Since quarantine and stay-home orders have started, more folks have started getting interested in their kitchens. This is great news, especially as I can see how regularly my educational posts get visited.
For example, a friend of mine has been messaging me recently and asking for advice. Not so much on technique, but on equipment. A messy breakup has left him re-stocking his kitchen:
“Matt,what kind of rolling pin do you use? What material?” ”What do you suggest for bakeware? Any specific brands?” ”If I want to make cheesecake, do I REALLY need a springform pan?”
At first, I answered the questions and referenced my blog here. “I’m pretty sure I had a series called ‘Tools of the Trade’ or something.”
”Well, yeah, but you only got as far as knives, and that was five years ago.”
Staying home for an extended period has gotten a pretty wide assortment of interests out of people. Some folks are getting VERY into home exercise, home improvement projects, shaving their heads, or falling down conspiracy theory rabbit holes that Junji Ito would pass on as too twisted.
Most beautiful of all of them, I think, is “I’ve gotall this time at home now, I’m gonna learn to cook and bake better!”
So in addition to being an amazing piano teacher and partner, my wife Emily also tends to act as my editor. She doesn’t just proofread my work, but tests it for readability. IS what I’m writing actually coming across? IS the blog post actually meeting it’s purpose?
Sometimes this comes out by her asking follow-up questions. While she was reading through last week’s post on yeast and fermentation, she got to the part about the different sugars and starches present in wheat.
“Why does the yeast have trouble with starches? “Why isn’t there enough alpha amylase in the wheat, and why does malted grain provide it? “Is this why there are different kinds of flour? What’s the difference between bleached/unbleached/enriched/bread flour/pastry/cake/all purpose? Hey, you should write a blog about that!”
So this week, let’s do a deep dive on the science of flour!
Good morning, friends and neighbors!After last weeks “crash course” in chocolate, another discussion popped up that I couldn’t help but stick my beak in as the topic was very close to my heart:“Hey everyone, of all things in the kitchen, I know next to NOTHING about fruit pies. Help?”
Bakers and chefs chimed in, and I scrolled through their responses before finally saying,
“Yeah, everything here is about right to my experience. Here’s a couple other things I do that you might find helpful..”
My friend from last time popped up. “Oh thank God, I was wondering this too. Have you written about this?”
I went back and found my previous pie-related entries, only to realize I NEVER COVERED FILLINGS.
“Dude, GET ON IT, and then send me the link! Maybe a video how-to?”
Well, I like to correct my mistakes, and I’m here to please, so strap in all. I’m going to take you through baking pies and my personal Top 5 Fruit Pie recipes! Video how-to will come soon!
So What’s My Deal with Pie?
Pie, to me, is the ultimate homecooking icon. It’s the real symbol of hospitality and comfort food (get out of here with your pineapple symbolism,) and it’s ingrained in our culture going back centuries: “Little Jack Horner, sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie…” “American as apple pie.” “Easy as pie.” Beyond that, it’s also the most direct (and beautiful) example of my personal culinary philosophy:Simplicity, with ElegancePie is, by its nature, not a fussy affair. It’s a crust with a filling. Simple in appearance, seemingly simple in execution. To make a truly excellent pie is a work of art and a demonstration of real craftsmanship. If something goes wrong with the crust, there’s NO HIDING IT. If the filling is off, there’s NO HIDING it. No icing. No sauce. No sprinkles. No piling a little mound of microgreens on top of a burned bit.Pie is honest. It is honest about itself, and about your skill as a baker. That is a beautiful thing.Pumpkin Pie
Back when I was a kid, I loved pie- it just felt more… fun. I don’t think I ever had a birthday cake after the age of 10- simply because I always just wanted pie instead. That’s something that persists to today, by the way. You know, in case anyone is in the Portland area in July. *hint hint*
Cheddar Apple Pie
Crust And Assembly Recap!
