Sunday, August 23, 2009

Creative Cook Dares to Bake – Gives Pie A Try

(My monthly food column for Heartland Women)
August 2009

I feel comfortable saying I know my way around the kitchen. I love to cook and I’m reasonably good at it. But I am not a baker. And as far as I can determine, there are probably three good reasons for this:

First, baking means things like breads and desserts. We didn’t eat a lot of desserts in my family when I was growing up, and we could eat bread faster than anyone could bake it, so I lack a certain amount of exposure and experience with baking.

Second, I have always preferred salty tastes to sweet ones. Give me chips instead of cupcakes any day. I do like chocolate chip cookies and mastered the Nestlé’s Toll House recipe ages ago. However, my friend, Renee, and my sister-in-law, Denise, both love to bake and make much better cookies than I do.

But number three is probably the biggest reason I don’t bake very much. Successful baking requires adherence to weights and measures and ratios and reactions. Uh oh! Science and math! Not my cup of tea. Oh, I can do it—for a little while—but then it makes my brain hurt and I want to do crazy things like add more of something or substitute an ingredient or skip a step, like beating or kneading by hand.

Baking does not allow much wiggle room for creativity and that is one of the aspects I enjoy about plain old cooking. I seem to have an extreme need to adapt and tweak and experiment, which all too easily spell disaster in baking. I am not really adventuresome by nature, but I love to take chances, try the “what-if’s” and think outside the box a little when I cook. I didn’t dare to experiment with baking on a regular basis.

Recently, I discovered that there might be an area of baking that would work for the way I like to cook. I was talking with my neighbor, Dianna, about her mother’s fool-proof recipe for pie crust when I realized there could be some wiggle room for me in baking pies. I’ve developed a middle-aged affinity for pies and cobblers and crisps and all those yummy fruit-plus-pastry treats—it is an acceptable way to eat fruit after all. With a good pie crust, I could probably be a little creative with pie fillings without inedible results. But I’d never heard of putting an egg or vinegar in a pie crust. Dianna swore that’s what her mother did, and the crust turned out great every time. She said it was foolproof. How could this be?

I’ve always assumed that making good pie crust was just like the rest of baking. You either had the gift for it or you didn’t—and I didn’t! The proportion of fat, flour, moisture, texture, the FEEL of pie crust was just too tedious to contemplate. How could so few ingredients become so crumbly, slippery, soggy or tough if not done correctly? And which is best—butter, shortening, oil or lard? Or a combination of fats? And what’s the deal with ice water in vague amounts? Way too many variables as far as I was concerned. I’m guessing, though, that less-than-perfect pies account for all those other less-constructed fruit-plus-pastry concoctions. That’s good too—a fallback!

Could I really give up buying expensive ready-made red-box refrigerated pie crust? On the other hand, even if I am perfectly willing to use the packaged refrigerated crust, I never seem to have a red box on hand when I need it. Nothing kills my whimsical urge to bake like having to make a trip to the grocery store. But I always have pie crust ingredients on hand—even with an egg and some vinegar thrown into the mix. Well, if you can’t trust your friend for a good recipe, or her mother, then whom can you trust?

What the heck! I decided to give Dianna’s mother’s crust the timid-baker test.

Well guess what? The crust was so easy to make. I had been warned it would be a little stickier than other crusts to work with so I decided to put it in the refrigerator before rolling it out and that worked great. The rolling-out itself was also simple when done between two sheets of waxed paper. When it was out of round, I just pulled some off the long side and smashed it seamlessly onto the short side. No crumbling, breaking or sagging. The round dough flopped smoothly into the glass pie plate; and I par-baked it for about 10 minutes before adding the filling and baking it to a golden brown. After it cooled, the pie cut like a dream—no crumbling, cracking or sogginess there either. And the taste? Delicious! Tender and crispy with a nice pie crust flavor—no vinegar taste at all.

Now that I’ve discovered I can make pie crust, it’s opened up the whole wide world of pies. I want to try lots of variations on the theme—and I’m here to share the joy of baking with you. If you don’t already have a fool-proof pie crust recipe of your own, why not try some of these classic variations? The one that works best for me may not work for you; so in that case, just move on to the next one. It may be baking science, but I don’t need to know how it works! Vinegar and egg works for me. And I know there is one that will work for you. Step up to the challenge and dare to be a baker!

Summer has to be the perfect time for pies, both savory and sweet, with all the seasonal fresh ingredients available. I’m partial to peach pies right now, as you’ll see, but feel free to let yourself be tempted by all manner of fresh, juicy, and ripe vegetables and fruits for your delicious pies. I can’t think of a better way to throw out the rules and play with your food—even those persnickety baked goods. Ditch the science! Become a daring baker and give pie a try!

Diana's Mother's Pie Crust
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups Crisco
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 egg
1 tbsp. vinegar
½ c. water

In a bowl, blend flour, Crisco and salt with a pastry blender, or two knives, until crumbly. Stir together egg, vinegar and water; add to flour mixture and blend. Shape dough into two equal-size disks; wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling out. Makes two double crust pies

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Deep Dish Crisco Pie Crust
2 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 cup chilled Crisco
6-10 tbsp. ice cold water

Combine flour and salt in medium mixing bowl. Cut in chilled Crisco with pastry blender, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle with 5 tbsp. ice cold water over the flour mixture. Using a fork, stir and draw flour from bottom of bowl to the top, distributing moisture evenly into flour. Press chunks down to bottom of bowl with fork. Add more water by the tablespoon, until dough is moist enough to hold together when pressed together. Work into a firm ball, flatten into two disks, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling out. Makes two single deep-dish pie crusts, or one double.

