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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sunday is Pie Day!

At last.  Baking day.  Really, as far as I am concerned, almost every day is baking day, but today I’m feeling more energetic than usual.  It started with Dutch Babies baked in a cast iron skillet coated in sizzling butter.  After that, a quick mix up of Brown Sugar Oatmeal Bread which is now rising in the warmest corner of the kitchen.  Now I can really get down to business…  pie!

However you know me, you know that I hold pie in great esteem.  I love baking cakes, bread, muffins and cookies, but pie?  Pie is something else altogether.  In my mind, if someone makes you a pie, or if you make someone else a pie, it indicates a special kind of affection. 

I can mix up a Devils’ Food Cake from scratch in no more that ten or fifteen minutes, depending on how much sifting we’re talking about.  Cookies?  You don’t even have to measure that precisely.  A pie?  A pie takes time.  It requires the actual use of one’s hands to prepare the fruit, especially if you’ve picked it, peeled it and/or sliced it.  And then there’s the blending of the flour and salt and shortening and iced water.  Finally, it has to be rolled out, turned, positioned, trimmed and crimped.  All with one’s own hands.  (No food processors or mixers in my pie-making, thank you very much.)  When you make a pie, you really are MAKING something! 

Today’s pie is apple, and it started as a thank you to someone who did me a favor.  First I had to decide on the apple.  For years I thought Granny Smith was the way to go, but she’s been replaced by the more alluring Golden Delicious.  Less tart and a superior texture when cooked, the only thing better is the coveted Gravenstein that seems to be available for a relatively short time each year.  I like to take a little time when picking out my apples.  Apples with no bruises, no blemishes and a truly golden skin are a pleasure to pack in a paper bag.  They also look lovely in a big blue and white bowl on the kitchen counter between the time I bring them home and the day they are used.

Baking, for me, is a solitary joy.  Rather like gardening, I seem to do some of my best thinking while I am alone and working on something with my hands.  In fact, this whole thing was written in my head as I worked through my recipe…  If only I could remember all of the marvelous sentences and paragraphs and stories I’ve created while beating batter or pulling weeds, I’d be a MOST prolific writer!

Once I’m assured that my wife and kids are otherwise occupied, the dishes are done and the counters clean, I can start. 

First, I get all of my bowls together.  There’s the vintage pink, Pyrex bowl decorated with white gooseberries, just like my mom’s.  That’s for the apple peels.  Next, there’s the big turquoise bowl in which the sliced apples are mixed with the sugar, cinnamon and flour.  And, finally, the giant, heavy, white, pottery bowl that my wife gave me a few years ago at Christmas.  It was the kind of Christmas where the parents could only really manage to give each other one gift and this was mine.  I use it almost every day.  It’s perfect for making things like pie dough and biscuits because it’s wide and deep and you can really get your hands into your work.

I love to peel apples.  This time I have ten perfect, Golden Delicious apples, all the same size.  I try to take the peel off in one, continuous, unbroken spiral and, after lots of practice, rarely fail.  I quarter them, core them and slice them with my much-abused paring knife, and drop them into the big bowl, ready to receive their sugary coating.

When it comes to pie crust my big secret is that there are NO secrets at all.  Really.  Follow the recipe on the back of your Crisco can!  Use your hands and, just when you start to wonder if you need to keep mixing…  STOP!  Add your water, mix a little more and, just like before, stop just before you’re sure if you should.  I’ve always thought that people made too much of the skill and magic required to make things like pie crust and biscuits.  Really, the less you do, the less technique you employ, the better the results!

Rolling out the dough into a perfect disk is, in my experience, impossible.  A sort of rough squarish circle that gives you a good inch or more of overhang is the best that I can do.  Once it’s to the size I want I fold it into quarters, lay it in the pie tin with the point in the middle, and unfold it, gently pressing it into place. 

I don’t like to overfill my pies.  While I like the filling, unless it’s something like all raspberry in which case I LOVE the filling, the crust is the star in my pie constellation.  More is definitely better and, to let you in on a little secret, I generally eat the filling first, saving the pastry (the best) for last!

Once the top crust is in place, I trim both, leaving about ¾ of an inch of overhang which I fold under and tuck in, giving me a nice, thick edge to crimp with my fingers.  Now, I am pretty much a purist when it comes to decoration.  I may decide to form something decorative with the leftover dough – cherries for a cherry pie, for example – and there are always vents attractively spaced, but I shy away from washes of egg or milk, let alone that very unnatural desire to sprinkle SUGAR on the top!

Once the pie is in the oven, there’s the question of what to do with the leftover pastry.  Growing up, my mom allowed me to roll it out, cut it into shapes with cookie cutters, and spread raspberry jam on top before baking them into little tarts that  were delicious.  More delicious, though, was the raw pie dough all on its own!  Oh, how I loved (OK, LOVE – present tense) raw pie dough!  I would eat so much that my overly concerned mom would remind me of the episode of my then-favorite show, “Emergency!”, where a boy had to be taken to the EMERGENCY ROOM for eating too much raw pie dough!  To this day, I have never been able to find such an episode via either IMDB, Wikipedia or Hulu…  Do you think my mom was…  lying?!  Regardless, I still love to eat the stuff, and have been known to make a pie just because of a sudden craving.
I prefer my pie to be served either cold or at room temperature and, please, if it’s a fruit pie, no ice cream or whipped cream.  I’d rather save the calories (as if I consider such things when it comes to pie) for a second piece!

As you can see, I’ve given a lot of thought to pie.  There are few that I don’t like. Cream pies?  Meringue pies?  Chiffon pies?  Fruit pies?  YES!  Even mincemeat pies (hot and with LOADS of brandy butter) meet with my approval under the right circumstances.

So there you have it…  a glimpse into my baking and eating life.  To me, pie is wrapped up with all sorts of lovely things – Sunday dinners and summer picnics;  Monday morning breakfasts and after school snacks; and people who really like you and, to show it, will make you a pie.

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