As I mentioned above, I’ve done a couple of posts about pie before- one on making and handling a perfect crust, including my favorite recipe, and another on assembly once you have everything ready. You should really go read those first: In Hoc Crustulo Vinces: The Season Is Upon Us! In Hoc Crustulo Vinces: Pie of the Tiger For those of you in a hurry, though, I’ll touch on the most important bits here. Since writing those, I’ve changed up my method a bit so I’ll include that here:
My Favorite Recipe (from The Joy of Baking. Good for 2 single-crust pies or one double-crust pie)
2 1/2 cups (350 grams) all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoon (30 grams) granulated white sugar (leave out if you want it savory) 1 cup (226 grams) unsalted butter, chilled, and cut into 1 inch (2.5 cm) pieces 1/4 to 1/2 cup (60 – 120 ml) ice water or other chilled liquid (experiment with different liquids to get interesting flavors!) Herbs or Spices as you see fit
If you are using an electric mixer, freeze the butter. If not, chilled is fine. Mix all the dry together, and then the butter until the mix resembles coarse meal (if making by hand, use your fingers or a pastry blender to cut in the butter. You DON’T want any large lumps. By keeping the butter chilled/frozen, you break up the butter before it can melt. Add the liquid all at once. If it’s too dry, add a bit more. Your dough should be cold, but not wet or very sticky. Pulling apart a lump, you should be able to see layers inside. Split into two equal size discs, wrap in plastic and chill.
Basic pie dough is 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part liquid- hence, 3-2-1 Dough Keep everything as cold as possible, and use as little flour as possible when rolling. Otherwise the dough will absorb it and dry out. If your dough is shrinking back after you roll it, it means it’s been overworked. Let it sit for a few minutes before rolling again.
Mise en place, mise en place, After lining your pie tin, let it rest in the fridge. Cook your fillings ahead of time and store them. Hot filling + cold pie dough = melty, greasy dough. When sealing your pie, be sure to moisten BOTH pieces of dough with whatever wash you are using, and then crimp/fold to ensure a good seal. Egg yolk wash will make your pie look shiny and golden when baked, milk will make it look crusty and rustic. Got all that? Go look at those blog post for a bit more detail, as well as demo pictures!
When it comes to fruit pie fillings, you can absolutely follow a (tested and proven) recipe, but between you and me, I rarely have one. Want it a little sweeter? Add some more sugar! A little thicker? Add some more thickener. Remember- Baking is chemistry. With practice, you’ll understand which rules you can bend or break- and which ones you can use to have fun!
My Fruit Filling Ratio
4 parts fruit to 1 part sugar 8 parts sugar to 1 part cornstarch.Let me say it again here- this is not set in stone. This ratio will just give you a good idea for how to assemble a fruit filling. You should ALWAYS feel free to experiment and figure your own best recipe out! Be a mad scientist!Is the Cornstarch Necessary?
Well, yes and no. Cornstarch is a thickener, or a “gelling agent” in fancy industry lingo. It works better than flour, and is less expensive than other thickeners like arrowroot. It’s a popular addition for people who make their own jellies or jams, and it’s often used as a vegan substitute for gelatin in cooking and baking. Thicker filling- your slice of pie remains a SLICE. The filling stays in place, under the crust, picture perfect. Thinner filling- you want a juicy, runny pie. You want the filling to go all over the plate, and you wanna lick it clean when you’re done. In the end, it’s your pie! Experiment and do your own thing!No judgments- You do you!
To Pre-cook, or not to Pre-cook?
This is another one of those divisive questions in the pie world- do you pre-cook your filling, cool it, and THEN put it in the pie? Or do you let the filling cook and thicken in the shell?
Again, it’s up to you! For me, I personally like to pre-cook. It means I can spread out the time necessary to make a pie (having dough and filling made a day before means that I can just assemble and bake when I’m ready!)
It also leads to a thicker filling, since you are really just heating the pre-cooked filling and baking the crust.
How Do I Know When It’s Cooked?
Regardless of whether you pre-cook or not, the tell-tale sign that your filling is properly cooked is watching for bubbling in the vents of your top crust.As your pie bakes, the filling will bubble up. It’ll start out with small, fast bubbles- like a boiling pot of water. What you are looking for is the bubbles to come up slow and thick, like bubbling tar. That means that your filling has been thickened to the point that the cornstarch is well-cooked, and you’ll have thick, shiny goop!Alright, got the basics down? Here’s some of my favorite filling ideas! Depending on how big a pie you are making, some of these may make a bit too much. Hold on to it and make another pie, or just scale it down!
