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Posts Tagged ‘pie crust’

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Flagrant imitation of a Four and Twenty Blackbirds shot. Their pies always look like the work of a New England grandma, made as geese fly overhead and honk faintly, wistfully, as wood smoke curls into the grey clouds.

My pies tend to be fruit based. Or homemade low-fat vanilla pudding + fruit based. This is because I’m usually the one eating my pies, and if I made pies like the above for myself, I’d be as big as a Boeing*. I made it for my friend Matt’s annual ‘Pie-Day Friday’ party**, for which he requested something that comprised his favorite combination, chocolate and peanut butter. This is also my own personal kryptonite, so I was happy to oblige him.

But it was strange, and not just because Martha Stewart’s recipe was written too loosely, and not just because her staff has a worrying obsession with writing recipes using off-sized baking pans that no one owns. It was odd to make a pie crust and fill it with peanut butter and chocolate, and no fruit at all. And they have you press in bits of homemade peanut brittle into the peanut butter. There was a lot of leftover brittle, so I ignored the instruction to drizzle more peanut butter on top (which was easy to ignore, as I don’t own a microwave to melt it, and warming it in a pan just burns it and makes your house smell like the boiler room at J.M. Smucker. Hypothetically speaking.) and instead I just stuck more pieces of brittle around the edges, Stonehenge style. It was odd, and all told, it was honestly less of a pie than a giant round candy bar.

But conversation noticeably dried up for a little while while the guests ate it, so I know it went over well.

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It didn’t call for fleur de sel, either, but there it is.

*Wüsthof-sharp analogy that will be dated embarrassingly soon, like circa Thursday morning, so I hope you’re reading this is in a timely fashion.

**The invitation said to bring leftover pie from Thanksgiving or to bring a new one. I asked Matt, a prosecutor, ‘But if we all walk in with pies, wouldn’t that leave you with still more leftover pie, necessitating yet another pie party?’ He replied, ‘Tell no one you have unraveled our scheme.’

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Dear Bakers,

First, mad props to you. Honest. Life is hard; you make us treats. Without you*, how could we forget about the workaday world of Cadillac SUV drivers who don’t signal, about 16-page apartment leases, about presidential candidates who strut and fret their hour upon the stage? A cinnamon croissant roll takes five minutes to eat, but what a blissful five minutes. How unburdened an experience. You are gods and archangels.

Thank you for the variety on your menu, thank you for offering both plain and fancified, thank you for blueberries in high summer and spiced pumpkin in the fall. Thank you for little saucers of broken-up scones to try while we wait for service. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I pop one to soothe a hungry stomach and then go. But you know I spend liberally the rest of the week. We’re cool.)

Thank you, so many of you, for making pie crusts with lard, or butter, or a combo of the two. Thank you, others of you, for eschewing shortening entirely for the glory of butter. You know your cookies will be flatter, but firmly avow that flavor must never fall to the ax of showboating.

But I must take exception to those of you who bake with excessive amounts of sugar. Of course America has a sweet tooth. We just don’t need as much sugar as you’re adding. Many of your cakes and cupcakes are too darn sweet, and lots of bakers don’t stop there: even a corn muffin these days can make a girl’s mouth pucker. My argument:

  1. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the product is dull.
  2. If the first and last ingredient we taste is sugar, the rest of the ingredients don’t get their say.
  3. Ibid., the structure will be gritty.

I love chocolate brownies, for example. But when did we make sugar more important than the quality of the chocolate, the richness of the butter, and the fudginess or cakiness of the square itself? I ate a brownie on Sunday that was gorgeous to look at. But it was so packed with sugar that I crunched my way through it.** The chocolate, fat, and texture were very much an afterthought.

Last point:

4. If one ingredient isn’t allowed to be a diva, we can appreciate the subtlety and balance of the other ingredients.

Like seals being tossed fish time and again, pushing sugar into the spotlight of baked goods narrows our thinking, dulls our senses, and deprives us of a fuller experience. Let us taste the almond extract in your cherry scones; we’ll be excited to learn they’re such a winning pair (cousins, almonds and cherries, you know). Let us search for a hint of orange peel, or come to adore exotic cardamom on first taste. We love to learn. Let us get excited by the nuances of your work.

The brownie above, now. Good example. Much less sugar, in the European tradition. More excellent-quality chocolate, cream, and butter. It was dense, sticky—a deep and powerful experience. I’ll drive a half an hour north for this thing, and I cannot imagine I’m alone.

Being active observers of flavors and textures is a positive; looking for them with eagerness and learning from them is a blessing. Conscious, discerning eating can’t help but inform conscious, discerning thinking outside the bakery, and goodness knows we can all use a little more of that.

