No need to suffer from anxiety when baking pie



I f you love pie, you're loving this best pie time of the year.

But if the prospect of making pie makes you anxious, the nearing holidays might feel like a giant rolling pin pressing down on your chest.

As a pie lover and pie baker, I know so many people who have pie anxiety -- people who feel that they should make homemade pie and who feel inadequate or guilty that they don't. People who don't even try because they think pie-making is some kind of mystical, unattainable art.

Of course, we're a society where some of us pay corporations to prepackage lunchmeat on crackers.

I do get why, even for those who cook, pie-making can be daunting. It starts with all the steps in so many pie recipes, what with having to sift the flour and cube the butter and cut it into the flour with ice-cold water and refrigerate the dough for hours or a day to relax the gluten. And don't let the pastry get warm before you bake it (what?) and DON'T PRESS TOO HARD on the rolling pin (huh?). Then you have to crimp the edges and make vent holes, or make leaf cut-outs or, lord have mercy, hand-weave a lattice top?!

"There are too many variables," my pie-anxious colleague Gretchen McKay said last week after enumerating the steps that ice her, from "How do you roll the crust out to be round?" to "What's 'pea-sized,' anyway?"

But as I tell her, chill yourself.

As I have told plenty of people, my best pies are the ones I just wing, hastily rolling out the pastry because I'm running late, flopping it right into a pan and cranking up the oven to bake it as fast as possible.

Yes, there are reasons to take careful measurements and more measured steps, if indeed you want the flakiest, mostly shapely, prettiest pie possible.

But homemade pie does not have to be perfect. It's homemade pie!

Pie people are forgiving, and they know that pastry is, too. Even the folks at King Arthur Flour, in the company's online "Pie Crust Primer" (kingarthurflour.com/tips/pie-crust-primer.html) can be relatively relaxed, as in this advice:

"If the crust tears or splits, just patch it by moistening the edges and pressing some excess dough on the 'wound.' Dust it with a bit of flour, top and bottom, before you begin rolling again. If the wound is on the bottom crust, no one will see it; if it's on the top, only a grouch will care."

If you want to make a pie, get going.

Even if your great-grandma is long gone, or if your grandma is the kind who buys her pie at the supermarket, there is plenty of pie help available.

This has been the Year of the Pie Book, so many books specifically about pie, and tons of baking and desserts books with chapters and recipes on the topic.

When I say pie, I mean sweet pie, made in a pie pan, with a pastry crust. But the world of pie never has been more infinite.

Today's pie books offer an array of no-roll pressed-in crusts (made with everything from Oreo cookies to pretzels to hashbrowns), different fillings (vegan pumpkin pie made with tofu), meat and other savory pies, plus variations including too-cute-for-their-own good hand pies, tarts, tartlets, cobblers, crumbles, croustades, crostatas and galettes.

In my stack of new books, there's one, "Pies and Tarts with Heart," full of just vegan pies and one with nothing but "Gluten-Free & Vegan Pie," which even has a chapter titled, "Pies in the Raw."

"Pies are trending," said Octopus Publishing's Elizabeth Hermann, who sent me the updated-this-summer edition of one of the prettiest pie books ever, the British "Pie" by Angela Boggiano.

In playing with these books, I have enjoyed learning more about British pies and London "pie and mash" shops, slab pies -- big square ones described in "The Southern Pie Book" -- and also-mostly-Southern chess pies, basic creations of butter, sugar, eggs and a little cornmeal embraced by "The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie."

But for starters, you can keep it simple and straightforward. Each of these books gives helpful pie-making tips and tricks.

For instance, Hoosier Mama -- the great name for a Chicago pie company -- shares a recipe for what is called at the shop "Crust Dust" for preventing soggy bottoms: "Mix mix equal parts of all-purpose flour and granulated sugar, then lightly dust it across the bottom of the pie shell before adding the fruit filling ... The flour thickens the fruit juices before they can seep into the crust ..." (The lovely new "Sweet" by Valerie Gordon, who runs Valerie Confections in Los Angeles, calls such a mixture "Pie Dust.")

Both of these books go with all-butter crusts, which I tend to do. Books such as "Betty Crocker: The Big Book of Pies & Tarts" stick with crusts made with Crisco. I grew up on those but I no longer like to eat shortening because of the trans fat, though I have made nice pastry with a mix of butter and shortening (or lard) as called for in Ms. Boggiano's "Pie."

