- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

For me, the summit of American baking is the fruit pie. Apple, peach, pumpkin and pecan are all favorites, but if I had to choose one above all others, it would be blueberry.

Something almost magical happens to the flavor of blueberries when they’re sweetened and cooked, and when that happens inside a pie, I’m perfectly happy.

My perfect blueberry pie has a sweet bottom crust and a crisp crumb topping.

More than a decade ago, I worked out a system for berry pie fillings that has always served me well. Flour is too coarse a thickener for berries, although it’s fine for an apple pie filling. Cornstarch is the natural choice, but pure starches need a bit of time simmering to reach their full thickening capacity, and just having your filling come to a simmer while it’s baking isn’t nearly enough cooking for the starch.

I solved the problem by cooking a small amount of the berries with the filling’s sugar to create some juices to thicken. After adding the cornstarch diluted in water, I cook the mixture to a heavy paste. The rest of the berries are folded in uncooked, with the result that when the raw berries cook and release their juices into the filling, they mix with the cornstarch paste, making it less heavy and also lightly thickening those juices. The second brief cooking that the starch undergoes ensures a delicate filling that has no starchy flavor. Having the filling surmounted by a crumb topping also avoids having the juices bubble out from inside a full top crust.

Blueberry pie is fine no matter how you slice it, but vanilla ice cream makes it special.

Blueberry crumble pie

Makes one 9-inch pie, about 8 generous servings. The recipe is adapted from “The Modern Baker” by Nick Malgieri (DK Publishing).

SWEET PASTRY DOUGH

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cups and level off)

3 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold, cut into 10 pieces

1 large egg

1 teaspoon water

CRUMBLE TOPPING

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

BLUEBERRY FILLING

3 pints (6 cups) blueberries, rinsed, drained and picked over

3/4 cup sugar

4 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons water

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

3 tablespoons butter, cold, cut into 10 pieces

One 9-inch Pyrex pie pan

For the dough, combine the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse several times to mix. Add the butter and pulse again until the butter is mixed finely into the dry ingredients. Add the egg and water and pulse repeatedly until the dough forms a ball. If it resists, add another teaspoon of water.

Invert the dough to a floured surface and carefully remove the blade. Press the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic. Chill the dough until it is firm.

To form the crust, remove the dough from the refrigerator and place it on a floured surface. Gently knead the dough until it is malleable and claylike. Press the dough back into a disk and roll it on a floured surface, flouring the dough too, until it is a circle about 14 inches in diameter.

Fold the dough into quarters and place it in the pan, lining up the point with the center of the pan. Trim away all but 1/2-inch of the excess dough at the rim of the pan, then fold the excess dough under so that it is even with the rim of the pan. Press down with a floured fork or flute the edge of the pie crust.

When you are ready to bake the pie, set a rack in the lowest level of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

For the crumbs, combine the flour, baking powder, and cinnamon in a bowl and stir well to mix. Stir the brown sugar into the melted butter and scrape the mixture into the bowl of flour. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the butter so that all the flour is evenly moistened. Set aside while preparing the filling,

For the filling, put 1 cup of the blueberries and all the sugar in a medium saucepan. Set the pan over low heat and stir often to bruise the berries so that they release their juices as the mixture heats up and they dissolve the sugar. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the berry mixture is boiling.

While the berry mixture is coming to a boil, whisk the cornstarch and water together in a small bowl. Stir about 1/2 cup of the blueberry juices into the cornstarch mixture, then pour the cornstarch mixture into the boiling berry juices, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula. Cook, stirring constantly, until the juices thicken, return to a boil, and become clear.

Put the remaining berries in a large bowl with the nutmeg and use a large rubber spatula to fold in the thickened juices. Fold in the butter and scrape the filling into the prepared pie crust. Use your fingertips to break the crumble mixture into 1/4 to 1/2-inch crumbs. Evenly scatter the crumbs all over the filling.

Bake the pie until the crust and crumbs are well colored and baked through and the filling is gently simmering, about 40 minutes. Cool the pie on a rack and serve it at room temperature.

Serving: Make sure the pie has cooled completely or it will be impossible to serve intact wedges. Cut the pie at the table and use a triangular pie spatula to lift out the wedges. If you have some homemade vanilla ice cream, this is the time to use it.

Storage: Keep the pie at room temperature on the day it is baked. Cover it with foil to keep beyond the first day.

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