So, I like pie. A lot. I mean, this is non-controversial; lots of us really enjoy pie.
I also like to bake. A lot. Again, many of us do, so I’m far from unique in this regard.
And yet, as someone who loves pie and loves to bake – I bake cookies with my son, birthday cakes, and I’m not troubled by bread (try my Christmas stollen if you’re in the neighbourhood!) – I rarely bake pie. I’m reluctant.
I’m reluctant because pastry is hard, and good pastry is harder than that. So, on the rare occasions I bake pie, I go with store-bought crusts which I take as a mark of profound personal shame, or I use the recipe for a crustless pie that my son loves.
But recently, I decided that this simply couldn’t be allowed to stand any longer. I need to get better at baking pie.
And the way to do that? Is to do it.
I Believe I Can Pie
Welcome to I Believe I Can Pie, wherein I’ll document the process of trying to get better at pie. I hope to bake and blog about one pie a week; we’ll see if that plan survives contact with the rest of my life (update: it already hasn’t), but an aspirational goal is certainly a place to start.
Pie #1: Apple
Why not? It’s a great fall pie, and a comparatively uncomplicated classic is a good way for me to gauge my grasp of the fundamentals (spoiler warning: my grasp of the fundamentals is not great).
I have a lot of cookbooks dealing with pie, in whole or in part, for someone who until now has been too scared to make it.
The cookbooks I consulted for my first pie were Ken Haedrich’s delightful and massive 2004 all-dessert-pie cookbook, simply entitled PIE. My friend Rachel Hartman describes it as her PIEble, and I feel much the same way.
I used PIE as my source for a recipe for pastry, specifically Mr. Haedrich’s Basic Shortening Pie Pastry, from page 30.
For the filling, I drew upon element of a number of his apple pie recipes (since there’s no “basic” apple pie recipe in the Haedrich book) as well as some online sources, and one of my other favourite books for pie, Edna Staebler’s classic 1968 Canadian cookbook of Mennonite country cooking, the delightfully-titled Food That Really Schmecks.
Because this isn’t intended to be a recipe blog – the recipes aren’t my inventions! At all! – I’m going to mostly discuss process and let you look up the recipes on your own, if you want.
Making the Pastry
Things went wrong almost immediately.
There’s a certain point in baking or cooking anything complex where I become convinced that I’ve caused an irretrievable disaster and get very angry at myself and my surroundings for it. Friends used to say that my cooking show should be called ‘The Angry Gourmet’.
Pie #1 was no exception.
Mixing the dry ingredients was no problem, and I knew enough to make sure that the shortening and the water were both cold but my attempts to blend the shortening into the flour, etc. with a fork, or with knives, or with that pasty-making tined thing that looks like a gladiator’s knuckle-duster, just didn’t seem to work. After a while, I gave up and started just using my fingers. And yes, that worked, for blending, but… I’ve never quite understood what pastry at that stage of blending is supposed to look like. Like meal? Like little pebbles? Okay, but what kind of meal? How little? Besides, most of my flour still just looked like flour to me at that point. I added some butter, thinking perhaps all-shortening just wasn’t cutting it (I only just got the pun there as I typed it, sorry) and that… helped a little? But not much.
Then I started adding the water, and found that the amount per the recipe didn’t seem to be enough. It wasn’t sticking together. I added more water, and that stuck together, probably too much, and the recipes all say “add water, but not too much” but mine was the pastry was sticky and tacky to the touch, which I’m pretty sure it isn’t supposed to be.
That’s when my Special Friend arrived back from some errands to find me cursing a blue streak at two balls of pastry dough.
But I was too far in to abort the mission – I didn’t want to start making that damn pastry again – so I stuck it out. I floured our countertop, put the two balls of dough on them, flattened each one – taking the opportunity to let the flour on the counter get all over both discs, to fight the stickiness. Then I wrapped them in plastic wrap and threw them in the fridge, glad to be on to the next phase.
I let the disks chill in the refrigerator for over an hour, taking the larger one (for the bottom of the pastry) out to soften and warm up just a bit while I was in the process of…
Making the Filling
I said I wouldn’t get into recipes, but I will mention what I did here, because I kind of improvised the filling based on a few different recipes, including some I reviewed online and one from Food That Really Schmecks.
I peeled, cored and sliced (fairly small) about seven cups of apples, which looked like (and was) about the correct amount. To that, I added two thirds of a cup of white sugar, three tablespoons of flour (to thicken), half a teaspoon of cinnamon, and a quarter teaspoon of nutmeg. I mixed it up by hand and let it do its thing while I got to…
Rolling out the Pastry
Given that the pastry wasn’t being terribly cooperative when it went into the fridge, I was worried when I put it on a floured surface to roll it out.
And… I didn’t need to? Things went well! The crust rolled out easily, without sticking, and without breaking much. I got the bottom crust into the pan without incident.
I added the filling and dotted it with butter, per almost every recipe for apple pie I’ve seen. Then I pressed the crust down with a fork along the edge, flattening it and giving it a decorative touch. Then I remembered that you’re supposed to do that after you put the top crust on, to seal it, and I swore some more. Then I took the pastry for the top crust out of the fridge, rolled it out, put it on the pie, and did the fork thing again.
I trimmed a bit more excess pastry from around the edge, poked a few holes in the top to serve as vents, and it was ready to go into the oven.
Like its creator, kind of a mess but not unlovable.
… proceeded smoothly. I knew to watch for the edges browning faster than the rest of the pie. I tried to use aluminum foil to cover the rim, but found it to be an imperfect solution; it slipped and fell easily and I managed to poke a hole in the top crust trying to get it back into place. I found myself wishing for the more solid “pie shields” that I’ve read about in some books and blogs. I managed to stop the edges from burning, but they were pretty over-baked and dryer than the rest of the crust, which is saying something – see below.
I think I can fairly summarize my first apple pie in years as a solid “Not terrible!”
My Special Friend described it as “A perfectly acceptable dessert for a Tuesday,” and, “Like a clean, safe but threadbare hotel in a small Ontario city.”
I suppose I should be more concrete? Well, on the subject of concrete, the pastry showed definite room for improvement. It was tough yet also brittle, breaking and crumbling easily without being easy to chew. It also had a noticeable taste of flour. I think I may have used a bit less shortening than I should have and then added too much water trying to make the pastry hold together. Next time I’ll try a mix of butter and shortening for more flavour and try to use less water.
I’m also aware that there’s a risk in making pastry of “overworking” it, and it’s possible that’s what happened here?
The apple filling in the other hand, was quite good although a bit understated. Baked very well, with just about exactly the right amount of sugar. The flavour was pleasant but mild. I could have used more cinnamon than I did and perhaps, as my Special Friend suggested, some allspice as well as the nutmeg.
My Next Pie
My Special Friend suggested pecan, which had the disadvantage of being something I’ve never made in my life, but also the advantages of being one of my favourites and being single-crust, which I thought might be more manageable.
Since my baking got ahead of my blogging pretty much from jump, I’m actually five pies in and I have some catching up to do – so Pie #2, which ended up not being pecan, exactly – is long eaten and was not quite as manageable as I hoped. But that’s a story for the next installment!
Coming up next on the blog: Possibly a more general update since I haven’t blogged anything in eleven months and now I show up nattering about pie. Or maybe just more nattering about pie!