If you have pie anxiety, choose a simple pastry recipe to start, and make that a couple times before trying another kind, to see what kind you like working with best.

And do know that, even if a recipe calls for three tablespoons of water, you might have to add twice that or more to get your dough to the proper doughy consistency. Just add water slowly, a tablespoon at a time, until the dough feels right -- not too dry and not too wet.

It is not easy. Hoosier Mama's Paula Haney is up front in saying that "making good pie dough is hard. It takes time and patience, and will almost certainly go awry on your first attempt or two."

My simplest advice boils down to:

* Don't "work" your pastry too much, whether when mixing or rolling or crimping. Try to keep it at least cool. And don't stretch it into the pan, because that'll increase the chance that it'll just shrink back.

But don't be afraid of it, either. It's just, you know, dough.

Nor do you need a cupboard full of special gear, but a few things can help your chances for success. I roll out my dough on an old Tupperware plastic mat that has different diameters of crusts marked on it, and I use a silicon spatula to loosen and lift it into the pan. A pie ring, to place atop your pie if the top crust is browning too fast, can be nice to have, too.

Still, as Ms. Haney writes, "All it really takes is practice."

You and your pie will get better the more you make it, especially if you can just chill out. Have a good and friendly pie book by your side to guide you, and try to have fun with it.

Then you'll be more equipped to deal with a different, delayed kind of pie anxiety:

About all the calories.

What follows are some of the more interesting recipes for holiday time that we picked from the crop of new cookbooks.

The Only Pumpkin Pie

"The first time I set out to create pumpkin pie at Butter was in the wee hours of a September morning, with Thanksgiving fast approaching," writes Rosie Daykin, owner of Butter Baked Goods in Vancouver, B.C. "Traditionally, pumpkin pie calls for evaporated milk, but I was tired and not thinking straight and I grabbed the condensed milk. I should bake half-asleep more often because that little error created the most delicious pie."

I love the name, and I do like her pastry (recipe follows). But the filling was a little too sweet. If I made it again, I'd back off on the added sugar by a half cup or so.

Of the pastry, she writes, "This is the pastry I grew up on, but in those days my mom made it with shortening. Given the name of my bakery, I felt the need to change the recipe up a little! You can easily double this recipe and keep half in the freezer -- it's great to have the dough on hand for spur-of-the-moment pie cravings." I halved the recipe, sticking with a whole egg, and used 1 and froze 1.

You'll need a 9-inch pie dish/plate and you should make the pastry first.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

1 Butter's All-Butter Pastry single crust pie (recipe follows)

2 large eggs

2 cups pumpkin puree

1½ cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

300-milliter can condensed milk (about 1¼ cups)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, pumpkin puree, sugar, cinnamon, salt, ground ginger, cloves, nutmeg and condensed milk until fully combined.

Pour the pumpkin filling into the prepared pie shell.

Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 45 minutes or until the edges of the filling have set and the center is just barely loose (a knife inserted halfway between the edge of the pie and the center should come out clean) and the pastry is golden brown.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a wire rack before slicing. Serve with a good dollop of whipped cream.

You can prepare the filling as much as a day in advance and keep it in the refrigerator until you are ready to bake this pie.

Makes 1 pie, about 8 to 10 slices.

Butter's All-Butter Pastry

You will need a 9-inch pie dish per pie and a pastry cutter. This makes enough for 4 9-inch single crust pies or 2 9-inch double crust pies.

5 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups butter, chilled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 large egg

1 tablespoon white vinegar

Water

Place the flour and salt in a large bowl. Scatter the butter over the flour mixture. Use the pastry cutter to cut the butter into the flour until the mixture forms large pea-sized crumbs. You should still be able to recognize some of the butter.

Crack the egg into a liquid measuring cup and add the vinegar. Top with enough cold water to reach a 1-cup measure. Whisk until combined, then pour over the flour mixture.

Mix with a fork until the dough starts to pull together. Gently use your hands to finish mixing the dough until it comes together enough to shape. You should still see some butter bits throughout.

Shape the dough into four evenly sized disks about 1/2 inch thick each and wrap separately in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight. This dough is best made the day before you need it so it can chill overnight. You can store the dough wrapped tightly in plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month. To make a single-crust pie:

Use a rolling pin to roll 1 chilled disk of dough out to about 1/8 inch thick (about 11 inches in diameter, 2 inches larger than pie dish). Carefully fold into quarters and gently transfer to the pie dish. Unfold and press into place lightly.

