Monday, December 7, 2009

Oh right, about those pies...

Well, I did it. I made two Thanksgiving pies lined with real crust transformed from flour and butter entirely by me, with the Pillsbury Doughboy nowhere in sight. I had a few fraught moments of calling out, "I'm facing a fear here!" and "AHHH! What if I'm overworking the dough?!" The pies, however, exited the oven and sat cooling on the rack with poise, as if they'd never doubted their perfection.

One was made with a M.Martinez-recommended recipe for pecan pie without corn syrup, and the other recipe came right off the back of a can of pumpkin puree, a filling so healthy someone made these graphics to prove it.

Besides my uncertainty over making dough, I felt another pang of alarm when I ran out of nuts for the top of the pecan pie. Because it lacked the usual solid topping, the filling puffed up in the gaps between pecan halves when baked and ended up looking sort of like meringue. I'm pretty sure that's what lead to this unnerving moment of dialogue on Thanksgiving Day:

"What kind of pie is this one with pecans?"

"It's pecan."

That didn't do much to help my pie-related fears, which took root about five years ago, the first time I'd tried my hand at pie-making. I'd eaten a slice of pecan pie with Jack Daniel's and chocolate chips at the Gristmill in Gruene, and it was so good that I recreated it at home — unwisely from a sketchy Web site of restaurant copycat recipes — and invited a bunch of folks over. My friends were too kind to say it, but forks were of no use with that gloppy mess. Since then, I've referred to that disaster as the Swamp In A Dish.

On the other hand, my panic over creating pie dough came from lack of experience. I'd never witnessed that moment when dry ingredients plus fat plus water spring to life as pastry; I was afraid I wouldn't know when it was ready. Making this kind of dough seems to have lots of variables ("It says the butter should be pebbly. Is this pebbly? Because I'd say it's more like large gravel."), and everything has to stay cold, then there's that period of adding water by the spoonful, which takes a bit of instinct. I didn't have that instinct going in. My mom's dessert-making involved dipping mini Ritz peanut butter sandwiches or gelled orange candies into melted chocolate, and people on cooking shows always seem to use a food processor. I was starting from scratch. (Har har.)

But, as it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. It wasn't so hard, and they turned out tasting great. It's just that I was overly anxious about 16 people trying my very first all-homemade pies on a holiday that might as well be called Everyone Expects Good Pie Day. Now that I've done it, I'm thinking that should be every day.

Pate brisee (pie dough)

Pep talk from The Awl, with real measurements from Martha Stewart

Makes one double-crust or two single-crust 9- to 10-inch pies.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces

1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water

Combine flour, salt and sugar. Add butter and smush with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse meal or just butter blobs held together by paste. That worked for me. Add a 1/4 cup of ice water and do some more smushing. Timidly add more cold water one tablespoon at a time until the dough no longer crumbles. It should hold together without being wet or sticky. Divide dough into two equal balls. Flatten each ball into a disc and wrap in plastic. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill at least one hour. Dough may be stored, frozen, up to one month.

Sprinkle a heavy dusting of flour onto your table and the rolling pin (owned by boyfriend who doesn't cook much, but uses it to make killer tortillas when so inclined). Roll the dough into an odd unknown-continent shape until it's large enough to fit in a pie plate. Unstick it from the table and roll it like a scroll around the rolling pin to transfer it to the buttered pie plate. Yell out with glee. You did it!

Corn-syrup-free pecan pie

From someone named Elaine at via BAKIN' LOVE

1 cup light brown sugar

1/4 cup white sugar

1/2 cup butter, melted

2 eggs

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup chopped pecans

More pecan halves for decorating.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Butter pie plate and fill it with dough, as outlined above.

In a large bowl, beat eggs until foamy and stir in melted butter. Stir in the brown sugar, white sugar and the flour; mix well. Add the milk, vanilla and chopped pecans.

Pour into an unbaked 9-inch pie shell. Place pecan halves on top in whatever type of pattern you can manage. Bake for 10 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until done.


  1. Great Job Beth! I too suffer from pie-phobia. I may have let mine extend to all desserts though. Do you remember the time I tried to make pecan pie for Andrew's birthday? I harvested the pecans from the trees in our apartment courtyard and cracked them open with a hammer trying to muffle the sound at 2am, only to inexplicably burn the pie to a crisp. Dana J. ate it and I cried. I congratulate you on overcoming your fears.

  2. I do! I remember you putting a handful of pecans into the pocket of your jeans each time you were on your way into the apartment. Kind of squirrel-like. So much pre-planning went into that, and then shelling the pecans, too! In fact, I was thinking of that as I wrote this — that was a bad year for us and pies.