Are you desperate for pie?


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Today is National Pie Day, an occasion that this particular newspaper food section feels responsibility to somehow mark, preferably in a way that leaves pastry crumbs on our laps.

This year, especially because it's last-minute and it's the dead of winter, let us discuss "desperation pie."

That's a term I learned about earlier this year as I perused the fetching new "The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie: Recipes, Techniques, and Wisdom from the Hoosier Mama Pie Company" (Agate Midway, Aug. 2013, $29.95).

The book -- by the founder of the Chicago (and now Evanston, Ill., too) pie shop, Paula Haney -- describes the pies that our stalwart Midwestern forebears used to have to make in the fruitless dead of winter from whatever they had on hand.

One classic is the Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie, for which Ms. Haney gives two recipes, including her mother-in-law's. There's also a Buttermilk Pie and an Oatmeal Pie adapted from an old copy of "Farm Journals' Complete Pie Book."

But the "talker" here is the Vinegar Chess Pie.

Writes Ms. Haney, "Though all chess pies were originally considered desperation pies, most of our variations, like chocolate, don't seem quite so desperate." So there's a separate chapter for Chess Pies, but they left with the other "desperates" this one. "We love this pie because it tastes so good yet sounds so terrible!" she writes. "In the beginning, we gave away a lot of samples to get folks to try it. Now our regulars like to take it to dinner parties to surprise their friends."

Without having to buy anything from the store, I made one of these this past Monday. Except for the napkin-fold crust, which I too quickly finished more like a "fast-food-restaurant napkin crust," the pie turned out beautifully and with an interesting taste, like a sweet custard pie but with a tang. The filling had a bright yellow color, so it was a little like a Pennsylvania lemon pie, and a welcome treat for one of the coldest weeks of the year.

VINEGAR CHESS PIE

The book says the batter can be stored in the fridge for up to 2 days before you use it, though you may need to whisk it together before baking, and the finished pie can be stored at room temperature for 3 to 5 days.

1 single-crust, napkin-fold All-Butter Pie Dough shell (the book depicts how to fold it; see summary below)

Pie Wash (an equal mix of whole milk and cream in a small bowl) for brushing

11/4 cups granulated sugar

7 tablespoons unsalted butter

Pinch kosher salt

1 tablespoon cornmeal

3 large eggs

1½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla paste (or you can substitute 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the pie shell on a baking sheet and brush the rim with Pie Wash. Set aside.

Combine the sugar, butter and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Cream until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the cornmeal and mix until just combined.

Add the eggs 1 at a time, scraping down the side and bottom of the bowl after each addition.

Add the vinegar and vanilla paste and mix until just combined. The batter may curdle when the vinegar is added. The finished batter should be slightly lumpy. Scrape down the side and bottom of the bowl and incorporate any unmixed butter.

Pour the batter into the pie shell and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, rotating 180 degrees every 20 minutes, until a dark golden brown crust forms on top and the filling is set.

Cool for at least 2 hours before serving. The pie will fall a bit as it cools.

All-Butter Pie Dough

1¾ sticks unsalted butter, divided

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1/2 cup cold water

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2¼ teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar

Cut the butter into 1/2-inch cubes. Freeze 5 tablespoons for 20 minutes or overnight; chill the remaining 11/8 sticks in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Stir the red wine vinegar into the cold water and set aside.

Combine the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and pulse 5 or 6 times to combine.

Add the chilled butter and mix for 25 to 30 seconds, until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add the frozen butter and pulse 15 to 20 times, until the butter is in pea-sized pieces.

Add 6 tablespoons of the vinegar water and pulse 6 times. The should should start to look crumbly. Test the dough by squeezing a small amount in the palm of your hand. If it easily holds together, it is done. If not, add 1/2 tablespoon of the vinegar water and pulse 3 more times. Repeat this process as needed.

Transfer the dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead together until smooth; dough should never come together in the food processor.

Divide the dough into 2 equal parts and roll each into a ball. Flatten the balls slightly and wrap separately in plastic wrap. Let the dough rest in the refrigerator until ready to use, at least 20 minutes but preferably overnight.

Roll out to 1/16 to 1/8 inch thick, cut out a 14-inch circle, and place into a 9-inch pie tin that has been lightly coated with cooking spray and dusted with flour (the book gives step-by-step instructions). The napkin-fold crust is the way Hoosier Mama does all of its chess pies. Basically, with the dough overlapping the edges of the pan, you "grab the edge of the dough between the thumb and index finger of your right hand. Be careful not to pull the dough up out of the pie tin as you work.

"Gently fold a 1/2 to 1-inch section of dough over so it points toward the center of the pie shell. Place your left thumb on top of the first fold.

"Grab a second 1/2- to 1-inch piece of pie dough between your thumb and index finger, next to the first fold, and gently fold it over like the first piece. Repeat this process all the way around the pie. The more folds you make, the rounder your pie shell will be, but large folds look appealingly rustic."

After testing the folds and gently pressing them down onto the rim of the tin, they suggest, place the shell in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. "Well-rested shells hold their shape the best."

-- "The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie: Recipes, Techniques, and Wisdom from the Hoosier Mama Pie Company" by Paula Haney (Agate Midway; Aug. 2013; $29.95).


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