I like to think that pie holds a special spot in every American heart. It’s strewn about our popular ideas of American history, from Thanksgiving tables to “Little House on the Prairie” scenes.
We reach for disposable pie tins and prepared piecrusts in the grocery store, but pies baked like that are a far cry from pies baked a hundred years ago.
For me, pie is about family history, too. It’s about my grandmother, a diminutive woman standing at the kitchen table.
Within reach of one hand is a jar of Crisco, and at the other is a pile of flour. She mixes them together by feel, scooping a little more flour or shortening into the crumbly pile in front of her. Two ingredients, a bit of water and my grandmother makes the flakiest piecrust I could ever imagine.
I’ve read articles about the “art” or “science” of making pie, where authors expound on the bonds in the gluten created by the addition of water. Sometimes butter is espoused as the choice fat to marry with the flour. Sometimes water is left out altogether.
I think it’s great that people are exploring new things, finding exact measures and figuring out how baking works. Still, it’s hard to imagine that anything could be better than a blueberry pie cooked by my grandmother.
Earlier this year, I went to a “pie social,” which was hosted by a
group of mostly older folks. Everyone brought a pie, a tart or a crisp. There were coconut cream pies with the price tags still on the plastic lid, apple pies in disposable tins and other pies obviously baked from scratch.
The pie that struck my fancy had a lovely brown crust with rhubarb filling. While eating it, I discovered that the lovely crust came not only from scratch, but that it had been made with lard. I could taste the faint hint of bacon mixed in with my bites of rhubarb. I realized pies during the early years of the last century must have all tasted this good, as lard was used in everyday cooking in that era. It was quite an interesting taste, a combination of unlikely flavors to a modern palate.
When I bake pies, I try to make them in the style of my grandmother. I get out the flour and the Crisco, although I often mix in a little butter, and I get my hands right into that mixture, mixing and turning the fat and flour together until they come to that perfect stage of crumbliness. It’s difficult to describe, partly because all of that science is onto something when it comes to the effect of fat and humidity to pie dough. And partly because flaky piecrusts seem like an art, one that takes some practice and is easier to skip entirely with a pre-made crust from the grocery aisle.
Be it art, science or history, a homemade pie is beautiful to me.
It tells the story of Ma Ingalls baking a green pumpkin pie on the western prairies, and the story of my grandmother passing around slices of pie after a family dinner. It’s the changing story of what we eat as Americans and how we make it. After all, what’s more American than apple pie?
2/3 cup Crisco or butter
2 cups flour
pinch of salt
8 cups apples
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoon flour (opt.)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Start with the crust. Cut the Crisco into the flour. What you use
for the fat depends on the flavor you prefer in a crust. It definitely impacts the final product. I like the texture and easy use of Crisco, and the flavor is fairly bland. Blandness in the crust is absolutely fine, as the crust offsets the pie filling in texture alone. I do sometimes add a quarter cup of butter to my crusts for a little flavor boost.
When fat is cut into the flour and the mixture resembles bread crumbs, set it in the refrigerator.
Turn your attention to the filling now. For the best flavor, a selection of apple varieties should be present, for instance, two
Granny Smith, two Macintosh and a Yellow Delicious. Tart apples typically bake better than sweet ones, but that is no reason to avoid the superior mix of flavors. The apples should be peeled, cored and sliced.
Spread the sugar, brown sugar and cinnamon over the sliced apples and let it sit for a few minutes. If it begins to look extra juicy, add some flour. This will help prevent juice bubbling out and getting burnt all over your oven.
Now it’s time to roll out your crusts. Take about half of your cold flour mixture and add ice-cold water spoonful by spoonful until it begins to stick together. It shouldn’t take more than two or three spoonfuls. Form a ball and flatten it between your palms. Dust with flour, and roll out with a rolling pin, moving from the center out, in all directions. If you don’t have a rolling pin, I’ve used glass bottles or tall cups before – anything round and handy should work.
When your crust is rolled to about a 1/4 inch in thickness, drape over a pie pan. If you’re like me, this means having to patch up a few spots with extra pie dough to cover the entire pan.
Place filling in pan. It shouldn’t be flat, rather, heap up in the center as the fruit tends to cook down.
Roll out a second crust and drape over the top. With a fork, poke a few holes for aeration. Crimp the edges of the crust with your fingers. Cut off excess piecrust.
With tin foil, cover the edges of the pie. This keeps them from getting too brown in the oven.
Bake for 25 minutes, remove the tin foil, then bake for 25 minutes more. Remove pie from oven and let it cool before serving. Enjoy!
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