Wednesday I spoke with a reporter from the Telegraph, a newspaper which happens to have a cameo in The Great American Desert. It used to call itself the Alton Telegraph, but they’ve changed the masthead. The reporter was working the local angle, and wanted to know various things about my relationship to Jersey County. She asked, among other things, how my summers there, when I was a little kid, had affected me. I hope I managed to explain about the food.
I was lucky enough to have some great home bakers on both sides of the family. In Chicago I learned to make German coffee cakes and cinnamon rolls, and in Jerseyville I learned to make pie.
By the time I was knee-high to a grasshopper, making a pie was a piece of cake. Pie-making has been a handy skill to have. In high school, for instance, I discovered what a favorable impression a fresh apple pie can make on girlfriends and their mothers.
For centuries, I was the official pie-maker. If you invited me to dinner, I brought a pie. In my peripatetic student days, staying with friends or friends of friends, I have used wine bottles to roll out pie crust in kitchens unequipped with rolling pins.
Then, somewhere along the way, I lost the touch. It had something to do with European-style tarts, which I’d fallen in love with while overseas during college. During my few days in Paris I bought tart pans, and immersed myself in the world of pate sucree, pasta frolla, and Mürbeteig. Sure, I still made a humble pie now and then, especially at Thanksgiving when the world yearns for pumpkin. But what I didn’t tell anyone was that I had fallen back on an ancient family recipe for a pie crust made with shortening melted in boiling water.
Sorry if I startled you there, but it’s true. Although every other recipe in the universe instructs you to keep ingredients cold, and under no circumstances to allow the fats to melt, and merge with the flour, this one calls for the other thing. It doesn’t make the world’s flakiest crust, but it’s not bad, and is especially useful for goopy pies like pumpkin. But the reason I’d fallen back on it was that it is bomb-proof, preparation-wise.
Every time I threw together a traditional crust, I would end up piecing shreds of dough together in the bottom of the pie plate, quickly covering the evidence with apples before anyone noticed, and if I wanted a top crust I made a lattice, because you can piece that together, too. Then I had a string of crusts both greasy and chewy, in which the fats had separated from the dough, and that was when I threw in the towel.
For years now, I’ve been living a lie. A pastry chef afraid of pie crust.
This year, I took the bull by the horns. Eschewing shortening, I based my comeback on butter, traditional values, and my trusty Cuisinart. The result? Excellent flavor, acceptable flakiness. With pie crust, you want to create a dough that tests your skill with a rolling pin. This one was definitely too cooperative, so I’ll use less water next time. Because there will certainly be a next time, and soon.
Pumpkin pie is certainly one of America’s greatest claims to fame, though butternut squash pie is even better. You roast a butternut squash until brown and squashy, scoop out the insides, and follow your favorite recipe for pumpkin. My own recipe comes from the back of a can, though I increase the spices by 50%, use dark brown sugar instead of white, substitute maple syrup for ¼ of the sugar, and only use half the milk called for. One large can (29 oz.) of pumpkin (or the guts of one 2 ¾# butternut squash) yields one 10” deep-dish pie.
My guess is that the phrase ‘easy as pie’ refers to ease of eating, not making. Lots of people are intimidated at the thought of making and rolling out a pie crust. Even my own mother, who otherwise is possessed of many very fine qualities, uses those horrible ready-made pie crusts these days. Real pie crust is much better, and is really not so hard to make.
If my revolution in literature founders, I would be content if I could foment a revolution in pie. ‘Can she bake a cherry pie?’ is what people used to say, and cherry is a touchy pie to make, because of all the juice. It’s a challenge to make a really good pie of any kind, but people say ‘challenge’ as if that’s a bad thing.
We all know how satisfying real food is, and at a time like Thanksgiving the emotional component is brought to the fore. I wish you could have had a piece of the pie I made yesterday. The filling was dense but yielding, nothing like the pudding-like stuff you see in the supermarket pies, and the cloves and ginger were prominent without being overpowering. The exuberant flavor notes of maple syrup gave the pumpkin a new, brighter dimension, and the butter in the crust gave the whole confection that almost maternal warmth that only butter has.
As for my turkey, I got it down the street. My neighbor always puts on a good feed, very old-school. Excellent stuffing this year, and her turkeys are always done to a turn. It would have been a sacrilege, to have brought a store-bought pie to a dinner like that.