Trim the dough with a knife, kitchen scissors or a metal bench scraper to leave about a 1-inch overhang over the edge of the dish. The best way to judge this is to trim the pastry at the point where it just touches the work surface. Roll and tuck the 1-inch overhang back under the edge of the pie shell.

You can either finish here and leave the edge plain, or you can pinch it into pleasing points:

Use your index finger to push finger-sized sections of dough from the inside edge of the pie, out and over the edge of the pie dish. Continue this process all around the edge of the pie shell until you end up where you began and, voila, pleasing points!

-- "Butter Baked Goods: Nostalgic Recipes from a Little Neighborhood Bakery" by Rosie Daykin (Appetite; Oct. 15, 2013; $35)

Candied Ricotta Pie

"The filling in this pie is based around the wonderful Sicilian cannoli pastry desserts," writes Angela Boggiano.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

13 ounces Shortcrust Pastry (recipe at post-gazette.com/food, or use any double-crust pie pastry recipe)

For the filling

1 pound fresh ricotta

1/3 cup superfine sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 large eggs

1/2 cup candied fruits

1/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/3 cup raisins

Grated zest 1 lemon

1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place a baking tray in the oven to preheat.

Roll out two thirds of the pastry on a lightly floured surface to 1/4 inch thick disk. Use to line a 1¾-inch-deep 9-inch pie pan, leaving any excess to overhang the pan.

Roll out the remaining pastry on a lightly floured surface to about 1/4 inch thick. Using a fluted ravioli wheel cut the dough into ¾ inch strips.

Place the ricotta in a food processor and process until smooth. Transfer to a large bowl and using a wooden spoon beat in the sugar, vanilla extract and eggs one at a time until combined.

Stir in the candied fruits, chocolate chips, raisins and lemon zest. Pour into the pastry shell and arrange half the strips at 1½-inch intervals across the top of the pie. Repeat crossways with the remaining strips to make a lattice topping. Press the edges to seal and trim any excess.

Place on the hot baking sheet on the lowest shelf and bake for 55 minutes until golden. Set aside for 15 minutes to cool in the tin before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Dust with confectioners' sugar and serve cut into wedges.

-- "Pie" by Angela Boggiano (updated edition, Octopus, Aug. 2013, $24.99)

Cheddar Piecrust

"Pair this remarkable crust with sweet or savory fillings," notes the Southern Living's "The Southern Pie Book." "I love it with fruit fillings or summer tomatoes."

I used it to make a simple apple pie with a filling of two types of apples sliced on a mandolin, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon juice and a little bit of flour.

-- Melissa McCart

1¼ cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup cold butter, cut into pieces

1/2 teaspoon table salt

3/4 cup (3 ounces) shredded white cheddar cheese

5 to 5 tablespoons ice water

Combine first 3 ingredients in a bowl with a pastry blender until mixture resembles small peas. Stir in cheese. Sprinkle ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, over surface of mixture in bowl; stir with a fork until dry ingredients are moistened. Shape into a ball; cover and chill 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Roll dough into a 13-inch circle on a lightly floured surface Fit into a 9-inch pie plate; fold edges under and crimp.

Line pastry with aluminum foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove weights and foil; bake 5 to 10 more minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven to a wire rack and cool completely (about 30 minutes).

-- "Southern Living: The Southern Pie Book" by Jan Moon (Oxmoor House, Sept. 2013, $22.95)

Shortcrust Pastry

Angela Boggiano several simple pie crusts, but the Candied Ricotta Pie called for a little more than a single recipe so I adapted this version using just butter, based on her assertion that a good short crust is half flour and half fat by weight with enough liquid to combine. "I've tried other quantities but I always end up coming back to this pastry mantra and it works perfectly every time. This is the simplest and most widely used pastry and is suitable for either sweet or savory pies." She adds a little sugar for sweet pies.

2½ cups plus two tablespoons flour

10 tablespoons butter

Pinch salt

2 to 3 tablespoons water, to mix [I needed several tablespoons more to get the right consistency]

Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Cut the fat into cubes and add this to the flour. Use your fingertips to rub the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the water very gradually, stirring it in with a knife. When the dough just sticks together, knead it lightly until it forms a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and allow to rest for at least 15 minutes in the refrigerator. It can be left in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

Alternatively it can be frozen until ready to use.

