- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The desire for world-class pie can send otherwise good cooks into a tailspin, particularly on Thanksgiving, a day that already puts a strain on kitchen know-how. But the skills needed for making great pie are quite simple, really.

I should know. Over a two-year period, I tested and tasted more than a hundred pies while writing a book “Pie, Pie, Pie” (Chronicle). What I learned on the journey is that pies are not at all difficult but, in general, forgiving and not chemically precise. The ingredients are basic and the equipment is minimal. It’s just that we have somehow forgotten the techniques.

A couple of generations back, learning to make pie was fundamental. Pie stood for what is good and nurturing about the American kitchen. Among the things I learned:

• If you think pie-making is complicated, forget it. The first person to say “easy as pie” did so for a reason.

• Pie crust made with vegetable shortening is infinitely easier to handle and flakier than one made with all or part butter.

Especially for Thanksgiving, I like seasonal flavors such as pumpkin, nuts, apples, cranberries and even lemons. So I am sharing a couple of seasonal pie recipes that also happen to have history and tradition baked inside.

Shaker lemon pie transcends its four ingredients, and you can’t imagine how good it is until you make it. Shaker cooks had a penchant for doing the most with the simplest ingredients, and that quality is reflected in this pie.

With a sweet, intense flavor, it tastes of lemon slices held together in a creamy custard. A very sharp knife to cut the lemons and a long sojourn in sugar to tenderize the lemon skin are the secrets to its success.

After numerous attempts at developing a pumpkin pie with a crisp crust and soft filling, I stumbled upon the unorthodox method of cooking pumpkin on top of the stove and then pouring it into a fully baked pie shell.

I’d like to take full credit for this quick-fix pie that avoids a soggy bottom crust, but I can’t. It was inspired by a winning recipe from a contest sponsored by Borden Co. in 1931.

The broiled topping, crisp and crunchy over the smooth filling, is optional but well worth the effort. It elevates the pie to something special. Or if the demands of the rest of the meal are overwhelming, you can easily top the pie with sweetened whipped cream instead. No one will complain.

Cranberries, with their glistening scarlet color and tart flavor, are too good to be restricted to only jelly and relish. Combined with apples, cranberries produce pie that is perfect for a Thanksgiving feast.

Depending on where you live, you might already have a favorite pie apple. If you don’t, try Golden Delicious in this pie. Golden Delicious is widely available, tastes good, holds its shape and cooks more quickly than other varieties, meaning that the apples become tender before the crust gets too dark.

Some of the best cooks I know are phobic about pie crust, yet it is an easy skill to learn. The vegetable shortening keeps at room temperature and has a soft consistency that makes it easy to blend into flour. It usually forgives re-rolling or too much handling, and warm hands won’t turn it into a greasy mess — something not true of butter dough.

This is important because hands are the best tools for mixing pie dough. So plunge right into the bowl and forge ahead. That’s the easiest and quickest way to become familiar with the feel of soft and satiny pie crust dough. Overblending of fat and flour and adding too little water can make a crust hard rather than flaky. But mixing by hand gives control. That’s why I don’t make pie dough in a food processor or mixer.

A couple of final tips on equipment: The size of pie pans varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, regardless of what the marking says. My favorite is clear (Pyrex) glass. Those pie pans measure 9 inches from inside rim to inside rim and have a liquid capacity of 4 cups.

For rolling out dough, I use a 20-inch piece of wooden doweling that is about 11/4 inches across. Buy it at a lumberyard or hardware store. But if you prefer a rolling pin with handles, one with a roller about 10 inches long (not including the handles) will get the job done.

The surface on which you roll dough can be just about anything, as long as it is smooth, flat, clean and cool. I use a wooden board or an acrylic cutting slab. Formica and granite countertops also work well.

There are certainly some who view pie making as drudgery or an unnecessary burden. There are, after all, decent pies sold commercially, right? Not necessarily, as you will learn after you make one from scratch. You will be astonished at the difference. A good pie with a flaky crust and a tender filling will trump anything you can buy. Start with a good recipe, and you’re on your way. Remember, it’s as easy as pie.

Basic all-American pie dough

FOR A 9-INCH PIE:

1½ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup vegetable shortening

3 to 4 tablespoons cold water

FOR A 2-CRUST, 9-INCH PIE:

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup vegetable shortening

7 to 8 tablespoons cold water

For both 9-inch and 2-crust 9-inch shells, put flour and salt in a large bowl and stir together. Drop in shortening and, using your fingers, break it into several pieces as you push it around the flour. Now put both hands into flour and shortening. Rub fingers of each hand against thumbs, thus lightly blending shortening and flour together into smaller lumps and flaked pieces.

