My life of pie

3 months elbow-deep in flour and butter conquers fear of pastry dough

Chicago TribuneApril 10, 2013 

Pies always made me nervous. Didn’t matter if they were deep-dish or mile-high. And you could call them whatever: quiche, tart or galette. It’s the crust and the making of it that always stopped me cold. I would avoid recipes calling for pie dough, or I’d scurry shamed-faced to the frozen food aisle of the local supermarket to buy ready-made.

The fear stemmed, I think, from all those highfalutin pronouncements about how one can gauge not only the mettle of a cook but also the moral character by the flakiness of his or her crusts. I was scared of being found out as a flour-dusted Dorian Gray.

Last summer, though, I found myself becoming more open about confronting my fears after three seemingly unconnected things happened. On a whim, I picked up two tart pans at a neighborhood tag sale for $1.50. Then I attended a reception for American chefs at the U.S. Department of State and found a 9-inch pie dish tucked into my party bag. Three weeks later, I was “volunteered” as refreshments chairman for my Sunday men’s group. I looked at those 30 hungry guys, and one printable word came to mind.

Pie.

That next weekend I started making pies: Two pies usually, every weekend for three months.

I took step-by-step snaps of each pie with my smartphone and posted the photos on such social media platforms as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I didn’t do this for ego. It was a disguised call for help. I reasoned if I started doing something wrong, someone would step forward amid the snickers and offer assistance.

And that happened. One of the best tips came from chef Matthias Merges of Yusho restaurant in Chicago, who suggested I chill the food processor work bowl along with the steel blade before cutting the flour and butter together. Nancie McDermott, the North Carolina cake and pie cookbook pro, cheered me on with spirited praise, even when one of my pies burst into flames under the broiler.

Others were, well, less helpful. Some of my favorite lines: “Why aren’t you using lard?” “I’m getting pie overload here ... can we move on to Christmas cookies?” “It just never works out like Martha Stewart’s pie crust.”

I’m sure many people were bored by it all, but I did learn to make a pie crust. That repetition, week in and week out, with the memory of the prior week’s pie still fresh, made it progressively easier for me to make a dough, turn it into crust and fill it to make pie. Not a great pie, not a pretty pie, not a professional pie, but my pie. Mine. It is what it is. And I humbly accept.

For my fear is conquered; I’m living happily the life of pie.

LESSONS LEARNED ALONG THE WAY

1. Relax. A pie doesn’t have to be made all at once. Stretch out the steps to fit your schedule. I’d make the dough Friday, roll it out and pre-bake the crust Saturday, fill and bake the pie Sunday.

2. Chill! Keep your dough ingredients cold. The dough will be easier to work with, and the finished crust flakier. Let the dough rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes – an hour or more is even better – so it will relax and be easier to roll. If the dough gets warm and sticky, toss it back in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to chill. If you can, chill any equipment or utensils used in making the dough too.

3. Roll right. Rotating the dough on your work surface every couple of rolls will help keep it circular; use gentle but firm movements to roll the dough outward evenly.

4. Size matters, part 1. Don’t think you can make a pie dough designed for an 8-inch pan fit into a 9-inch pan by rolling the dough that much thinner. Cracked, raggedy pie crusts result.

5. Slash with care. Cutting the top crust allows steam to escape while the pie is baking. Just consider what sort of slashes you are making. Some guys mistook my star-burst pattern of cuts as a portion guide and helped themselves to huge slices.

6. “Whoosh” is bad. Any such noise coming from the broiler is never good. It means your pie is on fire. Put out the flames, open the window, head out to a bakery for a replacement.

7. Chocolate is good. Everyone loves chocolate, be it the filling, a decoration or even a thin coating painted on the crust.

8. Size matters, part 2. A shallow tart baked in a 9- or 10-inch ring looks so French elegant with its thin wedges, but most of the guys dived first into whatever pie sported the heftier-looking slices.

9. Grab the knife. Thus armed, you can control portion size and cut the pie in a pretty way.

10. Whip it. Men love homemade whipped cream even more than homemade pie. The key is chilling the bowl and the wire whisk or beaters in the refrigerator or freezer. Pour in cold whipping cream, sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of sugar and start beating. Beat, beat, beat until soft, fluffy peaks form.

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