It’s strange: While I enjoy baking, the only fruit pie I’ve ever made is blackberry.
Unless, of course, you think of pumpkins as fruit, because I bake a lot of pumpkin pie. Pumpkin is my favorite. Google tells me that pumpkins are squash, gourds and fruit — but not vegetables. But for the purpose of this column, let’s just think of pumpkin as squash.
Blackberry pie? That’s my second favorite kind of pie.
The sweet and sour flavors of berries are at perfect balance when baked into a pie. I also don’t notice the seeds as much when the berries are turned into pie filling. Plus, if you pick your own berries, and have the battle scars from the thorns to prove it, a slice of homemade pie is the ultimate reward.
When I was in high school, every August my mom and I would pick wild blackberries for pie. It was our summer ritual; our time to bond as mother and daughter. (I have a permanent scratch mark from blackberry thorns on my left hand to remind me.)
If you love the sweet and sour interplay of blackberries in a pie, then you gotta try this: Bake a better blackberry pie.
I know what you’re wondering: What makes my blackberry pie better? Lots and lots of recipe adjustments.
My mom and I like the blackberry pie recipe from “Better Homes & Gardens: New Cook Book,” except for the fact that it doesn’t account for the juice you get when baking the berries. All that juice can make your pie crust soggy and stain the lattice purple.
So, over the years, we experimented with tapioca to soak up the berry juices. While adding a few tablespoons of tapioca starch to the berries helps, quick-cooking tapioca works better. We prefer Kraft Minute Tapioca — the box even has fruit pie recipes on the back. (Don’t substitute tapioca flour for tapioca starch. They are not interchangeable. I made that mistake for you.)
When the instant tapioca just wasn’t cooking right — we could see gelatinous bits of tapioca floating throughout each slice — we scoured the internet for fixes. Some recipes add lemon juice to the mixture to help activate the tapioca, so we tried that. The lemon juice does the trick.
We’ve also experimented with the crust. The original “Better Homes & Gardens” recipe calls for shortening or lard. I refuse to put lard in my pie and, for a long time, I also refused to put shortening in it. I substituted butter in all instances for many years.
But then Mom explained that shortening makes for a flakier pie crust. So I broke my no-shortening rule — but only to make a better pie. We compromised by making the pastry with half butter and half shortening. We prefer butter-flavored Crisco to original.
Then, just for kicks, my mom and I added cinnamon and almond extract to the filling, because we read online that, just like the lemon juice, it intensifies and enhances the blackberry flavor. It really does.
My latest blackberry pie? It’s probably the best pie I’ve ever made.
The filling held together, there were no traces of tapioca granules, the additions of lemon, cinnamon and almond extract brought out the berry flavor, and the crust, made with half butter and half shortening, was the flakiest it’s ever been.
This recipe definitely makes for a better blackberry pie. I didn’t call it “best,” because that’s up to you to decide.
Better blackberry pie
For berry filling:
1¼ cups sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup quick-cooking tapioca
⅛ teaspoon salt
4-5 cups fresh blackberries
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon almond extract
For top and bottom crust:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
⅔ cup butter or shortening (or ⅓ cup butter, ⅓ cup shortening)
7-8 tablespoons cold water
Making the filling: Rinse and drain blackberries. (A fruit and veggie wash works well here.) Combine sugar, flour, tapioca and salt in a large bowl. Add the blackberries, lemon, cinnamon and almond extract. Gently fold the berries until they are well coated with sugar. Let sit for 30 minutes.
Making the crust: In a mixing bowl, stir together flour and salt. Cut in butter and/or shortening until pieces are the size of small peas. (A fork will do, but a pastry cutter is even better.) Add water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and toss with a fork after each addition. Mix lightly.
After pastry is thoroughly mixed, press dough firmly together into a ball with hands. Handle the dough just as you would a snowball. Divide dough in half.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Form two balls of pie dough; one for the bottom crust, one for the top crust. Refrigerate the second ball of dough while you roll out the first.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out bottom crust to a 12-inch diameter if you are using a 9-inch pie pan, or to 13-inch diameter if you are using a 10-inch pan. Lightly flour your rolling pin, too, so it doesn’t stick to the pastry. (A pastry mat is great for rolling out dough.)
When rolling dough out, keep circular by periodically pushing edge in gently with cupped hands. Lift dough with your hands occasionally to prevent sticking. If patching is necessary, cut piece of pastry to fit irregular edge or tear. Moisten edge of area to be patched and press piece firmly into place.
Line the pie pan with the dough. To transfer rolled-out pastry, fold it into quarters, place in pie pan with point in center, then carefully unfold. Trim to ½ inch beyond the edge of the pie pan with scissors.
Spoon the berry mixture into the dough-lined pie pan.
Roll out the second ball of dough for the top crust. If you would like to do a lattice top, cut and then weave ½-inch- to 1-inch-wide dough strips. (Easily cut strips with a pizza cutter.) Either weave the strips atop the filling, or weave them on the pastry mat, and then carefully transfer to the pan. If transferring from the mat, fold the lattice over with the pastry mat and/or a sheet of wax paper, then fix any lattice strips that may have loosened from your weave job. Patch any strips that rip during transfer.
Seal crusts by folding extra dough under the bottom crust. For a solid top, score the top crust several times with a knife to let steam escape. Crimp the edge with your fingers or a fork. (Dip fork in flour from time to time to prevent sticking.)
Note: For a single pie crust, prepare the crust as above, except with 1¼ cups all purpose flour, ½ teaspoon salt, ⅓ cup butter and/or shortening, and 3 to 4 tablespoons cold water.
Bake the pie in two stages. First bake at 400 degrees on the middle rack for 30 minutes. Put a baking sheet on the lower rack to catch any juices that might bubble out of the pie while it’s baking.
Then cover the edges of the pie with a crimped 3-inch strip of aluminum foil to protect the crust from overbrowning. (A pie protector is quite useful here.) Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 30 minutes, or until the crust has browned and the filling at the center is bubbling.
Remove from oven. Allow the pie to cool completely. For best results, let the pie stand overnight. This allows the starches time to re-bond and for the juices to be reabsorbed.
Makes 8 servings.
— Adapted from “Better Homes & Gardens: New Cook Book,” with pie-making tips from “Betty Crocker Cookbook”