Work as quickly as you can, lifting you hands often and letting the mixture fall through you fingers and back into the bowl. You’ve blended enough when you have a light textured, dry mixture of particles the size of coarse and fine bread crumbs and you don’t see any lumps of shortening.

Sprinkle on 1 tablespoon of water and stir briskly with a fork. Continue adding water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring after each addition and concentrating on areas of dough that seem driest. When dough forms a rough, cohesive mass, reach into bowl and press it together into a ball.

If it doesn’t hold together or if parts of it seem crumbly and dry, sprinkle on a little more water. The exact amount of water can vary slightly. If you are in doubt, it is better to add a little too much water rather than not enough. Dough that is too dry can be difficult to roll out.

Have some additional flour nearby in a small cup. Put some of the flour on your hands and pat dough into a smooth, round cake 3 to 4 inches across. (If you are making a two-crust pie, pat it into 2 cakes, one slightly larger than the other.)

Sprinkle rolling surface lightly with flour, then spread flour to cover an area about 12 inches across. Put dough in center, using the larger piece if it is a two-crust pie, and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Flatten dough a little with your hands, then begin rolling it into a circle.

Do most of the rolling from the center out to the edges, lifting and turning the dough slightly every 5 or 6 rolls to help keep it round. If it sticks on the bottom, slide a long spatula underneath to loosen it, tossing some more flour under dough as you lift it. If top of dough becomes sticky, sprinkle it with additional flour.

Don’t be afraid to touch the dough and to use enough flour to keep it from sticking. If it tears, simply pinch it back together; it is really quite durable. Keep the shape as round as possible, without agonizing over it. When you have a circle 11 to 12 inches across and about 2 inches larger than the top of your pie pan, stop.

With confidence, you can probably pick up the whole circle of dough with your hands underneath to support it and set it in the pie pan. Otherwise, roll it up onto the rolling pin like a carpet and unroll it over the pie pan. If it isn’t centered, slide it gently so it is. If it tears, push it back together.

Pat dough snugly into pan, starting around the edges and easing toward the center. You should have about an inch of overhanging dough all around. In places where there is more, cut it off with scissors. In spots where there is less, brush the edge lightly with water and press one of the scraps of trimmed dough onto it.

In the pie recipes that follow, only the pumpkin pie has a pre-baked bottom crust. The apple and lemon pies have both bottom and top crusts. If you are making one of the two-crust pies, roll out the second piece of dough just like you did the first. Transfer it to a large sheet of waxed paper and set it aside.

Fold overhanging dough over itself and pinch it together to make a double-thick upstanding rim. Pinch the rim to make a decorative edge. This is called fluting or crimping. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Rapidly prick the dough all over the bottom and sides with a table fork. These tiny holes will help keep the dough from puffing up in the oven. (I usually prick about 100 times.)

So the dough will hold its shape, press a 12-inch square of heavy-duty foil snugly into the pie shell, directly onto the dough. Bake about 8 minutes, until the edges are starting to look dry. If they look wet, bake a couple minutes longer. Remove foil and bake 6 to 10 minutes more. Check the dough once or twice and if it puffs up, prick with a fork, and it will deflate. The pie shell is done when it is light brown and looks dry all over. It doesn’t matter if it has shrunk a bit. Cool completely before filling.

Put filling into dough-lined pan as directed in the recipe. Brush rim of the dough generously with water. Remove the rolled-out top crust from the waxed paper and drape it over the filled pie. Press firmly all around to seal the top and bottom crusts together.

Trim the edges so you have about half an inch of overhanging dough. Fold the overhang under itself to make a thick, upstanding rim. Pinch the rim all around, both to seal it and to make a decorative edge. With the point of a sharp knife, cut 10 to 12 vents in the top crust so steam can evaporate as the pie bakes. Be as random or as decorative as you want with the vents, as long as you spread them around.

Two-crust pies are baked at a higher temperature to start, to help brown the crust and begin the cooking. Then the heat is lowered for the remainder of the baking.

Fruit pies sometimes boil over in the oven, especially if the fruit is juicy. To keep the oven clean and prevent a smoky kitchen, place a large sheet of heavy-duty foil on the rack under the pie to catch drips.

