I have continued my journey with pie, but I’ve been having so much darn fun with it, that I haven’t been reporting too much.  I’m getting closer to my perfect crust, and it’s fun to try different fillings each week.

Here is the pie history:

May 13 – Rhubarb Streusel.  Sadly, I have no photo of this pie, because I took it to Green Bay, where friends hosted us when I ran the Green Bay Marathon.  I forgot to take a photo.  Trust me when I tell you the pie turned out far better than the marathon.

May 20 – Apple Crumble.  No, apples are not in season in May, at least not in the Midwest, but I had a hankering. What can I say?

May 27 – Peach.  The dog ate it. I’m not kidding. Here’s a photo of the dog who ate my pie. Damn dog.

June 3 – Apricot galette. It exploded in the oven from the custard you add during the last 15 minutes of baking. But it was delicious. I actually didn’t share this one. Sometimes, I think it’s a miracle that I don’t weigh 300 lbs.

June 10 – Mixed berry. To date, the best pie I had made, including crust.

June 17 – Plum blackberry streusel. A Bon Appetit recipe. Messy, but the unique flavor was well worth having purple fingers.

June 24 – Open-faced blueberry. This has been my favorite pie so far.  It uses 4 cups of blueberries (though I think you could definitely increase this to 5 or 6), but you only cook one cup of the berries (or 1/4 of the berries you’re using if you increase the total amount) with some sugar and thickener, then mix it in with the fresh berries, dump it in a baked pie crust, and let it set for a few hours. Eat it with some lightly sweetened, freshly whipped cream. Summer doesn’t get better than this.

Did I say this was my favorite pie so far?  OK, I thought so.

June 30 – Peaches and Dream pie from the cookbook Baked Explorations.  It’s basically a way-too-sweet peach custard pie. My verdict? Blech. Others seemed to like it well enough, but you won’t find it being made in my house again.

July 1 – Run for the Roses, aka Kentucky Derby pie. It’s got chocolate, pecans and bourbon in it. Need I say more? This was supposed to be one of two pies I brought for the 4th of July (my sister doesn’t eat fruit), but it turned out to be a grief pie. My doggie nephew Bruno was laid to rest on July 3. He was the sweetest little Italian greyhound, who loved to give kisses, but a tumor got the best of him.  We miss that lovable trouble-maker. Understandably, my sister and brother-in-law were in no mood for July 4 festivities, so they stayed home, and I brought them this pie to comfort them.

July 1, part deux – Strawberry cream cheese pie. This is the pie I brought to the 4th of July festivities at my parents’ home. Again, I sadly have no photo of this pie, and it’s too bad, because it certainly was a beauty. I used strawberries I picked myself from a farm just north of the city, and that definitely put this pie over the top.  It had a cream cheese base layer, a cooked strawberry layer, and an uncooked strawberry topping.  My dad went nuts over it and asked me to make it again next year for his birthday. No problemo, padre!

July 8 – Peach streusel. The organic peaches were wonderful and juicy, and I used more than the recipe called for, but didn’t increase the thickener. Oops. It was a little soupy, but unlike the Peaches and Dream pie, this one was indeed dreamy. Tip: Don’t make a streusel for a peach pie unless it’s going to be completely consumed the day it’s made. It gets soggy and unappetizing after day 1.  Stick with a top crust instead.

July 15 – Open faced apricot pie. I’m finding that I’m quite fond of apricots. This pie was lovely and fragrant. Too bad I dropped half of it on the garage floor, and had to throw it out along with the pie plate that shattered and shot like shrapnel all over the place.  Sweeping up that mess was no fun. The raspberries were from a roadside stand. (I love writing that!)

July 22 – Cherry-rhubarb. I used the last batch of Cherryland’s Best Door County Cherries that I froze from last year for this pie.  This one was a beauty.  Randy took it to work (after I sampled a piece), and it was gone within 2 hours. Yeah, it was that good.

Here’s the piece I sampled. How’s that for discipline!?

