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.
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.
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.
This French-style tart is one of my go-to pies. I've made it with sliced apples and sliced pears. I've glazed it with apricot preserves and orange marmalade. I've painted the bottom crust with chocolate or lined it with minced fresh cranberries.
Play with it as you will. Do pre-bake the pie crust; I think it has more flavor.
For the dough, I use a recipe from "A Year of Pies," by Ashley English, adapted for a food processor.
The pie filling is a mongrel, combining elements from Julia Child's "The Way to Cook" and Benjamin Darling's "Easy as Pie" with whatever I had on hand in my kitchen.
1 stick (8 tablespoons) butter, frozen
1¼ cup flour
¼ cup, plus 2 tablespoons ice water
¼ teaspoon salt
3 large Granny Smith apples
1 teaspoon lemon juice
¾ cup apricot preserves
¼ cup water
2 teaspoons cinnamon, optional
For the crust, cut butter into cubes. Place butter and flour in the chilled work bowl of a food processor with a chilled metal blade. Pulse to cut the butter into the flour; the mixture should look like coarse meal. Pulse in the ice water. Place the loose, crumbly dough on a cutting board or counter. Using the heel of your palm, work the flour-butter mixture together, pushing it into a smooth ball. Wrap in plastic wrap; refrigerate 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Lightly flour work surface and rolling pin. Begin rolling the dough, slowly rotating the dough every couple of rolls to help it spread out evenly. When desired size and thickness is reached, fold the dough loosely into fourths; position it in a 9-inch tart or pie pan. Unfold the dough and press gently into pan. Trim off excess dough, leaving about a 1/2-inch margin. Fold over or push the extra dough down to build the sides of the tart crust.
Prick the dough with the tines of a fork; line the crust with aluminum foil topped with pie weights or dried beans or even a smaller pie pan. Bake in a 450-degree oven until the crust firms and colors lightly, about 15 minutes. Remove the weights and foil; allow crust to cool.
Meanwhile, for the filling, peel, core and slice the Granny Smith apples. Spritz with lemon juice to prevent browning.
Mix apricot preserves, water and cinnamon in a saucepan. Heat to a boil over medium high heat; boil until a light syrup is formed. Remove pan from heat; let cool slightly.
Paint inside of crust with some of the apricot glaze. Arrange apple slices over the glaze in concentric rings. Bake at 350 degrees until the apples are just tender, 50 minutes.
Remove tart from oven; paint top with a thin layer of apricot glaze. (Reheat the glaze if needed to make it more spreadable.) Work gently so as not to disturb the pattern of apple slices. Let the pie cool. Top with homemade whipped cream, if you like.
Makes one 9-inch pie, 8 servings. Per serving: 271 calories, 12 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 41 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 75 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
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 in 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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