Cream Cheese Pie Crust
2 ½ c. all-purpose flour
¼ c. sugar
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 c. unsalted butter
4 oz. cream cheese

Makes two 9-in. pre-baked pie crust shells to use with filling. Allow butter and cream cheese to soften for about 10-15 minutes. Spray one or two 9-in. pie plates with cooking spray and set aside. In a bowl, blend flour, sugar and salt with a whisk or fork. In a large bowl, beat butter and cream cheese with a mixer for 2-3 minutes, until thoroughly blended. Add flour mixture to butter and cream cheese mixture and blend on low speed just until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Scrape bowl and continue to mix on medium speed until clumps form. Place dough on a floured surface and shape into two round disks. Place one disk in each pie plate. With hand, evenly press from center of dough to cover bottom of pie plate. Continue to press dough evenly up the sides of the pie plate. Press edges of dough with finger and thumbs along top edge of pie plate to form fluted pattern. Cover pie crust with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour.
For pre-baked pie shell: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Prick the bottom of crusts with a fork and bake on rack in center of oven for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown. If crust forms bubbles, press them down gently with a clean towel and they will flatten as the crust cools.
For fill and bake pie: Fill and bake chilled crust according to pie recipe.
Note: This recipe does not work well for two crust pies.

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Caramel Apple Pie
recipe courtesy of Stephen Odaniell
Prepared dough for double-crust pie
4 Granny Smith apples
4 Red Delicious apples
2 cups caramel sauce (homemade or store-bought)
1 cup pecan pieces
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place rolled-out dough for one pie crust into a 9-inch glass pie plate and press into place. Line pie crust dough with parchment paper or foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Place in oven and par-bake for 10 minutes; remove and cool slightly. Peel apples and slice thinly. Toss apples with sugar and cinnamon. Add caramel sauce and pecans; mix lightly and pack into pie shell. Top with second round of pie crust dough and crimp edges seal tightly. Cut slits in pie top and coat with egg wash and a sprinkle of sugar. Bake pie at 400 degrees for about 35-45 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and pie filling bubbles.

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Peach-Berry Pie
Prepared dough for double-crust pie
2 ½ lbs. firm ripe peaches (about 8 medium)
1 pt. fresh raspberries or blueberries
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
pinch of kosher salt
4 tsp. cornstarch
¼ tsp. pure almond extract

Peel peaches, cut in half and remove the pit. Slice each half into 8 thin wedges. Put peaches in a large bowl and sprinkle with lemon juice. Sprinkle sugar over peaches and toss gently to coat. Let peaches sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour, or as long as 12 hours. Place colander over a bowl and drain peaches, reserving the liquid—you should have 1 – 1 ½ cups of liquid. Pour the juices into a small, non-stick saucepan and place over medium heat and reduce liquid to 1/3 to ½ cup of syrup; let cool for 1 – 2 minutes. Pour peaches and raspberries into a bowl and toss them with cornstarch and almond extract until cornstarch disappears. Pour slightly cooled peach syrup over peaches. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place one piece of rolled dough in pie plate and fill with peaches. Roll out dough for top crust and make strips for lattice top crust or a quick cut-out lattice crust. Seal edges of crusts together and bake on center rack of oven until crust is browned and peaches are bubbly, about 35-45 minutes.

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Dianna’s Peach Streusel Pie
1 9-in. prepared pie shell
4 cups sliced fresh peaches
½ cup sugar
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 egg
2 tbsp. cream or evaporated milk
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup softened butter
½ cup flour

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Arrange peaches in pie shell. Mix sugar and nutmeg and sprinkle over peaches. Mix egg and cream and pour over peaches. Blend brown sugar, butter, and flour with fork or pastry blender until crumbs forms; spread over top of pie evenly. Bake for 35-45 minutes until bubbly and topping is browned.

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Janet S said...

When I grow up and get brave like you this will be the first pie crust I try. Until then ... I'm going for the redbox or the pie that you make on Thanksgiving!

Nicole said...

I make cream cheese crusts all the time! It's virtually fool-proof. But leave the sugar out. And my proportions are a bit different. Here's my basic cream cheese pie dough:

6 oz Cream Cheese, softened
1 stick butter
3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
In the bowl of electric mixer beat cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add salt and flour and combine until it forms a ball and all flour is incorporated. Press dough into bottom of 9" pie pan. (Makes two pies or roughly 8 dozen small tart shells).

Cora said...

Janet - You challenge yourself in the kitchen all the time. Hey, wait a minute . . . was that a crack about my age! Your day will come sister! LOL

Nicole - I will definitely give your cream cheese crust recipe a try - thanks for sending it! There are many times when sugar-free would be a better choice, for sure.

Maris said...

Caramel Apple Pie sounds just perfect for the Fall! I can't wait for the weather to get chilly and the leaves to start changing color!