Friday, March 14, 2014

Pie Manifesto

I want to talk to you about something serious now. Something that weighs on me. Something that everyone likes to eat but no one likes to make. We need to talk to about pie.

I make a good pie. I still occasionally dream about the best cherry pie I have ever made or ate. It was 10 years ago. Somehow I had managed the perfect synthesis of cherries, nutmeg, sugar and pastry. We all shut up while eating it and kind of curled our left hands around our plates, prison style. I didn't even tell my brother that the pie was in the house.

Today's world of boxed pies promises so much but delivers so little. Even very good pie purveyors are just ok compared to a well-cooked homemade pie. And here is why: Pie is ephemeral and maddening and different every time. You have to adjust on the fly and accept that inconsistency is part of the deal.

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." Carl Sagan
I have rules about pie.

Pie rule #1

Freshness is everything. No matter how good the ingredients, technique or decoration, pie is not cake. Time does it no favors. Pulling a pie out of the oven is like pulling the pin on a slow-moving grenade. You have a window--and it ain't 3 days. It's a few hours.  Of course, if that's not enough complication for you, a fruit pie needs to cool first--which also takes time. But for the best set you need a room temp or just barely skin temperature pie.

So when someone asks me to make a pie, my first question for them is "When are you going to eat it?"

Pie rule #2

Cook the damn thing! Most pies, commercial or homemade--even in beautiful magazine spreads, look woefully underdone to me. Most commercial ones are underdone--probably because they encourage customers to re-warm them and it gives a little wiggle room on the browning. But I suspect that Hostess and the like have so degraded our sense of what pie should be that we have become accustomed to pallid, doughy crusts. Many recipes call for a mere 45 minutes of bake time. I routinely go over an hour in baking. The fruit can bubble up (one so-called sign of doneness) pretty quickly, but if the crust is not baked, the pie is not done. If you want a flaky pie, you need to keep cooking. I look for a friable texture on the top crust; actually touch the pie lightly to feel it. It should feel flaky.

I am not alone in these feelings about pie. A Hungarian chef I had the pleasure of dining with once barely repressed a shudder at the thought of pie--he clearly had been badly burned. And John Thorne in Outlaw Cook has a great essay on inferior pie and why it exists.

Pie rule #3

Use butter. Not margarine or olive oil or anything healthy. Butter is what the pie wants and it's what you want too. Using a small amount of shortening (1/4 c. for a 2 crust pie) will give you a bit of insurance against overworking the dough. After cutting in the butter, do not overprocess. My flakiest doughs look almost like a mosaic of dough and butter when I role them out. Lard crusts are good for savory pies, like chicken, but I find the bacon-y top notes clash with any fruit other than apple.

Taste the filling--adjust sugar, spice, and lemon juice to the fruit. Yes, it will be different every time. Accept it as part of the process of pie.

Pie rule #4

And finally, don't forget to have pie for breakfast the next day. While most "cook's treats" come during the cooking process and before serving, this is one worth the wait. The pie will have lost some of it's freshness and crispness, but there is something both decadent and nourishing about having a slice of cherry or blueberry pie in a cool kitchen before anyone else is up that soothes the soul. Plus, you will be upholding a grand American tradition. If Daniel Webster hopes there's pie for breakfast--shouldn't you?

Books I use to make my pies:

Julia Child's The Way to Cook  Her pâte brisée is my go-to crust. I have it memorized.

Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book  The 1961 edition has good ratios of fruit to sugar for many kinds of pie and sizes of pie plates. I use these ratios as a starting point. The new editions are useless, IMO.

John Thorne's Outlaw Cook A great book of food writing, the essay on pie dramatically improved my pecan pie recipe when I realized I could make a less sweet pie simply by doubling the amount of pecans.

Cook's Illustrated has a technique for thickening pies with Minute tapioca that works well for fruit pies. I have the original magazine, but I am sure it is in some of their books as well as on their paid website.


  1. Peach pie. I'll wait until August.

  2. I associate pie with summer and fall. Not March with snow.

    1. Maybe a cream pie. People NEED pie when it's cold out. Besides, there's only half snow right now.

  3. Love this post, and I love pie! What are your thoughts on Cook's illustrated foolproof pie dough, with the vodka. I have had lots of success with it when I make my apple pie, but I'm curious about your thoughts. Also, I use the bake it in a paper bag approach, which has also done right by me :-)

    1. I've been curious about the vodka method--and it seems like the science is sound--but I find that I get such good results with JC's recipe--as long as I have a food processor to cut in the dough--that I haven't been compelled to try it. Her recipe not only uses a little crisco for insurance against toughness, but also a proportion of the flour id cake flour, which is lower in gluten, which also helps guard against toughness. Good to know someone has had a good experience with it. I've never tried the paper bag--is it wet or dry? (Reposted to fix a typo)

  4. I loooove this blog post, Devon! Bonus: I read this in a sports bar with a zillion screens and a vocalizing boyfriend. Helped me through! ;)