Pie Lessons

I didn’t know how good I had it growing up. I waltzed around, completely oblivious, waiting expectantly for pies to appear at the ready. Rhubarb. Peach. Apple. Blueberry. Pecan. Pumpkin. They’d emerge and sit tortuously on the stovetop to cool.

We weren’t allowed anywhere near picking range pre-dinner. But if, by some miracle, any pie remained the next day, picking was another story. It became an art. We’d pull stools up to the counter, spoons in hand, and approach the pie with practical reverence. We strategized: where to begin? A flaky tear of the golden brown crust? A deep carving  of the filling? Or, in the case of rhubarb, a spoonful from the miraculous and perfectly pink pool of sugary liquid at the bottom of the dish. We’d plot our attack carefully, comparing tactics, until not a crumb remained.

My mom’s pies are show stoppers. You would think we’d get used to them over the years, but at every family dinner, there we are: stuffed, incredulous, and singing her praises.

Whenever people ask the secret of my mom’s crust, she always exclaims “It’s in the flick of the wrist!” Her demonstrations are always accompanied by a “ch ch ch!” sound affect I never quite understood.

My mom learned to make pie crust from her friend Michele Miller (who happens to be the creator of Bola Granola, the absolute best and most addictive granola there is). Michele’s mother is French, so bien sur, she is a master of all things butter. The proportions are Julia Child’s, but the secret is Michelle’s technique.

After all these years it felt like a rite of passage to learn. I called my mom and requested a formal lesson, as soon as her rhubarb, which grows wild out beyond the garden, was tall enough to cut. We opened the windows, poured some Rosé, and put on Ella in Rome.

This much is true—master this dough and you’re pretty much set for life.

Ingredients: for the Dough 

  • 1 3/4 C Flour
  • 10 T cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 2 T Margarine
  • Generous Pinch (more like 1 t) salt
  • 1/2 C ice water

 Ingredients: for the Filling

  • Between 6 and 8 C rhubarb, tips and roots removed, chopped into 1 or 2 inch pieces.
  • 2 T Arrowroot Powder
  • 1 Heaping C brown sugar

Make Filling:

Toss rhubarb, arrowroot powder and brown sugar in a large bowl so that all the fruit is evenly coated. That’s it! Put it aside while you make the dough

Make the Dough:

Preheat Oven to 425°

Cut butter into small cubes.

Mix Flour and Salt in a medium bowl.

Add cubes of butter and margarine and toss in flour mixture until butter butter and margarine are coated.

Pour the contents of the bowl out onto a large work space. Using a pastry blade, chop the butter/margarine until it resembles pea-sized crumbs. Don’t overdo it. Scrape into a pile.

Here’s the “ch ch ch, flick of the wrist” technique:

Using a rolling pin, gently flick and scrape the mixture so that you stretch the butter. Flick some of the pile under your pin, then roll down and out away from you. Repeat until the whole pile has moved to the front of your rolling pin and butter crumbs have turned into thin flakes.

Gently scrape the pile back into the bowl.

Add ice water a few splashes at a time, just until dough comes together (and starts to resist.) Depending on the humidity in the air, you may not need all 1/2 cup’s worth!

Once dough starts to come together, form into a round disc. Don’t overwork it, and don’t worry if it doesn’t hold together perfectly! You can always scrape up crumbs and hide them sneakily in a fold. Wrap in wax paper and chill for a minimum of 30 min.

Remove dough from fridge and cut in half. For a lattice top pie, make halves slightly uneven (you’ll use the larger half for the lattice strips).

Flour your work surface and roll out dough, alternating directions, until it is thin but not too thin. Place gently into pie plate and pat down into corners.

