Pie and joy

You either love pie or you don’t. Invariably, there’s something shifty, unnatural or just plain wrong with those latter few.

This is especially so when summer comes on and brings its true fruits and berries, not those nurtured in hothouses for durability and cosmetic appeal, or shipped halfway across the country, along the way losing whatever flavor they may have had.

The pie eater has it made. Order or accept a big slice, grip the fork with purpose and intensity, and eat. Morning, noon or after dark. That’s happy. But the baker does the work, and it can be both unsettling and frustrating. "Easy as pie" applies only to the eater.

Few cooks I’ve known will deny they were intimidated by their first — or, for that matter, 15th or 50th — pie. It’s a food that fosters legends and high expectations, whether made by some belly-scratching geez at the corner diner who acquired the touch during decades of crabby labor; or the sixth-generation home baker whose expressed interest in learning the old family recipes led to being entrusted by the elders with the consecrated task of making the pies.

Some will say they do everything exactly as Mom, or Uncle, or Great-grandma did, yet the politely offered consensus around the table is that, as close as the results may be, they’re just not the same. In some rare cases, though, they’re better.

But there’s really no need to make it all harder than it has to be. And while we’ve all encountered many bad pies, the reasons they failed are few and consistent.

Prod your last-generation pie maker and the odds are good that the lard on Great-grandma’s handwritten recipe card has been replaced by shortening "for health reasons." That seemingly insignificant fact is the reason it’s just not the same pie.

Others are that the baker handles the dough too much, developing a sturdy, easy-to-handle and ultimately tough crust; that the ingredients are not chilled, causing whatever fat is being used to soften and blend with the dry ingredients, rather than be dispersed in tiny pockets that create flakiness when baked; and the fruit filling is made from mass-market, low-flavor produce that Great-grandma would have fed to the hogs.

And many beginning pie makers are intimidated, with some justification, by assembling a classic two-crust or lattice-top pie.

So I offer you this:

Make a rustic tart. The falutin call it a free-form pie, and the highfalutin call it by its French name, galette. You call it whatever you like, but it won’t change the fact that it’s quick, simple and potentially as good as any pie you’ve ever eaten.

First, get your fruit directly from a farm or farm stand, farmer’s market or reputable produce monger. Don’t be shy about asking for a taste. And buy it when you’re ready to make the pie that day or no later than the next (assuming the fruit’s fully ripe).

Next, measure the dry ingredients — 2 cups of plain ol’ all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Whisk them together to blend (use a fork if you like) in a large bowl, a food processor or the bowl of a stand mixer.

Now add the fat. Please try lard; it’s cheaper and better than butter or even your beloved Crisco. Believe me, one big slice of perfect pie is better than an entire substandard one, so if you exercise a little control, health isn’t a consideration. (Even if it were to kill you, the mourners will forever wonder why your corpse had that enigmatic smile.) Although it keeps without refrigeration, store it there anyway and don’t take it out until you’re ready to bake. Measure 12 tablespoons and drop them into the dry mixture.

Working quickly, "cut" the fat into the dry mixture using a pastry blender, kitchen shears, cross-cutting with two table knives if doing it by hand; with six to 10 pulses of the food processor; or using the paddle attachment of the stand mixture. The result should be mealy, with the flour-coated bits of fat no bigger than peas. Do not overwork it, especially if using a food processor.

Add an egg yolk (this will make the dough less likely to crack and leak during baking). Blend well by hand or with a few more quick pulses. Now, about a tablespoon at a time, sprinkle 1/3- to 1/2-cup ice water, mixing after each addition. (The amount will vary depending on the age and dryness of the flour.) Some bakers sprinkle the water with their fingers, but this warms it unnecessarily. Alton Brown, the most utilitarian and imaginative cook on the TV Food Network, sprays it on with a plant mister, sometimes adding a little fruit juice to the water. You’re done when the dough holds its shape when gently squeezed. Shape it into a thick disk and chill for 10 or 15 minutes.

Lightly flour a piece of wax paper, lay on the dough and roll it out into a 14-inch circle. Pick it up, paper and all, and turn it over onto a cookie sheet; peel off the paper. While you prepare the filling, chill it again.

Now combine 1/4-cup flour, 1/4-cup sugar (and 1-3 more tablespoons if the fruit’s not as sweet as it could be) and a couple of pounds of fresh, peeled and pitted fruit (as the case may be) or berries, stirring until the fruit pieces are evenly coated. Spoon the fruit evenly onto the crust, leaving a 2-inch border all around, then fold that rim up and over the fruit, leaving the filling exposed in the middle. Cut 3 tablespoons of butter into small bits and scatter them over the exposed filling. Sprinkle a little sugar (I like raw sugar) onto the top crust.

Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for a half hour; lower the heat to 375 and bake for another half hour.

Last step (and don’t leave it out or you’ll have a runny, soggy mess), cool the tart/pie on a wire rack for at least two hours. Then serve, and adapt to the fact that you’re a new legend in the making.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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