You can hardly tell by the weather here in the Bay Area, but summer has arrived. As a NorCal girl, I don’t necessarily gauge summer by warm temperatures, bright blue skies and sunny days. It’s all about the fruit available at the farmers’ markets. Sweet cherries season is ending, but they’re still available, apricots and nectarines have begun to arrive, and there’s an explosion of berries – blueberries, strawberries, plus blackberries, raspberries and their kin (ollalieberries, boysenberries, marionberries… you get the idea). And finally, for an ephemeral 2-3 weeks, sour cherries appear at a select few stands. What happens when all of my favorite fruits arrive at the farmers’ markets all at once? It’s time to start baking! So far this season, I’ve made berry (raspberry, boysenberry and blueberry) cobbler, stone fruit (apricot, peach and cherry) crisp, strawberry shortcake, raspberry tart and sour cherry pie. I’m looking forward to making a a plout galette, and this weekend, if the weather is right, I will once again attempt a batch of classic puff pastry (pate feiulletee). For now, I’ll share what I’ve learned about pies.
1. Your hands are the best tools you own. Forget about the food processor and throw out the pastry blender. If you use your fingertips to pinch, blend and “smear” cut pieces of shortening into flour, you will create a supremely flaky pie crust. It just takes practice. Keep your hands cold – wash them in cold water before you start – and work quickly. If your hands heat up while you’re working, give them a rinse in cold water. By the time you add the water, the mixture won’t look uniformly even the way a food processor produced crust will be, but that’s actually what you want. It means that you’ll get a flaky crust. Lump sizes will range from cornmeal-like gravel to grape sized. BTW, when working with floury products, wash your hands in cold water, not hot. Heat produces gluten, and gluten is sticky. Gluten is bad for flaky pie crust, which brings me to my next point.
2. Keep everything cold. After I cut up my shortening, I keep it in the fridge until the very last minute. I even put the metal mixing bowl with the flour in the freezer. Despite all that, I don’t always bother with using ice water to bring it all together, even though most recipes call for it. I just get water out of the fridge. It hasn’t seemed to make that much of a difference, but using ice water certainly won’t hurt
3. Let it rest. After you’ve finished “working” with your dough, wrap it up and stick it in the fridge for at least half an hour. You want to halt any possibilty of gluten production, so letting it relax and chill is essential. This is even more important if you’ve been using a food processor. Letting it rest or cool is also important when you’ve finished baking. As much as I want to dive into a pie that just came out of the oven, I force myself to allow it to cool for at least two hours. Basically, the filling has reached the boiling point, and it needs to cool down and thicken. if you were to slice into it immediately, you would wind up with crumbly crust and loose, watery filling. Last weekend, I had a slice of sour cherry pie that had cooled for about three hours. It was very good, but when I served myself a slice the next day, the filling had “set” even more, so the juices were thicker and it held together better.
4. When I talk about shortening, I don’t mean vegetable shortening. Yech. The hydrogenation process that solidifies the vegetable oil produces transfats. The more transfats in your diet, the higher the likelihood of coronary artery disease. Plus, when this stuff burns, it’s highly carcinogenic. You might as well use butter. But if you want the flakiest pie crust possible, you’ve got to use lard. Lard has a very high smoke point, so it allows the layers between the dough to rise more than if you used any other fat, which means you get an extra flaky crust. The manteca in the green and white package you sometimes find at the supermarket produces a pretty good crust, but it also contains hydrogenated oil. I’m with talking about pure unadulterated leaf lard. Where can you buy it? Well, you can’t. You have to render it yourself. Call your butcher, and ask him for leaf fat or caul fat. Block out an entire day, prefarably a cool one. You will want to open up all your windows, for your house will reek. As attractive as it sounds, a house redolent with the odor of pork grease gets pretty wearing after a few days. Sound like a lot of trouble? Keep in mind you produce quite a bit of lard, plus it freezes pretty well and lasts a long time. A little goes a long way – I use two tablespoons (with butter) per single crust pie. Although it’s a little bizarre, your foodie friends will appreciate receiving some as a gift. When you serve your pie to guests, make sure you mention that it’s definitely not kosher. A final note: you can also use duck fat as a substitute.
5. All stone fruits and most berries bake well. Strawberries do not. Keep in mind that apricots get more tart after baking, so compensate with a little extra sugar. Heat makes stone fruit release even more water, so I like to throw in a little tapioca when I’m using them in pies. If I’m making a tart or galette, I like to sprinkle ground almonds onto the pastry before filling it in order to absorb the juices.
