisher wrote about stopping by the side of a road with her father to eat warm peach pie enhanced by a Mason jar full of thick cream. It was California in the 1920s, and they were returning from a visit to a relative who had given them the pie and cream so they’d have something to eat on the long drive home.

Every summer when the peaches are plentiful, I think of that pie and get the urge to bake.

I have never experienced a spiritual epiphany while eating peach pie. That only seems to happen in books or in memories of food consumed in the distant past. Instead, I satisfy myself with perfect peach pie, and you can, too.

First, you must confront the grim realities of the situation: Making and rolling out dough in a hot kitchen, getting the skin off the peaches and, finally, preparing the pie so that the dough is baked through at precisely the moment when the filling is bubbling and a little bit thickened.

In late summer, good peaches are generally easy to find. You’ll need about 3 pounds of yellow-flesh, red-skin, juicy freestone peaches for the pie. A farm stand or farmers market can provide excellent peaches at this time of year, as can most supermarkets. Lately, white flesh peaches have become popular, and I agree that they can be exquisite, but they can also be watery and bland. Save them for eating in hand. They are not good for a pie.

When peaches are ripe, nothing could be easier than peeling them. Bring a large pan half filled with water to a boil. Cut a small slash in the blossom end of each peach. Drop the peaches into the simmering water and leave for about 20 seconds. Use a skimmer or slotted spoon to remove the peaches to a pan lined with paper towels.

Please don’t immerse the peaches in cold water. That will continue to drain away flavor. Holding the peaches with your hands protected with a kitchen towel or paper towel, slip the skin off the peaches. It should come right off. If some of the peel resists, use a paring knife, not a vegetable peeler, to remove the skin.

To cut, use a paring knife to halve each peach along its natural division and twist gently to separate one of the halves from the pit. Insert the point of the knife under the pit. It should pop right out. If it resists, use the point of a spoon to dig it out. Slice each peach half into about 6 wedges, cutting from stem to blossom end, slicing the wedges into a large bowl.

Now for the part of the pie that worries everyone. I like to use a sweet dough for peach pie, and it is easy to make and easy to roll. In fact, it’s as easy as throwing all the ingredients into the food processor.

There need not be guesswork about how much water to add because the dough is moistened with eggs and always forms a perfect ball at the end of the mixing process. If you want to be really organized, make the dough, wrap it in plastic and chill it the day before you intend to make the pie. If not, try to give the dough at least a few hours in the refrigerator. It will be so much easier to roll if you do.

To roll, divide the dough into two parts. Gently knead the chilled dough to make it malleable but not soft. Quickly form it into a disk and place it on a floured work surface. Flour the top of the dough and roll this way: Imagine that the dough is the face of a clock and position the rolling pin at 6 o’clock.

Gently press and roll up to 12 o’clock and back again. Move the dough clockwise, in two-hour increments. Repeat the rolling process from 6 to 12 o’clock and back. Every time you move the dough, check to see if you need to add a pinch or two of flour under or on the dough to prevent sticking. Continue rolling until you have about a 10- or 11-inch circle. Slide a thin cookie sheet under the dough and slide it into the pan. Fit the dough into a glass pie pan and trim the edges even with the rim of the pan.

For the top crust, knead lightly as already instructed but form the dough into a square. Roll the dough, turning 90 degrees every time you roll over it to keep a rectangular shape about 8 by 10 inches. Use a plain or fluted pastry wheel to cut the dough into 10 3/4-inch wide strips.

After the filling is in the pan, place five of the strips equidistant from each other on the filling. Place the other strips perpendicular or diagonal to the first group. Trim the edges of the strips even with the rim of the pan and give them a gentle press at the edge to adhere.

The most important part of the pie is the bottom crust. It must be baked through, well colored and dry. The easiest way to ensure this is to start the pie off on the lowest level of the oven. After about half the baking time has elapsed, move the pie to the middle rack and place a cookie sheet covered with foil on the lowest rack to catch drips when the pie starts to simmer. Bake until well colored and at a good simmer.

The top of the pie may have some of the filling boiled out onto it. It will be just like Grandma used to make.

Cool the pie on a rack to room temperature.

This kind of a juicy pie is best the day it is baked and starts to become soggy within about 12 hours. Leftovers make a good treat the next day, but they are never as good as a freshly baked pie. A little whipped cream or vanilla ice cream are fine with the pie — just don’t overdo it. The spotlight should be on the pie.

Perfect peach pie

If the peaches are less than perfectly ripe, dice them.

SWEET PASTRY DOUGH:

2 cups flour (gently spoon flour into dry measure cups and level off)

cup sugar

teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

8 tablespoons (one stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

FILLING:

cup sugar

2 tablespoons flour

teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

3 pounds ripe, yellow-flesh, freestone peaches, peeled and sliced

teaspoon almond extract

2 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter cut into 12 pieces

For the dough, combine flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse several times to mix. Add butter and pulse about 10 or 12 times to mix it in finely. Add eggs and continue to pulse until the dough forms a ball. Remove dough from the work bowl and wrap it in plastic. Chill for several hours or overnight.

When you are ready to bake the pie, set racks in the lowest and middle levels on the oven. If they are too close together, remove one rack and set the remaining rack at the lowest level. Later you can place the second rack in the oven when it’s time to move the pie up.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roll half the dough and use it to line a 9-inch glass pie pan. Then roll remaining dough to make the top crust, but don’t cut the strips yet.

For the filling, combine sugar, flour and nutmeg in a small bowl and set aside 2 tablespoons. Fold sugar mixture into peaches. Sprinkle reserved 2 tablespoons sugar mixture on bottom crust in pan and scrape in the peaches. Drizzle with almond extract and dot with butter.

Cut dough for the top crust into strips and place them on the filling to form a lattice. Trim strips even with edge of pan. Bake pie on bottom level of the oven for about 20 minutes. Lower heat to 350 degrees and move pie to the middle level. Continue baking for about 20 minutes longer or until dough is well colored and filling is bubbling.

Cool the pie on a rack and serve lukewarm or at room temperature. Makes one 9-inch pie; about 8 servings.

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