Life of pie
A summer legacy passed down through generations, the seasonal fruit pie is an art worth mastering
For me there is no food more evocative of summer than a homemade pie, the crust lumpy and knobby-looking on top and with a little ooze of sticky, translucent juices around the edge. Sure, there are plenty of other things that seem to taste better when the weather is hot: barbecued ribs, a cold slice of watermelon, grilled chicken, potato salad and ice cream. But pies are the Holy Grail, the pinnacle of summer food.
I don’t, of course, mean just any pie. The best are filled with stone fruit, especially apricots, which have a bittersweet edge that encapsulates summer, though blackberry, rhubarb and Gravenstein apple (which start coming from Sonoma in August) are also wonderful. Above all, the right pie has to be homemade—yes, even the crust—which means that pies have some drawbacks as a summer food. They are time-consuming, requiring you to spend the sunshiny hours in the kitchen rolling out dough and cutting up fruit rather than out doing something athletic and tan-inducing on a river somewhere. Making crust can be tricky, especially when it’s hot out, since a properly flaky crust must be kept cool during mixing and rolling. Baking pies requires you to have the oven on for a long period of time, usually during the hottest time of the day.
It is impossible, in my experience, to get a decent piece of pie in a restaurant. In a fancy place, I’ll order a tart for dessert, but in general I don’t trust pastry chefs with pie, and the less said about the kinds of pie you see slowly circling in a dessert case in a diner the better. There you get cream pies with mounds of fake whipped cream, sugary goo added with a trowel rather than a spoon to fruit fillings, sticky and obscenely perfect slices made in a factory rather than a kitchen, and crusts without a flake to be found. Ugh.
An affinity for pie often runs in families. My mother’s side of the family is full of pie lore: There was my grandmother, who made perfect lemon meringue pie; her mother, whose crusts my grandfather says were “too short”; and my mom, who had several trees’ worth of peaches, plums, apricots and other fruits to use up all summer long. My dad’s family almond orchard, south of Chico, had a corner reserved just for fruit trees, and we were overrun with perfectly ripe fruit throughout the hot months. I was appalled to learn what apricots and peaches were like in the outside world, having spent many July afternoons picking only the perfect specimens and letting wasp-mottled, bruised or unappealing fruit fall to the ground to rot in a sticky, browning heap. We had bright Red Haven peaches, apricots that tasted like something other than a cotton ball (unlike the ones in supermarkets) and deep purple plums with skins coated in bluish bloom, and they all went into pies.
It was my mother who taught me to make pie crust, using the recipe in an old Fannie Farmer cookbook with a ’60s-looking golden cover. Mom, a computer programmer and onetime math major, undoubtedly used formulae that feature that other kind of pi (and that I promptly forgot after finishing eighth-grade geometry) when she worked out precise measurements for adjusting the recipe to make a 10- and 8-inch pie, for single and double crusts. No clumsy doubling or one-and-a-half-timesing the recipe for her, as that might result in too much crust or not enough when you roll it out.
There’s always a little extra, though, after you’ve trimmed the extra crust away from the pie pan, which always meant what we called pie cookies: Re-roll the scraps into any old shape, put them on a baking sheet, sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar and cut them into rough-edged wedges. Then bake them along with the pie, and you have to be careful not to forget them; they only take 15 minutes or so to turn golden and crisp. We nibbled away at the sugar-topped pieces of bland, flaky crust. I can’t imagine why I’ve always loved pie crust so much, as the flavor is nothing more than slightly salty fat and flour.
In our family, Crisco was always the fat of choice. I now cut it with butter, mainly for the added flavor but also so that there’s less trans fat. Irrationally, I figure a smaller portion of two kinds of deadly fats, trans and saturated, is perhaps a little better than a huge helping of hydrogenated whatever-it-is in Crisco. I’ve heard rumors that the trans-fat-free shortening that you can get in natural-foods stores produces a supremely flaky crust, and one of these days I will get around to testing that theory out myself. I am glad to say that I haven’t reached the pitch of obsession that might lead me to try lard.
I also started adding butter because, I confess, my crusts weren’t turning out as well as my mother’s and my grandmother’s. I was impatient and didn’t like making bad pies, so I tried a recipe in Cook’s Illustrated that is nearly foolproof in terms of flakiness, with tons of both butter and Crisco. My grandfather might say that they come out too short, but they’re extremely flaky, and I haven’t made a tough one yet, though I’ve gradually cut back a little on the amount of fats.