6. If you work with doughs (bread, pasta or pastry) or chocolate a lot, a marble rolling board is a nice luxury. Marble retains a cooler temperature than wood or plastic, and it’s smoother. When I researched the purchase of a rolling board, I learned that the longest size was 20 inches. Puff pastry is rolled out as long as 24 inches. If you’re serious about buying a board and want to make puff pastry in the future, here’s the solution: Call your local tile store or marble cutter, and ask if they have pieces in the size that you wish. I lucked out, and found a marble cutter who had leftover slabs of carrera from a counter project he had just completed. I was able to get a 20×24 inch slab that fit my counter perfectly. Make sure you ask to have one side polished and beveled. Adhere rubber feet to the dull side. It may seem like extra trouble, but it cost half as much as buying it from a cooking store.
7. For pies, I use a Emile Henry stoneware deep dish pan that I received as a gift. It’s produced excellent results, but really, pyrex is just fine. For tarts, I like to use those with the removeable bottoms, and cast iron is superb for dishes like grunts or tarte tatin that go from the stovetop into the oven. I strongly dislike anything with an artificial nonstick or teflon surface – I feel that it inhibits browning, plus I’m extremely wary of chemicals that may have somehow leached into the food. Also, when nonstick surfaces burn, they produce highly toxic fumes.
8. Selection of a rolling pin is basically up to personal preference. I like the French pins with the tapered ends. They seem to apply a more consistent level of pressure, plus they’re cheaper and easier to clean. I have yet to purchase a marble pin – I find them too short, and the highly disastrous potential for dropping one is too high.
9. Baking stones are wonderful for anything you wish to have a nicely browned bottom – pizza, galettes, etc. They also stand in for quarry stones if you’re baking baguettes. When I bake a pie, I place it directly on top of the hot stone for the last twenty minutes or so to ensure that I don’t have a soggy crust.
10. As much as I espouse using my hands, I’m a real tool junkie. Here’s what I think of them:
Brushes – You can’t have too many brushes. It’s pretty frustrating to discover that you can’t use your one and only brush because it’s still wet from a previous project. I like having different sizes for different projects, and devoting different brushes for different mediums – beeswax, flour, butter, basting, glazes, egg, etc.
Pie beads/chain. You can just use regular old beans or rice just as easily, but if you’re going to shell out for special beads, you might as well buy a chain instead… you don’t have to worry about losing beads, you don’t need a jar or special container to store it, and it’s a lot easier to remove from the pie.
Pie birds – I always thought these were a little weird, but my curiousity got the better of me – it was 3 bucks – so I bought one last week. A pie bird is basically a ceramic funnel that gets placed in the middle of a double crust pie on top of the bottom crust before the you pour in the filling. The top crust is laid over it, with the tip poking out. The idea is that it helps vent steam from the bottom out of the hole at the top. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s necessary, but it didn’t detract from my pie.
Cherry pitter – only necessary if you plan on making cherry pie or jam. If you’re set on making some sort of baked cherry dessert, I suggest clafoutis first (you keep the pits in – they add flavor) and if you still want pie, well, Alice Waters claims that you can use an unbent paper clip, and a friend told me she uses a chop stick. I tried both, and was completely unsucessful. Faced with 3 pounds of sour cherries, I actually went out and bought a handheld pitter that same afternoon. It works like a hole puncher, and quite well, though my hand was still tired. You can also use it for olives.
ruler – essential if you’re making puff pastry, or if you have difficulty estimating diameters of pie crust. Just use an ordinary desk ruler. Make sure you wash it afterwards!
rolling pin cover/pastry cloth – I used to use a rolling pin cover with a pastry cloth. When I switched to a french rolling pin, the cover was too short. Now that I’ve got a marble board, I have no need for the cloth.
pie crust protector – You can just as easily use foil. I think I got one free as a gift with purchase or something, and I use it sometimes when I don’t feel like touching a hot pie pan too much.
Pastry/pizza wheel – you could use a sharp knife, but a wheel is much easier and more accurate, and you won’t ruin your marble board or dull your knife. If you’re weaving a lattice top crust, a fluted one is pretty, but not necessary. Lattice tops BTW, are pretty easy to weave.
rolling pin rings – so far, entirely useless, especially with a tapered rolling pin. I’ll give them one more try with a different rolling pin
apple corer – it’s not time for tarte tatin yet, but it does make the apple pie (or tart) process a lot faster.