The Seasons of Pie

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This post is dedicated to my dear friend Carolyn, who, recently visiting from Berlin, made for me her superlative strawberry rhubarb pie. These photos are from the meal that sprang up around that pie (Rebar Cookbooks’s Mac & Cheese, plus salad), with Carolyn gamely tarted up in a trashy mini-kilt we found at the mall. -MB

My second pie of the year is accidental. It is June. Lemon-coloured light serrates the dark green shadows of my garden. The last of the Icelandic poppies nod in the breeze; the first red cherries from a neighbour’s tree fall softly to the ground. Apricots have appeared at Garway, the Asian grocery near my house, and raspberries at another shop down the road. Pale-orange quadrants of apricot mix with raspberries in a glass bowl on my blue-tiled kitchen counter. I lace the opposing flavours together with maple syrup, and a touch of fresh grated ginger.

The crust is a Joy of Cooking classic. Now, a word here must be said about this much-maligned cookbook’s respect for pie. A full three pages (of my mother’s spattered, well-worn 1953 edition, that is) are devoted to a preamble regarding the finer points of pastry – after which one can find recipes for over forty pies. (Even more impressive for these times, the 1997 edition’s pie preamble has expanded to over ten pages.) There is a time chart for baking, advice on pans, some nifty diagrams related to issues of rolling, fluting and latticing, and a haiku of terse final hints:

1. Too much flour makes pie crust tough.
2. Too much shortening makes it dry and crumbly.
3. Too much liquid makes it heavy and soggy.

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Joy of Cooking authors Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker are not above inserting some tart admonitions (“If a pie is to have a deep filling, and to me this is the ideal pie, a deep pie pan will be a great help”). But generally, this is valuable pie-maker’s lore: a compendium of lost wisdom. New tins will not produce a nicely browned bottom crust. Keep the moisture out and the air in. If feasible, chill the dough for twelve hours. If the filling will be juicy, brush the bottom crust with egg white or melted butter so it won’t get soggy. Brush the top with milk, and it will be glossy once baked. Two pieces of macaroni, placed in the top crust like vents, will keep juices from boiling over.

The beauty of pie is in its making. These days, in a departure from family tradition, I have eschewed packaged Tender Flake shortening for the poetic luxury of paté brisée. I measure two cups of flour into a large bowl, and a teaspoon of salt. In goes a half pound of cold butter, which I break up with a knife. Two knives, a pastry blender, or, luxury of luxuries, a food processor, serve to integrate the butter with the flour until it has the texture of cornmeal. A quarter cup or more of ice water help to bind the dough together as I blend it quickly with my hands. I form it into two balls, rolling each one out separately between two pieces of wax paper. I place the bottom crust into the pan, a round white sheet, smooth and pliable as unbleached cotton. Then, I pour in the filling, and cover it with the reserved circle of dough, which has been chilling in the fridge. Bake the pie for anywhere between forty-five minutes to an hour, or until filling starts to bubble out from the slits in the crust.

I love the look of pie at this point, the handcraftedness of it, the aesthetics of symmetrically placed slits, the fluted, sealed crust. The way I know how to make pastry links me, over time and space, to the ways of my mother and grandmother: the sway of my body as I roll the dough; the movement of my hands as I pat and patch the dough into the pan.

-Excerpted from Comfort Food for Breakups: The Memoir of a Hungry Girl

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PS. For some good clean fun, check out this blog, in which its author is slowly attempting to cook every recipe in The Joy of Cooking (and she’s looking for guest cooks, too!) http://www.joyfulcooking.blogspot.com/

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