I also made a savory Zucchini-Ricotta galette this week, which we had for dinner yesterday. I wasn’t that excited about it, but we have zucchini up the wazoo from our CSA, and it seemed like a good way to use it and exceed my pie quota for the week. I’m an over-achiever like that. I also got a little wild with the crust, and used a mixture of unbleached all purpose, whole wheat pastry, and spelt flour. It was incredibly flavorful. I dare say it’s a repeater, though I would probably amp up the cheesy base with some spices or herbs next time.

So there you have it. I may have been slacking off in the writing department, but the pie-making has been full-speed ahead.

A word about my crusts.  Flour is a big deal.  Turns out, so is sugar.  I love the texture that pastry flour gives a crust, but I can only find whole wheat pastry flour in the stores.  So, if I use it, I add a couple of teaspoons of sugar to the crust.  If I don’t add sugar, the crust seems a better fit for a savory rather than sweet filling. You can skip the sugar if you use a white flour.

But pastry flour is more expensive.  A good alternative is bleached all purpose flour.  I know, the idea of using bleached flour is a little unappetizing, but it has less protein which makes for a more tender crust.

Don’t use White Lily flour for pie crust (though in cakes it’s great!). I actually discovered this a number of weeks ago, but in an effort to use up what I had bought, I mixed the White Lily flour with unbleached All Purpose flour for a couple of the pies I made.  It’s just too soft and delicate.  It’s a pain to roll out and crimp, and it doesn’t hold up to fruit fillings. I’ll stick to using it for cakes and muffins.

If you want to knock your friends’ socks off with your crust, use an Irish or European butter, which has a higher fat content than American versions. You CAN taste the difference.  One of my favorite crusts to date has been made with Kerrygold butter.

At the end of the day, you can use regular butter and unbleached all purpose flour for your crust, and it will still be loads better than your average store-bought version.  Before this here pie journey, that’s how I made pie crusts whenever I made pie, and it was great! The crust is perhaps a little crunchier, but it’s homemade. You bring a homemade pie anywhere, and people are not going to start asking you what kind of flour and butter you used. They’re going to Mmmm and Ahhh about it, as they should.

Happy pie-making.

Last week I made a blueberry cranberry pie with a basic all-butter flaky pastry crust. Once again, this recipe is from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible.  I’m going to stick with this book for awhile, because I think this just might be the key to my pie-crust success. And it doesn’t hurt that the fillings are also exacting and exactly perfect every time.

See how the filling stays in place and doesn't ooze out everywhere? I love that! (I know. I'm a geek. I've embraced it.)

The blueberry cranberry filling is a perfect winter pie.  It’s not too sweet. In fact, it’s bracing and tart, in a  good, beat your chest sort of way. And if you want to tame the tartness, it’s lovely with some local or homemade vanilla ice cream.

You can use blueberries you put up in the summer, or buy frozen.   Randy brought home fresh blueberries from Trader Joe’s that came from Mexico, I think.  I cringed, because I try to eat in-season as much as possible, but I wasn’t about to waste these berries. They actually tasted quite good. And of course I used some of the cranberries I stocked up on in December.

You start by macerating all the filling ingredients for 30 minutes.  Then you cook it until it’s thick, let it cool and transfer it to the pie shell.  Incredibly easy and delicious.  In fact, there’s no reason you couldn’t use this filling as an ice cream topping or in a fruit crisp as well.

Here are the blueberries and cranberries macerating in sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice and zest.

Of course, I can’t help myself.  I always switch up a recipe, even if it’s just slightly.  And really, this time it’s hardly worth mentioning the change, but I’ll mention it anyway.  I decided on a lattice top crust rather than a double crust.

Well, this tiny decision did end up tripping me up a bit.  The quantities for all the ingredients for the double-crust and crust-with-lattice are right next to each other in the book, so while I’m certain I got the flour and butter measurements correct, I know my eyes kept drifting back and forth between the recipes on the other ingredients.  I think this may have had a slight impact on the end result.

