I made my first pie crust at the tender age of 14 armed with a local church cookbook, a rolling pin, and a stick of margarine. Yes, margarine. Did I mention that I was 14? My dough, instead of becoming a circle, become California, Texas, and at the worst point, both halves of Michigan. The pastry demon told me to just fold it back over and try again because, after all, a perfect circle was a good circle. It made sense at the time. When the dough got dry around the edges, he told me to add more water. In the back of my mind I vaguely remembered someone somewhere saying something about how you shouldn’t overwork pie dough, but my demon laughed it off as an old wives’ tale and told me to fold my Florida into a Virginia for another round of violent rolling, which I did. (Incidentally, old wives generally make good pies.)
The result? Double-crusted denim apple pie: cooked apples on and under layers of off-white extra rugged denim, weatherproof and completely impervious to both kitchen utensils and teeth. I think my mother’s response was, “This is . . . pie?” The trauma of that “pie” would endure for eighteen years. Every pie or tart that I made thereafter featured a press-in crust, a crumb crust, or a store bought crust. Clearly my fear ran deep.
[Pictured: Freeform Asian pear pie in glass pie plate]
Three years ago I decided to conquer my demon. I made two pastry cloths out of spare canvas, bought a tapered rolling pin, and dusted off a pair of 9-inch Pyrex glass pie plates. Oddly, I became obsessed with Indian cooking instead. Two years ago I studied the learned texts of Brown and Corriher and studied recipes to compile data on shortening vs. lard vs. butter vs. oil vs. cream cheese. Strangely, I started making homemade ice creams instead. One year ago I bought a 10-inch deep dish pie pan, a pastry fork, and two sets of pie shields. Funnily enough, I started baking lots of cakes instead.
One week ago my copy of Pie by Ken Haedrich arrived. One day ago my aunt dropped off an entire bucket of Asian pears from her Asian pear tree, which seems nice until you learn that our own Asian pear tree has several buckets of Asian pears waiting to be picked and she knows that. Rather than give her a bucket of our pears in revenge (I considered it), I decided that it was time to make pear pie. The demon had to go.
I picked a freeform pie style inspired by one of Haedrich’s pie recipes. Unlike a galette, which is a freeform pie baked on a flat pan, this pie is made in a pie pan with a single crust 13 inches wide. The excess edges of the crust are folded over the top of the filling, leaving a large center hole. It was the perfect choice because it eliminated my least favorite part of pie—the thick, dry, overbrowned edges. In addition, it wasted no dough via trimming, I could focus on roling just one dough instead of two, and the single crust lightened the overall calorie content of the pie. Finally, and best of all, the seamless edges contained the filling so that I didn’t have to worry about sticky spillover. The only downside was the rustic appearance of the crust, but who cares? It’s pie!
I wrote out a checklist of equipment and prepared my mise en place. Remembering some of Alton Brown’s advice, I stashed two quarter-sheet pans in the freezer (half sheet pans won’t fit) to chill the rolled dough should it get too soft. I whisked my dry ingredients in a bowl, cut up some cold butter and cold trans-fat free shortening on a plate, and set everything inside the fridge. A while later I pulled the cold bowl of flour out of the fridge and rubbed my hands on the bowl to cool my fingers.
Then the fat hit the flour.
My demon laughed and pointed. Biscuit and scone skills gave the confidence to work the fat into the flour, but adding the scant bit of water made me so nervous that I might have underdone it. After an hour’s rest though, the dough seemed fine. I set it on floured wax paper (I’ll try my pastry cloth next time) and turned the paper counterclockwise after every two swipes of my rolling pin. To my amazement, the dough rolled out into a circle, not Florida or Maine. I set the frozen sheet pans on top of the dough whenever it seemed to get too warm. Then I finally nestled the dough into the plate and put it in back into the refrigerator.
While my demon had a cup of coffee and picked at his claws, I turned on the oven and cored and sliced enough unpeeled pears to make five cups and mixed them with sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice (for tartness), and vanilla (I decided against cinnamon to keep from overwhelming the pears). I mounded the fruit on my precious crust, folded the dough over the edges, and brushed the dough with a mixture of the leftover liquid from the bowl of pears and milk. A light sprinkle of demerara sugar topped off the crust, and the pie went into the oven. An hour later, as my demon smoked a cigarette, I pulled out a bubbling pie.
We ate the pie after dinner. The taste was . . . did I mention that this is my first pie since age 14? Well the taste of the pears was lovely, but it seems that fresh Asian pears stay very crunchy even when baked for an hour. I think next time I’ll try macerating the pears in pear brandy, sugar, and lemon juice overnight then reduce the juices to a syrup. Or I’ll pre-bake the crust and pour a cooked filling into the shell then top it with a delicate streusel. Then again I might be making things complicated—chopping the pears into a very fine dice might do the trick. Or maybe paper thin slices would be a wiser . . . well this is a post and recipe for the future. If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.
The important thing is that the pie tasted good. The crust was flaky, browned nicely, and while not as tender as I would have liked, didn’t require sewing shears to eat. I had the basics down well enough to make even better pies in the future. My demon folded up his newspaper, stood with a sigh, and shook my hand. He then left to terrorize budding bakers elsewhere.
So he’s gone, just like the pie (my cousin came over to share). I’m left with crumbs and the memory of my pie cooling in front of the window. The off-center crust covered one side of the pie more than the other side. The skins on the pears had shriveled in the heat, the juices had splattered and blackened on the edges of the glass, and patches of white crust showed signs of underbaking. It needed improvement. But the hot flour and butter filled the entire house with that familiar fresh-baked fragrance that makes people drop what they’re doing and run to the source with a fork in hand. I made that smell. It took only 18 years to do it.
I smiled sheepishly down at my crooked creation, embarrassed by my pride. It was the most beautiful pie I’d ever seen.