Two thumbs up, and best regards,

~M (and my dentist)

*And maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda.
**Of course I ate the whole thing. It wasn’t a good brownie, but it was a brownie.

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About 10 years ago I tasted a new apple pie from a place here at the Jersey shore that’s famous for its pies (and deservedly so, for the most part, which is why I’m not going to reveal its name). The idea was a sound one: Bake apples and a sugary walnut topping into a bottom crust, but leave the top crust off. The pie’s got face appeal—an ooh-ah dessert. My family dug it, but I always thought it was lacking. Too dry, walnuts tasted meh, etc. So a couple of years ago, feeling ambitious, I decided I was going to keep the idea but doctor it up.

Because plain cut apples dry out in the heat of an oven without a top crust to shield them, I gave them a leg up by poaching them in really good-quality apple cider first. I toasted the walnuts, which gives depth and nuance to any nut on earth. And I made my own crust, which left out partially-hydrogenated animal shortening (as appealing as that sounds).

Relying only on my memory, I literally winged the spices and measurements. But I think I nailed it. This is a pie that tastes as good as it looks. Why else eat anything? Make it for a fall treat or for Thanksgiving or for Arbor Day and tell me what you think.

Peel and cut 7-8 apples into eighths. Don’t use Macintosh or they’ll fall apart as they cook. Any other kind will do, but a variety is fun. Put 2 c apple cider into a large saucepan. (Unfiltered, no-water-added cider will be more intensely flavored. And it’s thick. If you can lose sight of a spoon in it, it’s the kind I mean.) Add your apples and poach over medium-high heat for about 5-8 minutes. Stir them gently and occasionally. Then take them out and spread onto a platter to cool a bit.

Take out a shallow, heavy little pan, put in three or so handfuls of shelled walnuts, and set it over medium-low heat. Do not leave to check Facebook or they’ll burn.* Shake the pan a few times as they toast. When you can smell them, turn them out onto a cutting board and let them cool for a couple of minutes. Then give them a quick chop and add them to a small bowl. Add 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp cinnamon (Saigon cinnamon for the win here…and everywhere actually. It will change your life), and 1/8 tsp nutmeg. If you can get the nutmeg in its whole form and grate it, all the better. Stir in 3/4 c packed brown sugar. I like dark, but use any kind you like.

Right, now for the crust. It’s easy, honest.** Take out your food processor and put in 2 c flour, 4 tsp (or less) sugar, and 1/4 tsp salt. Pulse it a few times. Add 3/4 c very cold butter and pulse again a few more times until bits of the dough come together in marble-sized balls. Add about 6 tbsp of ice water, just a little splash at a time, and pulse as you go, until the dough comes together as sort of a loose mass. Don’t over-pulse or the crust will be as chewy as the soles of your New Balances.

Next, what they call blind baking. Again, not a big deal. You do this partially, in this case, and the goal is to dry up the crust a bit before the filling goes in. Otherwise, it can go soggy on you.

Turn your oven to 400 degrees. Scoop out the dough and form it into a disk. Then put it into your pie pan, spreading it out to the edges and up the sides with your knuckles. Take a fork and prick the bottom of the crust a bunch of times. (This is called docking, for you curious types. The crust wants to bubble as it heats, but this lets the air escape, keeping the crust fairly flat).

Next, set some aluminum foil on top of the dough and pour in some cheap dried beans. (This is a back-up system to keep the crust flat.)

Bake the crust for about 15 minutes. Check to see how it’s doing by lifting up your foil a bit. If it sticks, leave it in the oven a little longer, for 5 or so more minutes, then take the beany foil out carefully. Lower your heat to 375 and leave the crust in for another 5 minutes or until lightly golden.

If you’re feeling brave, you can load up your crust with apples while the pan is still hot, but be careful, okay? Start at the edges and go in circles. I have four or so circles in this pie.

Last, add 1/4 cup of cold butter to your little bowl of topping and mix it in with your fingers until it’s well dispersed. Then sprinkle the whole thing on top of your apples. Nummy.

Bake on a lined cookie sheet for 50 minutes. You might need to check it from time to time to make sure the nuts aren’t burning. If they’re getting dark too quickly, loosely cover the top with a little piece of aluminum foil.

This pie is great hot after dinner and even better cold for breakfast. Juicy, rich, sweet and totally addictive.

*If you’ve toasted nuts on a stove top before, you can be cocky and set it on medium or medium-high heat. But still don’t check Facebook.

**If you really can’t deal, at least get a frozen crust that’s made with natural ingredients.  It makes a huge difference, in flavor and in texture.

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