It’s fine to open the oven and check the pie a few times. If you see the edges becoming too brown, remove pie from the oven. Gently cover the edges with 2-inch strips of foil, bending them to fit the edges, then return the pie to the oven.

Different pumpkin pie

1½ cups evaporated milk

1 tablespoon (about 11/4 envelopes) unflavored gelatin

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 eggs

3/4 cup sugar

2 cups pumpkin puree

Basic all-American pie dough for a 9-inch pie, fully baked (recipe precedes)

TOPPING:

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

2/3 cup brown sugar

Pinch of salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

To make filling, whisk together evaporated milk and gelatin in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Let stand for a few minutes to soften the gelatin. Add cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt, and whisk until blended. Add eggs and sugar and whisk again until blended and smooth.

Cook over moderate heat, whisking almost constantly, for 7 to 10 minutes, until mixture thickens slightly and you see wisps of steam rising. Do not let it boil. Remove from heat and add pumpkin puree then whisk until completely smooth. Pour pumpkin filling into baked pie shell and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight. Filling will become firm as it cools.

To make topping, preheat broiler and position a rack so surface of pie will be about 4 inches from heat. In a small bowl combine walnuts, brown sugar, salt and butter, and stir briskly with a fork until evenly mixed. Spread over surface of cooled pie. Broil for about 2 minutes, or until topping is lightly browned and bubbly. Watch pie like a hawk for this short time and rotate it once or twice, as necessary, so topping browns evenly. Let cool before serving.

The topping may be broiled several hours ahead. Although it will gradually lose a little of its crunch, it will still be very good. Makes 1 9-inch pie.

Shaker lemon pie

3 lemons

2 cups sugar

Basic all-American pie dough for a 9-inch, 2-crust pie, unbaked (recipe precedes)

4 eggs, beaten

Rinse lemons well and pat them dry. Cut off and discard ends. Using fine holes of a grater, grate zest from lemons. You need only a tablespoon or two, so don’t worry about removing every bit. Put zest in a large bowl.

Working with a very sharp knife, preferably one with a long, thin blade, slice 2½ of the lemons as thinly as you can (at best, you should be able to read through a slice), poking out seeds as they appear.

Put lemon slices in bowl with zest. Squeeze juice from remaining lemon half and add it to bowl, along with sugar. Toss to combine and coat lemon slices evenly, then cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for at least 5 hours or overnight.

Roll out and prepare dough as directed in preceding recipe for a two-crust pie. Use half to line bottom of 9-inch pie pan. Set aside. Add eggs to lemon mixture and stir until evenly mixed. (It’s OK if lemon slices are falling apart.) Pour into dough-lined pan. Put rolled-out top crust in place and flute edges. Slash a few vents in top for steam to escape.

Bake in preheated 450-degree oven for 15 minutes, then lower heat to 375 degrees and bake for 35 to 40 minutes more, until crust is lightly browned and knife inserted into one of the vents comes out clean or with just a translucent film of filling on it. Cool to room temperature before serving. Refrigerate any leftover pie. Makes 1 9-inch pie

Apple cranberry pie

Basic all-American pie dough for a 9-inch, 2-crust pie, unbaked (recipe precedes)

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

5 apples, preferably Golden Delicious, peeled, halved, cored and sliced about 1/4-inch thick (2 to 2½ pounds)

1 cup cranberries, fresh or frozen (no need to thaw)

½ cup dried currants

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in small pieces

Roll out and prepare dough as directed in preceding recipe for a two-crust pie. Use half to line bottom of 9-inch pie pan. Set aside.

In a large bowl, stir together sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt until evenly mixed. Add apples, cranberries, currants and lemon juice. Using your hands, toss and mix until all fruit is evenly coated with sugar mixture.

Pour fruit into dough-lined pan, mounding it slightly in center. Scatter butter over fruit. Cover with rolled-out top crust, then trim and flute edges. Slash several vents in top for steam to escape.

Bake in preheated 425-degree oven for 25 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for 40 to 50 minutes, or until crust is browned, juices are bubbling, and fruit seems tender when pierced with a knife inserted through one of the vents.

Before serving, cool pie until bottom of the pan feels comfortably warm to your hand, or cool completely and serve at room temperature. Makes 1 9-inch, 2-crust pie.

John Phillip Carroll is the author of more than a dozen cookbooks.

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