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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Me, Myself, and Pie: A Lesson in Baking

Good enough to eat!
By Weston Eaton

Baking a pie from scratch is not as easy, nor as difficult, as it sounds. What I want to do here is entice you to do so, especially if you have never done so before. Like baking a loaf of bread, or fermenting a jar of pickles or a few gallons of wine, the result is a product now richly embedded with your own energies, efforts, expectations, and desires. My argument is that in baking a pie from scratch, these attributes come through all the more in the final product.

But what does “from scratch” really mean? With the growing farm-to-table craze, this is a useful question. One does not have to grow their own wheat and mill their own flour to bake a pie from scratch. Nor does one need to grow their own fruit. While I cherish such ideals, they are not practical for most people. Instead, I crudely define baking from scratch as the practice of sourcing and preparing ingredients that have undergone only the minimally required levels of processing. In the case of pie, this means starting with fresh fruit or vegetables and, for the crust, basic baking ingredients like flour, salt, lard and water. Doing so results in a fundamentally different kind of pie than one baked with store bought pie crusts or canned/frozen fillings. This is not to say that the latter cannot be used to make great pie. My point, instead, is that making a pie from scratch produces a product that is in essence far more the physical representation of your efforts and your care.

Below is my recipe for one peach pie, handed down and altered, but essentially a very basic rendition of what I feel to be the quintessential dessert pie. Why peaches? Beyond their glorious taste, peaches are in season. I’ll first give the recipe and process for pie crust, and then for the pie filling. After this, I’ll give some detailed directions and some additional tips for baking. Quick note: I advocate using lard in lieu of vegetable shortening, especially if you can find some from a local farmer. Like margarine and butter, shortening is not a healthy substitute for animal fat.

Pie Crust:

• 2-1/4 Cups flour (all purpose)
• 1/2 Teaspoon salt
• 1 cup minus 2 Tablespoons Lard
• about 1/3 Cup very cold water

Pie crust, like other pastry, is a little intimidating. Unlike cookie dough, we cannot simply put these ingredients together with a Kitchen Aid mixer. Instead, the process calls for “cutting” lard into the salted flour and then adding cold water to achieve a ball of dough cohesive enough for rolling out with a pin.

Here’s what you want to do: First, preheat your over to 425F. Next, mix the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Then, using a pastry knife, or two butter knives, cut the lard into the flour until the texture looks like coarse meal. Next, sprinkle the cold water (I put mine on ice) a little at a time into the mix, while continuing to cut things together. Form the mixture into a ball. The pastry dough should be smooth and malleable. The tricky part of the whole thing is getting the ratio of water right. Too much water and you’ll have sticky and eventually tough crust. Not enough water and you’re rolling crumbly dough. Add flour or more water if necessary either way. Wrap the dough in wax paper or saran wrap and place in the fridge for at least a half hour. You can you use this time to prepare your fruit. Additionally, you can now freeze this pastry dough for future use, making your next pie just that much simpler. Here’s the simple mix I use to make peach pie filling:

Pie Filling

• 5 Cups skinned and sliced fruit, mostly peaches, some nectarines.
• 1 Cup sugar
• 1/2 Cup flour
• 1/2 Teaspoon cinnamon
• 2 Tablespoons butter (for on top the filling)

To prepare your fruit, the best thing to do is buy peaches and nectarines a few days ahead of time and set them out on the counter in a brown paper bag to ripen. You can either blanch your peaches or simply peel by hand. When peeled and sliced, mix all ingredients together except butter. You can add this once the crust is in place.

When the dough is chilled, remove from the fridge, slice in half, and prepare to roll out the dough. To do this, you’ll need a rolling pin and some flour-dusted counter space. The goal here is to roll out your dough without it sticking permanently to the counter. Doing so requires flour—but not too much or, again, the dough will become tough. Start by forming your half ball into a squat disc. Flour your pin, then roll center to edge forming a circle. If tears, cracks, or irregular shapes occur, simply overlay the separations and continue to roll. As I begin rolling, I fold back the dough and add a bit more flour. At any time you can turn the pastry to make sure it is not sticking. Next, to get the crust in your 9-inch pie pan, fold the dough in half and then in half a gain, then unfold in the pan. Press down gently and trim excess with butter knife.

With your bottom crust in the pan, pour in your filling and top with butter. Roll out your top crust the same way, unfolding over the filling. Trim and seal, using your thumb to form a scallop or fork. Cut a few slices for ventilation and, finally, brush with whipped egg white and sprinkle on a palmful of sugar.

Baking essentially requires 45 minutes—or until the crust is golden brown. I suggest covering the crust with foil to prevent burning, but to do so in a way that prevent the egg whites from sticking, try adding the foil after 15 minutes of baking. When the pie is done, let it cool on a rack. This pie should be frozen if not eaten within a few days. Serve with vanilla ice cream and a hot cup of coffee. Share with someone you respect. As they stand agape, tell them they, too, ought to bake their own pie from scratch.

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