-- "Pie" by Angela Boggiano (updated edition, Octopus, Aug. 2013, $24.99)

Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

This is "light and perfectly balanced with spice," writes Jennifer Katzinger. "I predict you'll be eating it not just for Thanksgiving but throughout the fall and winter seasons."

I made it a month before Thanksgiving and it tasted pretty good. Plus I had more filling than would fit in my pie pan, so I let that set in a covered bowl.

Ms. Katzinger's book has a number of different pastry and press-in crusts that would work with this and other vegan and gluten-free pies.

The only ingredient that I needed to get at a specialty store was the agar flakes, which are just a sea vegetable that does the same thing gelatin does. You've probably eaten a lot of it in processed foods.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

1 prepared Almond Press-In Crust in a 9-inch pie pan (recipe below)

1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked in water for 2 to 8 hours

15-ounce can pumpkin puree

13-ounce can whole coconut milk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 cup water

2 teaspoons agar flakes

1/2 cup maple syrup

3 tablespoons coconut oil

Prepare the crust as instructed.

Drain the cashews. Place them in a blender or the bowl of a food processor along with the pumpkin, coconut milk, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. Process thoroughly until very creamy and smooth. Leave the mixture in the blender.

In a small saucepan, combine the water, agar, and maple syrup. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then remove the pan from the heat and stir in the coconut oil. Add the mixture to the pumpkin mixture in the blender and process until smooth and creamy.

Pour the filling into the crust. Refrigerate to let the pie set for 4 hours before serving.

Almond Press-in Crust

PG tested

"This crust has a subtly sweet almond flavor and a cookielike texture," writes Jennifer Katzinger. "It makes for a mellow backdrop and accentuates the filling of your pie."

2 cups almond flour

2 tablespoons coconut oil

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

Preheat over to 350 degrees.

Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and mix just until the dough resembles fine meal [I did it in a bowl with a fork]. Do not overprocess. The dough will be sticky.

With clean, damp hands, press the dough into the pan called for in the recipe you're making.

Bake, uncovered, for 15 minutes, or until the crust smells like toasted almonds. It will be golden and firm to the touch. Let it cool completely before filing, about 11/2 hours.

Makes 1 crust.

-- "Gluten-free & Vegan Pie: Sweet and Savory Pies to Make at Home" by Jennifer Katzinger (Sasquatch, Aug. 2013, $23.95)

Pear-Ginger Pie

Apples are the go-to filling for many a fall pie, but other fruits can be quite delicious tucked inside of a buttery crust. Juicy, fresh pears are a welcome alternative, especially if you're hungering for something a bit more delicate. I used Bosc pears, which have a honey-sweet flesh that holds its shape when baked.

This pie, accented with ginger and maple syrup, is best served at room temperature or warmed at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. It will keep at room temperature overnight and can be stored in the fridge for up to 4 days.

-- Gretchen McKay

1 recipe Traditional Pastry Piecrust dough for a 9-inch double-crust pie (recipe follows)

1/4 cup heavy cream

6 cups cubed ripe pears (6 to 8 ripe pears, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes)

1/2 cup sugar

1/8 cup pure Vermont maple syrup

2½ tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juic

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1 tablespoons salted butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

To prepare pie shell, on a clean, lightly floured work surface, roll out half the disk of dough with a rolling pin until it forms a 10-inch circle. Set remaining half of dough aside to use as the pie top after you have completed the filling. Fold the circle in half, place it in a 9-inch so that the edges of the circle drop over the rim, and unfold the dough to completely cover the pie plate. Set pie shell to side while you make the filling.

Prepare filling: In a medium bowl, combine pears, sugar, maple syrup, tapioca, lemon juice, vanilla and ginger. Toss until all ingredients are thoroughly combined. Place filling in pie shell, spreading it evenly across. Dot filling with butter.

Prepare top crust: Roll out second half of dough with rolling pin until it forms at 10-inch circle. Fold dough circle in half and place over the filling, with straight line of the half circle running down the middle of pie. Unfold circle to that entire pie is covered. Using your thumb and index finger, crimp edges of pie together to seal in the filling, then use a fork to puncture the top of the pie 5 or 6 times to allow ventilation. Brush top of pie and crimped edges with heavy cream to create a perfect, golden brown finish.

To bake, place pie plate on lined baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for 35 to 40 minutes more, or until pie juices are bubbling and crust is golden brown. Transfer pie plate to a wire cooling rack and allow pie to cool and set for 11/2 hours before serving.

Serves 6 to 8.

