If you want to learn how to make excellent pies, you need a copy of The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie by Paula Haney. My friend Jenny gave the book for Christmas. It took me until spring to find the time to bake a pie, but it was the best apple pie I have ever made. Why? The crust was perfectly browned, buttery, light and flaky. The apples were soft, but still had a bit of a bite to them. The filling was gooey. The bottom crust was brown and flaky. One friend told me it was "the best pie you've ever made". Making pie is one of my favorite things to do, and honestly, I thought I knew all I needed to know about making pie crust, but apparently, I had a lot to learn.
I've written before about learning to bake from my grandfather. He was an excellent teacher. I wish I remembered more of his tips for creating flaky pie crust. My grandparents had eight children and over twenty grandchildren. I remember going to their house for family parties and listening to everyone talk about the desserts Grandpa had made. There were always several kinds of pies (sometimes there were homemade Napoleans). My grandfather turned me into a life-long baker. After he died, I asked my Grandma what made his pies so special. She wrote me a beautiful letter (which is at the end of the post), passing along a few of his tips: Grandpa used lard, he kept both his ingredients and his cooking utensils cold and he used a light hand when mixing the ingredients. Grandpa, however, did not clean up the kitchen. Luckily, his mouth-watering desserts were worth the mess he left for Grandma.
Over the years, I've assembled my list of "tried and true tricks" for making a great pie crust. Now that I have read The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie, I've reconsidered some of those tips and added some new ones. Before opening her shop, Paula Haney spent an entire summer perfecting her all-butter crust recipe, tinkering with it until it was just right. I love the way this book is written. The instructions are meticulous and the widsom behind why you should follow her directions is carefully spelled out. For instance, she explains that when "crust dust", a mixture of equal parts flour and sugar, is sprinkled over the bottom crust, it improves your pie. The flour thickens the fruit juices so that the bottom crust does not get soggy and the sugar helps the fruit caramelize.
Making pie take planning and patience. The first time I made the apple pie, I mixed the dough early in the week, then planned to fill and bake it on Thursday morning. Time was a bit tight: I was going to a mid-day Glee concert for my older daughter before I needed to run back home to pick up the younger kids from our neighborhood school. I figured I could finish the baking in the morning, incorrectly calculating I could complete the pie in about two hours. After rereading the recipe, I realized that I didn't have enough time. After rolling out the crust, the pastry needed to chill in the fridge before it could be filled. Once filled, it needed to chilled again in the freezer before baking. The chopped apples and sugar needed to macerate, then the juices needed to drain (50 minutes just for this step). Once the juices were reduced to a thick syrup and cooled, I could finally fill my pie. It was not all active time, so I was able to complete several of the steps before leaving home for the concert. The pie, however, didn't go into the oven until early evening. We had to wait until about 9:30pm before the pie was cool enough to slice. The results were absolutely worth the effort. When I needed to make two apple pies for our dinner club, I jotted down a little schedule for myself so I would have a better idea of the exact timing.
If you want to learn to make amazing pie, The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie is a must. Here are a few of my suggestions:
- Because the butter flavor really comes through in the crust, I have started using organic butter. I buy it at Costco.
- I now take time to read through the recipe in advance so I can plan appropriately. I don't find there is alot of active time, but I do want to make sure the dough and ingredients are at the proper temperature and this takes planning. For example, the dough needs to sit at room temp for 30-40 minutes before you roll it out. You need to be ready to go once your dough reaches the proper temperature, so set a timer, stay close to your kitchen and check your dough after 30 minutes. If it goes too warm, you can't use it. If you try to roll it when it is still cold, it may be difficult to work with and could crack. Also, before baking, some assembled pies need to be frozen for at least 20 minutes. I would not dream of rushing this process. If the butter is cold when your pie goes into the oven, you'll have a light flaky crust. Isn't that the whole point of pie? Make sure you have time to freeze it for at least the minimum amount of time, however, it can be frozen for longer. Knowing this, you'll have the flexibility to assemble the pie when you have time, but bake it later.
- The apple pie took the most time; the berry and strawberry rhubarb pies both came together more quickly.
- To date, I've made at least five pies and it is easier to work with the dough every time. If the instructions seem daunting the first time, know that the whole process will get easier the more you practice. I really think that the way she makes her crust will help me become a better baker, adjusting other recipes to take advantage of the excellent advice in this book.
If you'd like to read more about The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie, here are a few links:
Back to my grandparents: Somewhere in my house, I have the original letter my Grandma wrote me about making pie. I believe it is from 1993, right after Bob and I were married. I love it because I can hear her voice so clearly in the written words. Here is a copy that I typed up a few years ago. I always meant to frame a copy to hang in my kitchen.
15 Togo Rd
Toms River NJ 08757
You should have heard all the different stories about Grandpa’s Pies – My first step was calling Aunt Gret (She’s the family memory (I used to be – but unfortunately my memory is not dependable these days)). Then to make it sure I called Aunt Mary (in PA.) – So here’s the story –
Gret remembered that Dad’s Uncle Jack gave Grandpa a lot of tips (You were too little to remember Uncle Jack when he lived with us)
Grandpa learned to use all utensils refrigerated – until ready to use. He had a light hand (My problem is that I’m in a hurry and have a heavy hand) He took his time (and left all the dishes in the sink for some one else to clean up!!) But it was worth it –to get back to the pies – He used lard (as Uncle Jack) taught him – In later years lard became a no-no – Crisco is okay (according to Aunt Mary she uses Crisco but its not as good as lard) but healthier
So don’t overwork the pastry for fruit pies (some books advise putting egg white on bottom crust to keep it from getting soggy).
I have a few favorites of my own – (I never competed with grandpa) and one day I’ll get a few but first you make your pies –
Love you very much (Both of you)