Pour rhubarb filling into dough. Roll out your second half of dough and, using a pastry cutter (or a paring knife), cut into inch-wide strips. The weaving pattern is simple once you wrap your head around it. Start with 2 strips in an L shape, and weave so that the pattern is over under, over under. Break off the excess dough a little past where it meets the side of the dish, and save for later. (You can always cheat and pinch two smaller strips together when you’re running low)

Pinch your lattice ends together with the dough shell so that you have a lovely scalloped border. I wasn’t very good at this, but my thumb, thumb and index finger pinching technique yielded acceptable results:

Sprinkle lightly with sugar and pop it in the oven! Bake for 25 minutes at 425° so that the top is slightly golden. Lower temperature to 350° and bake for another 25 minutes, or until top is golden brown and the rhubarb peeking through your lattice is bubbling.

Cubing the butter

Cubing the butter

Chopping the butter, flour and margarine mixture

Chopping the butter, flour and margarine mixture

Ready to become dough!

Ready to become dough!

Ready for 30 min. in the fridge

Ready for 30 min. in the fridge

Rolled-out dough

Rolled-out dough

Starting to look a lot like a pie!

Starting to look a lot like a pie!

Far from perfect lattice strips

Far from perfect lattice strips

Learning to weave

Learning to weave

Hopefully you can't see my ghastly weaving error.

Hopefully you can’t see my ghastly weaving error…

Enjoy!

Enjoy!

 

A Little Late to the Table

I was always a nuisance in the kitchen. I was known to perform song and dance routines dangerously close to the stove and chose dinnertime to perfect my masterpiece on the pantry chalkboard.

I grew up at the apron strings of my mom and my older sister, Bridget. I always seemed to be orbiting the periphery of the kitchen, getting in the way and being assigned any task that might remove me from the premises. “Why don’t you set the table?” was the inevitable sentence, issued when my dancing, singing, and sampling of crucial ingredients got too out of hand. I accepted my fate as table setter and went on through the years loving food, blissfully unaware of how any of it was made.

My selective eating habits, which emerged early on, caused both my mom and Bridget to pretty much write off any potential as a fellow foodie. “Anyone who does not like jam,” my sister once proclaimed, “does not deserve to eat.” (To which I no doubt responded by dissolving into a hysteric tantrum about how Bridget was mean to me.) But she was right! I didn’t like Jam! Or eggplant! Or calamari! Or mushrooms! Or dates!

I did, however, love salt. While most kids were eating fruit roll ups and Lunchables, I was slathering Carr’s crackers with taramasalata and finishing off a can of black olives with a healthy swig of that salty black brine. When anyone baked, instead of paying attention whatsoever, I’d swipe bits of dough and sprinkle them with salt before eating them surreptitiously.

We grew up eating from the garden. The first sign of spring was always rhubarb, and we’d ladle sweet compote over vanilla ice cream for dessert. Summer was full of sun-warmed cherry tomatoes and 9 PM dinners. Finding grass or the odd leaf of clover in one’s salad was not unheard of. Peach pies were considered holy. In winter, there was always a pile of butternut squash in a cold corner of the house.

I played cello and I always liked to practice an hour before dinner, so that 15 minutes into scales and arpeggios, smells from the kitchen began to waft in: onions cooking in olive oil, roast chicken or a rustic apple tart. It was never a question that whatever my mom cooked would be delicious. Even on school nights when things got really healthy, we ate fluffy brown rice and spinach drenched in garlicky soy sauce.

When we were 12 and 8 respectively, it became clear that my sister had inherited the kitchen intuition from my mom. While my brother and I were busy building forts or stacking firewood, my sister was experimenting with homemade pasta or learning how to make jam. My only claim to fame was quesadillas, which I mastered and stuck to for a solid 10 years.

But here’s what happened (and I know, it’s cliche.) This past summer, I went to Italy. I’d say there were three solitary bites of food that changed my life in a small but significant way.

  1. Hazlenut gelato. Specifically, in Rome, on a quiet street in the evening; a perfect cool creamy bite of soft nutty bliss.
  1. Lardo. Specifically, whipped into a mousse with salt and herbs, spread on an olive oil-drenched slice of bread, accompanied by a glass of red wine in Panzano.
  1. Pasta. Specifically, floating in a bright green haze of mint and pea pesto, accented by salty cubes of caramelized bacon, under an arbor in Volpaia.

I have not looked back to the Quesadilla Days since.