Even leaving the choice of fats aside, the variables in making a good pie are considerable. Unlike most baked goods, pies are an inexact science. A cake will stand or fall, quite literally, based on minute variations in the amount of baking powder you put in, and it always pays to follow the recipe precisely. But pies are different. The ratio of fat to flour may stay constant, but you can incorporate the fat in different ways: cut in with two butter knives, using a pastry blender (which I’ve never gotten the hang of), or by rubbing in with your fingers. I’ve now settled on about two cups of flour (with half a teaspoon of salt) to about six tablespoons each of cold butter and cold shortening for a 9-inch double-crust pie. I cut the fats into little chunks and rub them and the flour between my fingers, as fast as I can, until there aren’t any big pieces left.
The next worry is adding the ice water to the dough; you have to add just enough to make it hold together and roll out without cracking, but not so much that it’s sticky and tough.
While the dough chills, you can peel and pit and slice the fruit (about three pounds, if you’re using stone fruit and making a 9-inch pie) and try to sort out the next dilemma: how much to thicken and sweeten the filling, which depends on the juiciness and ripeness of the fruit. Here again, controversy rears its head. Some people like to use cornstarch, and others flour. I dislike the former, which adds a mucilaginous texture that reminds me of canned pie filling, and favor the latter, though opponents contend that it can cloud the filling and make it a trifle gluey. A pastry-chef friend, however, recently suggested tapioca flour, which combines the best elements of both: It is clear, but it lacks the textural weirdness of cornstarch, and it thickens the juices just enough. You can buy it at natural-foods stores, where it usually sits next to all of the other odd, no-wheat flours. Use a little more than you would cornstarch, and a little less than you would flour: maybe a tablespoon per pound of fruit. I don’t add much sugar, maybe half a cup, and I usually put in a little lemon juice and cinnamon or nutmeg.
When the pastry is cold, roll out half and get it into the pie pan as best you can. (I fold it in half and lift it in carefully, but there’s always a little patching to be done.) Pour in the fruit, roll out the other half, drape the pastry over the fruit and trim it flush with the pie pan. I can’t seem to manage fancy, pretty fluting on the edge of the pastry, so I crimp the edges with a fork, just like my mother does, and console myself with the thought that fruit pie is a strictly homey dessert. Put foil on the oven rack to catch the drips, slide the pie into a 375-degree oven and bake it for maybe an hour, until the crust is browned. Personally, I then eat the thickened, tart, jam-like juices off the foil as soon as they’re cool enough that they won’t burn my tongue, and I also have been known to break tiny pieces of juice-imbued crust off the edges of the pie while it cools.
Somehow, I doubt that I’ll be having this experience too often this summer, unless someone should happen to come over to my house and bake me a pie. I’m expecting a baby in late June, just as apricot season gets well under way, and while I haven’t done much newborn care in the past, my friends tell me that it’s not really the kind of thing that’s compatible with leisurely afternoons of baking. Someday, though, the baby will grow big enough first to appreciate pie cookies, then to help roll out a crust or cut up fruit and maybe eventually to do the geometric calculations of increasing diameter and area that are involved in making a different size of pie. I’m already planning on indoctrinating my child thoroughly into the mysteries of crust and fruit, and on ensuring that another generation of my family knows how to recognize taste in an apricot pie.Got fruit?
Making a good fruit pie is heavily dependent on getting good fruit to start with. When I lived in San Francisco, I was appalled to realize that it was possible to pay $2.50 or more for a single ripe peach at a farmers’ market. Here in the Central Valley, prices are less steep, but it can still be tough to find a delicious apricot or peach. To determine ripeness, I rely not on poking and prodding but on fragrance: I figure that if a peach doesn’t have a ripe, heady smell, it won’t have much flavor either.
The best ways to get truly ripe fruit, bar none, are to pick it yourself or get it from a friend with a backyard tree. If you lack this enviable resource, consider heading out to the American River Parkway or the foothills, where wild blackberries grow in abundance, or use the California Agri-tourism Database (www.calagtour.org), which is usefully organized by county, to look for “u-pick” farms and roadside farm stands in your area.
If that sounds like way too much trouble for a pie, local farmers’ markets are an excellent source. Two of the area’s biggest and best are the Saturday-morning market in Central Park at Fourth and C streets in Davis and the Sunday-morning market in the state parking lot at Eighth and W streets in Sacramento; you can search for a market near you by entering your city or county at the site of the California Federation of Certified Farmers’ Markets (www.cafarmersmarkets.com).
If the urge to make a pie strikes when no farmers’ markets are open, two excellent sources for produce in the area are the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op (1900 Alhambra Boulevard in Sacramento, (916) 455-2667), which has a wide selection of local, organic produce, and Whole Foods Market (4315 Arden Way in Sacramento, (916) 488-2800), where a plenitude of free samples means you often can try before you buy.