There are two types of people in the world—those who love pie, and those who make pie for the people they love. And, even though we’re all busy, there’s really nothing like sinking your fork into a slice of homemade pie, especially during this time of year.
Having married a pie lover, I’ve spent most of my marriage perfecting pie-making for the man I love. The practice of pie-making is rich with tradition and, frankly, can be quite tricky. On any occasion I have to serve pie, in fact, I make three – one to taste-test, one for our family and one to share. And often I even make several single-serving pies so that I can really flex my creative muscle.
Whether you are using a family-favorite, curled-edge index card recipe with handwritten instructions or recipes from the Internet, certain things always ring true. Of all the tips, tricks and tools I’ve encountered in my quest to bake the ultimate pie, here are some important notes I’ve accumulated.
The Pie Crust
Let’s begin by discussing the fat. There aren’t a lot of ingredients in a homemade pie dough recipe, so it is important to use the best. The fat you choose will determine the flakiness and flavor in the end result.
Lard is the fat that has been used in pies for decades—it’s probably what your grandmother would recommend. Because it doesn’t melt quickly, it yields a flaky crust, however it does not lend any flavor to it. Shortening also imparts no flavor, but it has a high melting point, so it easily mixes into dough and bakes into a very flaky crust.
Butter is my personal go-to. I love the flavor, how nicely it freezes, and how pockets of it in the dough translate into golden brown flakiness.
Rules about the fat
Follow some rules. There are just a few – but they are all key – and pie-makers typically feel very passionately about them.
Chill the fat: Whichever fat you choose, chill it first so it doesn’t melt as you prep. Small unmixed pockets of fat are a good thing.
Don’t overmix: Incorporate the ingredients just enough. Too much will disrupt the fat pockets and compromise the opportunity for flakiness.
Let it rest: Chill the dough before rolling out. Your dough already got a workout in the mixing process. After a rest in the fridge, the dough will be easier to spread out and more likely to result in a flaky wonder.
Tip: In the absence of time, consider using pre-made dough. On the grocery shelves and in the freezer section, there are many great options including some already rolled out into a ready-to-bake pie tin.
The Pie Top
Open-faced, latticed, double-crusted or crumbled, give some thought to the top of your pie. And when in doubt, make a couple of each kind of top. Divvy up one crust recipe into several individual pies and bake them in muffin tins. Allow for steam to escape by pricking the tops with forks or creating a hole.
The Pie Filling
Vary the fruit you use to fill your crust according to seasons. Always use what’s freshest and then cut it into uniformly sized slices or chunks for even cooking. Add a little flour or cornstarch to the fresh fruit to help thicken the natural juices into a simple sauce. Then, stir in sugar or honey for sweetness, a pinch of salt to heighten the flavors, and some interesting spices or fresh herbs to complement the fruit. (And surprise the pie lover too!)
With a smooth center that sets at the same time the crust bakes, custard pies may be served warm or cold. Achieve maximum smoothness by mixing custard fillings with an immersion blender or food processor. And use ground spices like nutmeg or clove with a hearty splash of bourbon instead of traditional vanilla when making sweet potato or pumpkin pies.
This refers to pies with crusts that either are baked separately or not at all, and filled with anything from whipped cream to pudding to ice cream. Cold pie recipes are often the simplest to make and offer limitless possibilities.
Spoon homemade whipped cream, flavored with your favorite liqueur, into a pre-made crust and garnish with toasted nuts. Spread softened ice cream into a graham cracker pie crust and drizzle with hot fudge sauce and chopped candy bars. Or, pour pudding right into a shortbread crust and let it set. Store all of the above in the freezer until it’s time to enjoy.
The Pie Toppings
Take care to top every slice of pie you plate with a high-quality crown. Splurge on gelato and premium ice creams. Seek out fresh mascarpone cheese to melt in small spoonfuls on top of warm pie. Or, make your own homemade whipped cream. The creamy finish can make or break the whole experience.
And from here the quest continues. Pie-making is a living, breathing art form, one that I am always studying. For my husband and the rest of the pie-loving planet, I’ll be honing the craft for as long as I can tie on an apron.