My mother-in-law, Jeanne, not only raised a wonderful husband for me to enjoy, but also is a fantastic old-fashioned cook. Christmas at my mother-in-law’s house is standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, roast beef pan gravy so dark and rich you can feel your arteries clogging just from smelling it, and pie. She’s a wonderful baker all around, really: Danish rings that take up half of the table, big soft ginger cookies, French Canadian raisin-filled wedding cookies that I call ‘hand pies’ because they are enormous. She has a special gift for pie, though. She makes a thick, flaky crust so perfectly that for years I never even tried to make pie. I took baking classes at culinary school and I fully understood the simple mechanics and chemistry of pie making, but I still never bothered trying. Why should I? It could never be as good as Jeanne’s! We just ate pie a couple of times a year when we visited her and left it at that.
My own mother does not enjoy making pie. She is an amazing hostess who will put herself out to make you feel welcomed and appreciated, but she doesn’t love cooking. She does it and does it well, but it just isn’t her thing. From my mother, I am told, I inherited a love not of cooking, but of bringing people together and making them feel special. It works out fine because my father and I both love to cook and my younger nephew is coming along. My mother bakes cookies with her grandsons and now with her great-grandson because she loves spending time with them, but unlike me, she isn’t running around looking for excuses to bake.
My father’s family has some amazing pie-bakers (and bakers in general). My dad is full of stories of pie that his grandmother made or that his Aunt Edie baked in her farm kitchen. The only thing that kept me from eating every single fresh raspberry on the vine in my Aunt Lois’s yard when we visited one August was the promise of her raspberry pie. My cousin Elizabeth, one of Lois’s daughters, posts her baking exploits on Facebook, as do I, and it’s good to see the legacy of dough enthusiasts creating yummy things for our families.
But back to my mother-in-law. It is getting harder for her to do the things she loved to do for us, like make pie, so I’ve picked up the habit. Like most things, I’ve gotten better with practice. I was honored a bit over a year ago when she asked me (ME!) if I would make the pie crusts for her that year.
When I am making pie, I always think of the expression: Pie crust promises are easily made and easily broken. I think pie crust IS easily made if you follow a few simple rules. Here are a few things I learned about pie crust, not in culinary school, but from my wonderful mother-in-law.
- It’s okay to make the dough in the food processor. Martha Stewart does. Mind you, this is Jeanne’s reasoning. I’m not saying that Martha Stewart is the final authority on pie.
- Process half of the butter/shortening to a ‘meal’ and then add the other half to ‘pea-sized’. From a baking chemistry standpoint, this makes sense – those pea-sized pieces of fat are going to give a really nice lift to the crust and keep it very flaky.
- Don’t worry if you break the pie crust. Patch it and keep moving. Especially on the bottom, no one will see. In other words, calm down!
- Keep everything VERY VERY COLD! My mother-in-law lives in South Florida and until recently did not have air conditioning, so this was extra important.
- You can measure shortening using water displacement instead of trying to mash it into a dry measure cup. Put a cup of water in a 2 cup glass measuring cup and add enough shortening to reach the level you want (in other words, when the water reads 1.5 cups with the shortening submerged, you know you have ½ cup of shortening). And you thought there was no point to learning about displacement.
- It’s pie. It doesn’t have to be perfect. That is true. I could put the whole pie in a blender and all my husband would want to know is if there was ice cream to go on it.
- Everyone wants pie. A while back, I couldn’t find my vegetable peeler and borrowed one from a neighbor. His Facebook post the next day said something like: I loaned my neighbor a vegetable peeler and she brought me a pie. I’m wondering what else I have that she might want to borrow.
Jeanne’s Pie Crust
- 2 2/3 c. flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 c. butter (or half butter / half shortening), COLD, cut into chunks
- 7-8 T. ice water (scant 1/2 cup)
Pulse flour and salt plus half of the butter in a food processor fitted with the knife blade until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add the remainder of the butter and process on bursts until the fat is in small pea-sized pieces. Add half of the ice water and pulse a few times. Add enough of the remaining water to form a soft, but not sticky dough. Knead a bit and then use immediately or refrigerate or freeze for later use.
Pie should not be intimidating. If you’ve never tried pie-baking, just set a simple rule. Anyone who mocks my pie will not be permitted to have any, not now and not in the future when I get really good at this. Practice will make perfect!
I will be posting more on Planned Over Pie in the next couple of days – just in time for Memorial Day!