A pie in the hand is worth two in the oven

Like many Americans, I found myself looking for some new way to celebrate National Pie Day.

It's tomorrow, you know.

If the holiday has snuck up on you, well, my newfound twist might be able to help you, too.

Two words: Hand pies.

I consider myself a pie man, but I don't think I'd ever said those two words together and probably had only read over them once or thrice.

But earlier this month, when I was leafing through the brand-new "The Complete Book of Pies" by Julie Hasson (Robert Rose, 2008, $24.95), and I saw a chapter on "Hand Pies," I was captivated.

Of course hand pies! Miniature individual pies that you can hold and eat out of hand (not that I haven't done that plenty with regular pie).

Thinking about it, I realized that I've had Hostess pies, and McDonald's pies, not to mention Pop-Tarts, and assorted other hand pies.

But I'd never made them and so I was excited to try.

What I really like about some of Ms. Hasson's hand-pie recipes is that you don't even need fresh fruit -- the relative lack of which puts a big crimp in Pie Day in January. But I digress.

Ms. Hasson provides recipes for minipies that can be made with preserves and jam.

And I'd just found a great new source of good quality and affordable jarred fruits: The S&D Polish Deli in the Strip District, which imports them from the old country. S&D (in the 2200 block of Penn Avenue) is where I'd go to get the jam for her Cherry Jam Half-Moon Pies.

I started by making a batch of these curvaceous cuties using a stash of homemade gooseberry jam that my parents bought for me from an Ohio country church bazaar. As soon as I'd mentioned the idea of making hand pies to my wife, she, uh, encouraged me to do so, even starting to make the dough recipe by hand. (Hint, hint.)

You make and roll out the dough as you would for any old pie, but then cut out 4-inch circles, onto which you spoon the jam before folding the dough over the filling. Easy as -- well, you know.

The pies turned out great, except I could have done a better job sealing the edges, because some of the precious gooseberry leaked out as they baked.

Hand pies would be perfect for lunch bags and mine are toddler-approved, too.

"We've had a lot of fun with them," says Ms. Hasson, from her home in Portland, Ore. This is the fifth cookbook from this food writer and Internet TV host and blogger (juliehasson.com, everydaydish.tv and everydaydishtv.blogspot.com). Her previous four books were on chocolate and chocolate chip recipes and cupcakes. But she says of pie, "It's my favorite subject!

"Pie is something that I've just always loved -- something about going to pick the fruit in season, making the pies from scratch. There's nothing better," says the Southern California native.

She made hand pies as a girl, using the leftover pie dough her mother would give her.

Her husband, who works with her on the Internet videos, is also a pie man, who came up with his own version of homemade toaster pastries, Brown Sugar Hand Pies, which are in the book, too. Hand pies are "something that's easy to do," she says. "It's approachable."

Ms. Hasson also provides recipes for Plum Hand Pies made with lekvar, or prune filling, and Poppy Seed Hand Pies (both fillings the Polish deli carries). She also tells you how to make Strawberry Hand Pies, Chocolate as well as Chocolate Babka Hand Pies, and Chocolate Raspberry Moon Pies, plus two types of turnovers, which, if you think about it, are hand pies, too. I've always been mostly a fruit pie guy, which is why I was drawn to those.

Of course, her book is full of recipes for every kind of pie, from cream pies, including a couple of no-bake lemons I want to try, to iron skillet-made, fruit-and-dumpling "grunts" (in the "Crisps, Crumbles, Cobblers & Topping" chapter) to "Savory Pies & Tarts" such as Quebec-Style Salmon Pie.

She provides fresh ideas for using glazes and sauces "for those who have the inclination to take pies to another level, to play with all the flavor components," she says. "I encourage people to experiment. It's really fun."

Part of why Ms. Hasson was excited about doing a cookbook on pies is that they seem to be a dying art. "I know a lot of people are intimidated by the prospect of making pies."

In fact, she said, there are techniques and new tools that make homemade pie easier to fit into today's busy lives. "They still take time to make but there are shortcuts you can take" and helpful new tools that she discusses in the book.

For instance, she came to love silicon mats on which she says you can roll out dough with little or no flour, lessening the prospect of "tough" crust. You can even pick up the mat, dough and all, and invert it, plopping the crust right into the pan or atop a pie.

In the two years she worked on the book, she also discovered something I'd not heard of -- the pie press. The wood contraptions, made by a Canadian company (birdshillenterprises.com) press balls of dough into pies of various sizes. They're not cheap, but so much easier if you make lots of pies or find it physically difficult to hand-roll dough.

Ms. Hasson shares other helpful advice, such as how you can take advantage of the availability and relative affordability of frozen fruit when making pies, especially when fresh fruit's not in season. "Most pie books do not address frozen fruit. It's almost taboo."

One of her favorites is Bumbleberry Crumb Pie, which is a good one to make in winter because it uses frozen berries.

Another of her favorites is Brown Sugar Apple Pie, which contains lemon zest and has an almond crumb topping. Laughing, she tells how "that one actually helped me sell a house" because she was baking while her real estate agent showed the place to two shoppers who kept returning to the kitchen. They both put in offers. "They wanted to buy the house but the recipe had to be thrown in for the pie!"

Over the course of testing so many recipes, she came to believe in baking pies on heavy rimmed baking sheets, not just to save the bottom of her oven (she almost ruined her new Viking), but also because it results in a better bottom crust.

She advises not going by the timer or the browning of the crust to know when a fruit pie is done. Go by the juices.

"It can take a long time when you're baking a pie until the juices are thickened enough," she says. "Unless you're baking pies a lot, it's easy to forget that." Timing depends on the fruit and the thickener in the filling, but, "it's important to wait until it's bubbling." If the top crust starts browning too much, simply cover it loosely with foil.

The key, in a word, she says:


Ms. Hasson provides several crust recipes, including some vegan ones that use trans-fat-free shortening, and marks which of her recipes are vegan-friendly. She says she became a vegan as she was finishing this book, and that readers have appreciated having options for special diets.

Did testing so much pie ruin her appetite for it?

"There was a short period of time when I said, 'I need to take a little vacation from pie,' " she says. "It didn't last long."

Tomorrow's National Pie Day is promoted by the National Pie Council, a group that says it is "dedicated to preserving America's pie heritage and promoting America's love affair with pies." It runs events such as the National Pie Championships and the Great American Pie Festival. It offers amateur, professional and commercial memberships. Learn more at its Web site, piecouncil.org.

Whether you bake pies or go to a restaurant or a pie shop (such as the Pie Place in Bethel Park), join me in giving Pie Day a hand.

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at bbatz@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1930. First Published January 22, 2009 5:00 AM


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