I made a pie last night. I’m “giving up” sugar, by which I mean I’m doing my best to not eat quite so many pastries, candies, and sweets. This is a little about my weight, and mostly about avoiding dire health consequences that my folks are currently scrambling to mitigate. But sometimes “doing my best” means that I make pie because it’s less bad for me than the ice cream sandwich the size of my hand. If you haven’t had them yet (and you like such things) CoolHaus ice cream sandwiches are fantastic. But so is pie.
Last night, I made the best pie crust I’ve ever made. And it’s all because we got lost on bike tour.
My family has pie at Thanksgiving, and maybe Christmas, and that’s about it. Mom isn’t a fan of making pie crust if she can avoid it; she actually threatened to buy it last year, but I offered to make the crust instead. Occasionally, we’d have apple pie, and there’s that infamous Peach Pie Incident… Suffice to say that I was never really into pie as a kid, and I was especially not into pie crust. I mean, ew. It’s bland and boring and kind of tough. What’s to like? So I just never bothered with pie.
Three?-ish? years ago, I went on my first ever bike tour. A couple of my friends and I packed up camping gear and food and lots of water and sunscreen and rode our bikes up over the California coastal hills into the Central Valley. It was a long climb, followed by 18 miles of downhill; smooth sailing! Then we road through the Central Valley; it’s flat as a pancake, but it’s pretty, and we camped at Caswell Memorial State Park, which sits on the banks of the Stanislaus River. It was stunningly pretty, though it was pretty evident from the look the Ranger gave us that they didn’t get many cyclists camping there. We got the same look from a different Ranger in the morning when we left.
And then we got chased by Chihuahuas. Before breakfast. They run surprisingly fast, and they actually were gaining on us by the time we noticed them; it took us a good half mile of sprinting to ditch them. Finally safe from the resident mini-wolves, we cruised into town to grab a solid breakfast before we headed back over the hills to home. We eventually found the restaurant we’d planned on, but it took us a while because street names can be kind of stupid, especially when you’ve never been to the town before.
After breakfast, during which I introduced my friend who grew up in Israel to Pigs in a Blanket (he was mildly horrified), we headed out of town… and found out that since our map had been printed, there’d been a huge construction boom. We got thoroughly lost and had to backtrack several times. It was frustrating, and especially demoralizing because we ended up on busy streets and highways when we had been planning to avoid them. Finally we ended upon back on track. 10 miles along our route, we saw a sign that said “Road Closed”. Next to it was a produce stand advertising ludicrously cheap avocados and other delights, including Apricot Pie. Pie sounded better than backtracking another 10 miles, and I love apricots, and had never had them in pie, and one of my friends is very much into pie, so we were seriously considering stopping. Sure there were only three of us to eat a whole pie, but honestly? That would be ok. But then, in a shocking twist of fate, the Israeli friend checked his phone and actually had reception! So he checked Google Maps for an alternate route; none of us wanted to backtrack. I was busy staring at that Apricot Pie sign and dreaming. Sure, I’m not that into pie, but it still sounded pretty amazing.
Technology came through for us, not with an alternate route, exactly, but with the suggestion that our route might not actually be closed… A thin grey line marked as a bike route ran where our road was supposed to have. We decided to skip the pie and go find out if the grey line actually was a bike route, or if we were going to be backtracking after all. It was decided that if we did end up having to backtrack, we’d stop and have pie, because, well… pie. And more food while cycling basically always sounds like a great idea. And then we could also tell ourselves that backtracking didn’t suck so much; at least we were getting pie out of it…
But we didn’t end up getting pie. Instead, we passed the “Road Closed” sign, and rode our bikes on an actual road for another quarter mile before we found a badly paved not-even-one-lane-road that looked like it might actually take us where we wanted to go. So onward we went. That weird little path, as it turned out, was kept paved and maintained by a local bicycle group. We wrote them a thank-you note, because, seriously, backtracking sucks. I was so happy to be back on route that I hardly even mourned the lack of pie. The rest of the ride went without incident, and we returned triumphant, and exhausted, and desperately in need of a shower.
But the apricot pie that I didn’t get to try kept coming back to me. I could not get it out of my head, and I do like a challenge, and pie crust is supposedly quite the challenge. So I started looking at pie recipes. I made dozens of pies; apple, peach, strawberry (not my favorite), chocolate, and finally apricot. I’m a pie convert now. I adore pie. And I love the crust, when it’s done right. Pie recipes, though, are kind of weird.