-- "Perfect Pies & More" by Michele Stuart (Ballantine, Oct. 22, 2013, $26)

Traditional Pastry Piecrust

This dough was extremely easy to work with, even for my untalented fingers. It was still soft and rollable even after resting in the fridge for two days, and the end result -- thanks to all the Crisco -- was the flaky, melt-in-your-mouth crusts of my childhood.

-- Gretchen McKay

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Crisco, cold

5 tablespoons water, ice-cold

In medium bowl, mix together flour and salt. Add Crisco to flour mixture. Either with a pastry blender or your fingertips, mix the ingredients together with an up-and-down chopping motion until dough forms coarse, pea-size crumbs. Take care not to overhandle dough or it will become difficult to work with. In the perfect pie, the Crisco will have a marbleized look when the dough is rolled out and you will actually be able to see Crisco swirls within the uncooked cough.

Add ice-cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, delicately incorporating each tablespoon into the flour mixture before you add the next. You may have to use 1 more or 1 less tablespoon of water than the amount recommended, depending on the humidity in your kitchen at the time of baking. You will know it's just right when the dough forms a ball that easily holds together.

Use your palm to form the dough into a disk shape, wrap it with plastic and place it in the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes. Once dough has chilled, divide the disk in half. You now have enough dough for either one 9- or 10-inch double crust.

Dough can be reserved in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. You also can wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and freeze it for future use; it will keep for up to 1 month.

Makes 1 double- crust.

-- "Perfect Pies & More" by Michele Stuart (Ballantine, Oct. 22, 2013, $26)

Apple Pomegranate Slab Pie

If you've got a "thing" about making pastry dough from scratch, this is the pie for you. Because the uncooked crust is fitted into a rectangular pan, there's no fussing over having to roll perfect circles. Can I just say, rectangles are so much easier!

The addition of pomegranate seeds, which stay crunchy during baking, makes it an especially festive pie for the holidays. This filling is sweet when made as directed, so you may want to cut back a little on the sugar.

-- Gretchen McKay

Two-Crust Pastry (recipe below) or 1 box Pillsbury refrigerated pie crusts, softened as directed on box

For filling

12 cups thinly sliced peeled tart apples (about 4 pounds)

1½ cups sugar

1 teaspoon ground cardamom or cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons grated orange peel

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 cup cornstarch

Juice 2 oranges (about 1/2 cup)

1 cup pomengranate seeds (from 1 pomegranate) or 1 cup dried cranberries sweetened with pomegranate juice

For glaze

3 tablespoons whipping cream

2 tablespoons sugar

Heat oven to 400 degrees. On well-floured surface, roll 1 pastry round or pie crust to 16-by-12-inch rectangle. Roll pastry onto rolling pin; unroll into 15-by-10-by-1-inch pan. Press pastry in bottom and up sides of pan.

In large bowl, toss apples, 11/3 cup sugar, cardamom or cinnamon, salt, orange peel and vanilla. In small bowl, mix cornstarch and orange juice. Add to fruit mixture; stir to combine. Spoon filling evenly into pastry-lined pan. Scatter pomegranate seeds or cranberries over filling.

On well-floured surface, roll second pastry or pie crust to 15-by-11-inch rectangle. Place over filling. Fold top crust over bottom crust to seal, crimping edge slightly with fingers. With small knife, cut slits or decorative shapes in top of crust. Brush top crust with whipping cream; sprinkle with sugar.

Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until crust is golden brown and juice begins to bubble through slits in crust. Cool on cooling rack at least 45 minutes before serving. Serve warm or cool.

Makes 16 servings.

-- "The Big Book of Pies & Tarts" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, $19.99)

Two-Crust Pastry

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup cold shortening

6 to 8 tablespoons ice-cold water

In medium bowl, mix flour and salt. Cut in shortening using pastry blender or fork, until mixture forms coarse crumbs the size of small peas. Sprinkle with water 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing with fork until all flour is moistened and pastry almost leaves side of bowl. You can add 1 to 2 teaspoons more water if necessary.

Gather pastry into a ball. Divide in half and shape into 2 rounds on lightly floured surface. Wrap flattened rounds in plastic wrap; refrigerate 45 minutes or until dough is firm and cold. This makes shortening slightly firm, which helps make the baked pastry flaky. If refrigerated longer, let pasty soften slightly at room temperature before rolling.

Enough for 2 crusts.

-- "The Big Book of Pies & Tarts" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, $19.99)

 


Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.

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