Got all that? Good!
Here’s some of my favorite pie fillings!
The Über Apple Pie!
This is the pie I made for my recent blogs. It’s a fall favorite of mine, and a wonderful demonstration of “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth OVERdoing!” The pie crust is seasoned with apple pie spice and made with apple cider. The filling gets dosed with Applejack Brandy, and the selection of apples just screams fall! 3 lbs Apples (my favorites are Granny Smith, Fuji, Gala, and Honeycrisp) ½ cup of brown sugar 1.5 tablespoons cornstarch Allspice Nutmeg Cinnamon 1 tbsp Brandy 1 tsp Vanilla Extract Cook over medium heat until the apples release a noticeable amount of liquid in the bottom of the pot. Add the sugar, and whisk the cornstarch, spices, brandy, and extract together into a slurry. Pour in and stir regularly. Cook until thick, with a shiny layer of goop forming on your spoon!
Blueberry Lemon Mint
Coming from New Jersey, summer meant BLUEBERRIES. Adding citrus to berry pies brightens them up and highlights their tartness, and the addition of mint lends an herbaceous, cooling feeling that makes this pie legitimately refreshing. (adapted from The Joy Of Baking)4 cups blueberries ½ cup sugar 2 tablespoons cornstarch 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 tablespoon lemon zest ¼ cup chopped fresh mint
Gotta love that sweet heat!
4 lbs chopped fresh peaches 1 lb. sugar About 1 oz. cornstarch Any spices you like (for a smoky hit, add a little ground chipotle pepper!) A few jalapeno peppers, diced and seeded.
Cook as for the blueberry pie, whisking the dry ingredients into the cooking fruit, and adding the jalapenos at the end. Just like with the herbs, adding the peppers toward the end preserves their heat! If you cook them with the filling, they wind up just tasting like green pepper.Cherry Almond Cardamom
This is another go-to fall/winter pie! Despite cherries being very much a summer fruit, their combination with cardamom and toasty almonds makes this pie unnaturally filling and warming- like a hug in your belly, perfect for a cooler night in fall!Filling 4 lbs cherries (a mix of sour pie cherries and dark sweet cherries) 1 lbs sugar 1 oz. cornstarch About ½ c toasted, chopped almonds ½ tsp cardamom ½ tsp cinnamon 1 tsp vanillaFollow the same directions as above, but this time mixing in the almonds.Tips and TricksFrozen fruit is fine to use, as is canned! Seasonal is obviously best, but don’t be afraid of getting the best frozen/canned stuff you can. If it’s canned, though, you don’t want to use the syrup or juice it’s in. Save that stuff for sweetening things later!Cardamom is awesome but a SUPER STRONG spice! Don’t overdo it on this one!
This pie demonstrates one of my favorite principles in flavor-matching- combining related produce! Cherries and almonds taste great together because they are actually closely related- as are almond and rose, and rose and peach! When putting flavors together, try keeping it in the family!
Strawberry Rhubarb with Goat Cheese and Black Pepper
Now this one is the master course, and a demo of everything we’ve gone over in this blog. It’s creamy. It’s fresh. It’s spicy. It’s sweet. It’s YUM.Filling 3 lbs. Strawberries 1 lbs. Chopped rhubarb 1 lbs. Sugar 1 oz. cornstarch 4 oz. soft goat cheese Black pepper, to tasteCook fruit and rhubarb as above, whisking the sugar, cornstarch, and black pepper together and adding together. Before baking, spread or otherwise evenly distribute the goat cheese over the bottom of the pie shell. Pour fruit filling on top.There You Go!
Now you know how to make your own fruit pies, just in time for the holidays! Think you’re family will be pleased? Which pie is your favorite? Let me know in the comments!Stay Classy,
No matter where you are on Earth, certain things drive food culture forward- geography, climate, population, social mores, and so on. Right at the heart of it though, from the salt-of-the-earth origins of cuisines all over the world- from the Soul Food of the Southeastern United States to the multifaceted mosaic of Chinese food- is economics, and the single question every cook asks:
“HOW DO I TAKE WHAT’S CHEAP, MAKE IT TASTE GOOD, AND FEED EVERYONE?”