Fruit pie filling is pretty much a method rather than an actual recipe, a lot of the time. Chop up enough fruit of your choice to fill your crust, and then a bit more because it cooks down. Toss it with sweetener and thickener of your choice, toss it in your crust and bake. I tried cornstarch, I tried tapioca (turns out, I find it incredibly bitter), I tried doing without, I tried flour, rice flour… you name it. But I like corn-starch the best; the tapioca was pretty, it turns clear when you bake it, but the corn tasted better. Rice flour works about the same as corn-starch, and I was unimpressed with regular flour. I found that mixing my sugar and starch together and then sprinkling it over the fruit gave me the most even coating, so that’s usually how I do it these days.
Pie crust isn’t really a recipe, either. Pie crust is flour (of some kind), solid fat of some kind, and liquid of some kind, combined with technique. The flour is usually white all-purpose flour; I personally like using about 2/3 AP flour and 1/3 Whole Wheat Pastry Flour. Your liquid is usually water with occasional additives; apple cider vinegar and vodka are popular, the cider vinegar gives the crust a pleasant, subtle flavor. Often, recipes add a bit of sugar or salt to the crust for flavor, but be wary of recipes that call for much more than a Tablespoon of sugar; it will make your crust tough.
The fat in pie crust is something people get really really vehement about. Some people swear by lard, some by butter. Nobody recommends margarine. I prefer the flavor of butter, but texture-wise, I get good results with butter or shortening, and with Earth Balance. Earth Balance is a vegan butter substitute that I started using because several of my friends are vegan. I keep using it because hot damn does it make the crust easy to work with! For whatever reason, Earth Balance makes the un-cooked crust so much easier to handle; it doesn’t stick as much, it doesn’t tear when you transfer it to your pie pan. It makes a more tender and less flaky crust than butter, but technique can help with that, and honestly, it’s a reasonable trade off in my book. I think it smells funny, but it tastes fine to me, and I often use it in my crusts even when I’m not planning to feed vegans. Make no mistake, though. Margarine, Imperial Butter Substitute, and the like are not to be trusted. They’ll give you icky, chewy results that just taste off. Liquid fats will also not work; the fat needs to be solid in order to make the crust flaky.
You can get away with screwing around with your ingredients if your technique is good, but if your technique is bad, no amount of perfectionism in the ingredients stage will save you. I tried many many different pie crust recipes, and I think they failed to adequately emphasize the importance of technique. Of course, nobody wants to tell you that the first six times you make their recipe, it’s probably not going to be that good. I really like this recipe from Smitten Kitchen: All Butter, Really Flaky Pie Crust. She offers some really solid advice for technique, and the ingredients work well for me. I also incorporate some technique from an Indian cookbook I have, written by a gentleman named Raghavan Iyer. He suggests that, when making Samosa dough (which is basically pie dough) you knead the dough with your hands two or three times to smooth it out. I now often leave my water/flour mixture a little dryer than the recipe calls for, and turn it over itself a few times with my hand. I also incorporated my experience making laminated dough (this is a pain in the ass, but fun), and I leave large chunks of butter in my crust, about the size of the end of my finger so that when I fold the dough over, the butter flattens out and folds over itself to make even more glorious flakes. I also tend to bake my pies a little extra; I like it when the crust is on the darker side of golden brown because it tends to be more crisp and flavorful. Crust that still tastes like uncooked flour makes me sad. To that end, I’ve started experimenting with different baking techniques. The pie I made last night went into a metal pan, and that gave me the best result yet.
There’s a lot to love about pie. You can stuff with basically anything; fruit fresh or raw, custards, mousse, stew, veggies… roasted beets and feta is an excellent combination. Once you’ve got some practice, pie comes together very very quickly so you can look like a rockstar when you get unexpected guests. Whole uncooked pies freeze well, so you can save some of the summer bounty for the middle of winter to remind you that the sun still exists. Pie dough keeps well in the fridge for days, so you can make it ahead of time and serve fancy quiche for breakfast with basically no effort, and you’ll still have some dough left to make tarlets for a weekend dessert. It’s super easy to make vegan, so you can look courteous and thoughtful at your next office potluck.
I’m really into pie, these days. It has become one of my go-to desserts. It’s especially nice now, in Summer and in conjunction with my sugar ban because fresh fruits hardly need any sweetener to be a delicious dessert. It’s an excellent harm-reduction option for me, because it’s something I love even when I’m not trying to give up sugar. It’s been a delightful challenge, and I expect I’ll keep practicing the art; one can always be better and it’s not like anyone minds helping me eat the experiments.