The crust was flaky, tasty, and very crisp…  approaching tough, which is not a good thing in a pie crust.  I still haven’t laid my hands on pastry flour, so I might attribute some of the minor flaws in the pie crust to the fact that I used bleached AP flour which has a slightly higher protein content.  But I also think that the tricks my eyes were playing on me as I was measuring ingredients into my bowl may have had an impact.

Also, Rose keeps calling for vinegar in her crusts–just a tad, but really, I just can’t do it.  At least not yet. I subbed extra water instead. This may also have contributed to that slight chew in the crust.

I’m going to make the same crust again this week. Maybe I’ll try the vinegar. Maybe not. I’ll report how it goes.

If you want to try this recipe, just remember the key to a good pie crust is cold everything, and resting the dough.

Basic Flaky Pie Crust for 9-inch lattice pie

Adapted from the Pie and Pastry Bible

9 T/4.5 oz unsalted butter

1.5 cups/7.5 oz bleached AP flour (or if you use pastry flour, add an extra 1.5 T)

1/4 tsp salt

1/8 tsp baking powder

3.5-4.5 T/1.75-2.3 oz ice water

1.5 tsp/0.25 oz cider vinegar (I didn’t use vinegar, and instead add a touch more water)

Cut 2/3 of the butter into 3/4 in. cubes and put it in the refrigerator.  Slice the remaining 1/3 of the butter into thin slices, separate them and put them in the freezer.*  Put your dry ingredients in a bowl and stick it in the freezer or refrigerator until very cold.

Rub the refrigerated butter into the flour mixture with your fingers or a pastry blender until it looks like coarse meal  (your flour, butter and bowl are cold enough if this hurts a little). Gently fold in the frozen butter slices, trying to keep them intact as much as possible.  If it seems like your mixture is warming up too much, let it rest in the freezer or refrigerator for awhile before you continue.

Add your ice water, beginning with the smallest quantity recommended in the recipe.  Help the dough come together with your spatula (or your hands if you have very cold hands)  by turning and pressing the mixture in the bowl.  Add additional water until it’s ready and forms a crumbly mass. Stop kneading it, and dump it onto a square of plastic wrap. Use the edges of the wrap to bring all the crumbs to the dough mass.  Wrap it up and form it into a disc.  You can split it up at this point if you want:  9.5 oz for the bottom crust, and the remaining piece for the lattice.  Or split it later (which is what I did). Let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours, preferably overnight.

Take it out of the fridge, let it rest a few minutes until it’s roll-able, and roll it.  Bottom crust should be about 13 inches.  Roll the lattice into a rectangle, and cut into strips about 3/4 inch wide.  Here’s a good photo demo of how to make a lattice top.

Dump the filling into the pie crust, make the lattice top, stick it back in the fridge to rest for an hour.

Bake for about an hour in a pre-heated 375 degree oven, until the crust is golden brown.  Rose recommends a 20-minute bake on the bottom of your oven or baking stone, then transfer to the top rack to finish baking.  This worked well for me, but be sure to put a sheet of foil on the bottom of your oven to catch drips from the filling.

Let it rest for 6 hours before cutting. (I know it sounds like a long time. It is, but you know how the filling in the picture is staying put instead of oozing all over the plate?  Yeah, it’s because it rested for 6 hours. Skip this step at your own risk.)

Blueberry-Cranberry filling

1.5 cups/10.5 oz sugar

1/3 cup/1.6 oz corn starch

1 T/.25 oz lemon zest

3 T/1.6 oz lemon juice

a pinch of salt

1.5 lbs frozen blueberries

3.5 cups/12.25 oz fresh or frozen cranberries

In a large, nonreactive saucepan, combine all the ingredients except blueberries and cranberries.  Then add the berries and toss to coat.  Let it sit for about 30 minutes or until the berries begin to give up some of their juices.

Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring frequently until very thickened, and some of the berries have bursted.  It’s a lot of filling, so this may take awhile. The recipe says 8-10 minutes, but mine took longer. Just make sure it comes to a complete boil (doesn’t have to be a rolling boil), because boiling it is what activates the starch.  If you don’t activate the starch, it won’t get as thick, and worse, you’ll have a really unpleasant texture to your filling.  It should be edible after you’re done cooking it.

Let it cool to almost room temp before dumping it into your pie crust for baking.

I’m not calling it a resolution, because I would inevitably break it.  You know what I’m talking about if you belong to a gym.  It’s ridiculous. You can’t get on the elliptical for 3 weeks after the new year because everyone and their freaking pet has made a resolution to lose weight.

I’m calling this my anti-resolution. And the fact that I’m just now writing about it on January 25 only supports my case that this has nothing to do with a new year’s resolution. Even though the word resolution is in my name for it… Oh, nevermind.

Enough beating around the bush… or should I say butter?  I’m going to make a pie every week in 2012. (Good thing I’m also training for a marathon this spring, and a bike race in late summer.)  I really like pie.  I mean, I like pretty much any dessert food, but pie is homey, comforting, and endlessly adaptable.  I also love a good crust. I’ve made really good crusts in the past.  Problem is I haven’t made them consistently.  And I want to be able to whip out a knock-your-socks-off pie anytime the mood strikes, so I’m on a mission to find and perfect pie crust, and I plan to just have some fun with the fillings.  Because at the end of the day, the filling is the easy part.

What I want in a crust is a great buttery flavor, and a flaky, melt-in-your mouth texture.  I know this has been done. I’ve read about it all over The Internets.  And I’ve had really great pies from my pie hero Paul, who I met at my church, and my other pie hero, and these guys approach hero status, too.

Mission definitely not accomplished as of this writing. Not YET, that is.

1st week:  Pecan maple pie.

I actually used a Cooks Country recipe, which comes from the folks at America’s Test Kitchen.  Usually a pretty good resource.  The pie crust was fine.  It called for shortening, but I used all butter.  Great buttery flavor, but not so flaky.  The filling though… GAG!  I think my maple syrup was bad.  Had to throw the darn thing away.  Bummer, because pecans are damn expensive these days!

2nd week:  Lemon custard

Lemon custard pie. You can see my crust really shrunk on one side. I have found in my limited trials thus far that all butter crusts shrink more and don't hold their shape as well. Back to the lab!

Basic lemon custard was quite good.  Couldn’t really judge the pie crust.  I rolled and crimped it, arranged it in the pie plate, stuck it in the freezer, and promptly forgot about it for almost a week.  It was a bit freezer burned, but hell, it tasted OK, so I took it to work, and it was gobbled up.

3rd week:  Sawdust pie

I rolled out the crust a little larger than I needed to, and so had quite the overhang. You can see how it spilled over the side of the pie plate.

I used the filling recipe from the book Baked Explorations, and I threw some chocolate chips in the mix.  It’s basically a filling with crushed graham crackers, coconut, pecans, and sugar, held together with egg whites.  It’s too sweet.  Needs some potato chips or super salty pretzels or something like that. Maybe I’ll substitute some of the graham crackers with potato chips next time.  Yeah, that’s what I’ll do! On the other hand, I may just move on to other fillings.

For the crust, I read about a trick, I think on this blog, about using heavy cream in place of some of the water. What it does is prevent gluten from forming too quickly, so I did that.  I used all butter, and I also used some pastry flour, which has less protein, which means less gluten development, which theoretically means more flakiness.  But it was whole wheat pastry flour, and I honestly don’t know if that has less protein, so I’m not sure it made a difference.

I didn’t like the crust, anyway.  It’s OK, I guess, but it’s definitely back to the drawing board.

I also ordered this book.  It’s a bible, right?  It’s like, God’s word on pies.  So, what the hell… er, I mean, heck.

Oh, also, I know these photos suck.  My awesome photographer friend Stef is coming over to give me a lesson, so you won’t have to avert your eyes when you look at my photos next time.  It’s because I care. I really do.