In Pie Curious, The Takeout solicits the help of pastry chefs to teach all-thumbs baker Gwen Ihnat how to master the mighty pie.
I swear I saw an online headline recently that stressed something like “Busyness Isn’t A Virtue”—I’m not really sure, because at the time I was too busy to read it. But hopefully it had advice for too-much-stuff/too-little-time people like myself who forever seem to be dashing from one event to the next. That’s why I’m writing this at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night surrounded by piles of laundry. Really could have used that hour Daylight Saving Time took away last week.
But absolutely, busyness is the farthest thing from a virtue. I’m happy to have a rich, full life with a job and husband and two kids I love, but it can seem nearly impossible to fit everything in. My taxes still aren’t done, or the paperwork for the twins’ spring break camp that starts in about a week. I haven’t had a manicure in months. My gym card is dusty again. I just signed up for Stitch Fix because my wardrobe has whittled down to about three passable outfits, and I recently purchased underwear at Walgreens. And honestly, when I’m this busy, how much time do I have to actually enjoy anything, as opposed to just getting everything done on my never-ending to-do list? My job, my kids?
“What does this have to do with pie?” you might be asking, and rightly so. I honestly think I can boil my issues with pie down to this busyness problem. One of the features I have pitched for this site is called “Hasty Gourmet,” for god’s sake. But there is no haste with pie; there are no shortcuts that work. Pie requires your full and undivided attention and careful consideration. Is it any wonder that I failed as many times as I succeeded, and have avoided this particular pastry project my entire life?
Last night I met a friend for dinner: She’s the only person I know who makes pie on the regular. We were laughing about my pie project and she pointed out that our grandmothers didn’t put the Crisco or bowls in the fridge: They would have thought that was crazy, probably. Pie-making is just a question of following directions, really—but it’s such a demanding set of them. There’s no room for multi-tasking when you’re making a pie. When you’re making a pie, you’re making a pie, and that’s about it.
It may be why people feel so personally about their own pie crust, like my friend (she likes her Crisco-and-butter combo, like the one I’m using these past two weeks). I recently went to a food industry event where the host made a pie crust in a food processor, with just flour, butter, sugar, egg, and salt. Other people called out their own pie crust additions: Sour cream. Vodka. Lemon juice. Vinegar. One of them, a regular pie baker, told me how she hears every holiday from people how difficult pies are to make. It’s because they only make them once a year: Of course your pumpkin pie is going to suck without at least a little practice.
So for my final pie, I tried to incorporate everything I had learned from the kind, kind chefs who had spent time with me over this month. I remembered Ashley Danello of El Che Bar’s thoughts on the proper pie-dough texture and Leigh Omilinsky from Nico Osteria’s advice that pie crust is pliable, which makes it easy to fix any mistakes. I tried to heed the words of the wise Bo Durham Mindy’s HotChocolate bakery, who told me to forget about my pie intimidation factor, as it would show up in my final product, and just think about the people I would be making the pie for. Since my family members were going to be my final tasters, I kept them in mind as I remade my disastrous version of Bo’s sublime chocolate custard pie from last week.
After a breakneck week that included highlights like my son’s basketball playoff and my daughter’s aerial dance class, as well a visiting houseguest, I took some time on my Sunday morning to make my pie dough. I had purchased my fancy new pastry cutter for about 12 dollars to avoid over-warming the dough (I decided to pass on the equally pricey pie weights, though, sticking with my original rice). After hearing many accolades, I decided to use vodka instead of water. I chilled everything, even the bowl. And I took my time and just tried to focus and have fun with the pie dough, until it was in a decent enough shape to chill. My pie-making friend and I agreed that that is the trickiest part about my making pie crust—not enough moisture, and it won’t stick together (like last week’s pie); too much, and it gets too gummy to roll out. You have to find that fleeting, in-the-middle sweet spot, and I thought I had come pretty close.
I drafted my daughter to help with the chocolate custard this time, and heeded the advice of chef Bo from last week on how avoid curdling the eggs by tempering: pouring the custard into the eggs, instead of the eggs into the custard. It worked! And I had splurged on some high-end baking chocolate, so the custard turned out amazing, if a bit rich.
When it came time to roll out my dough—yeah, I still think I put a little too much vodka in it, but it was much more pliable this time around, something I could actually work with. I even made pie-crust cookies with the leftovers. I poured the custard in and was pleased to see that it resembled not a train wreck (see last week), but an actual, lovely pie.
I let the custard pie chill overnight and the next morning I gave the two luckiest kids in the world the best breakfast ever: chocolate pie with pears. The crust was a little crumbly, but buttery and delicious, so that it almost resembled a type of shortbread—another baking challenge I’ve stumbled over once or twice. The kids thought the pie crust wasn’t as sweet as it could have been (and I slightly overbaked the pie cookies), but unsurprisingly, they were pretty pleased. Most importantly, after several weeks of pie insecurity, so was I.
I can’t really think of another food category that would cause me to reevaluate not just my cooking skills, but my entire life schedule in this manner: the importance of devoting an entire weekend day to making a chicken pot pie for dinner, for example, instead of more laundry and bills; to focus on what’s right in front of me while it’s right in front of me, and not the dozen other things demanding my attention at any given moment.
So on Sunday afternoon after setting the pie dough and the custard to chill, my daughter and I went to the movies. We ate our usual snack of M&Ms poured into a bag of popcorn, and had a snack of cheese curds after. We were then so full, we walked the long way home, on the first warm, sunny Sunday in months. The conversation mainly consisted of her relaying to me the various plots of the five books she’s concurrently reading. I had the nicest time and one of the best parts about it was—I didn’t feel busy at all.
Bo Durham’s pie crust
Yields two 10" pie crusts or one pie with a double crust
- 2 lb. 3.5oz all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 lb. butter, diced and frozen
- 6 oz. frozen shortening (white Crisco sticks)
- 2 eggs, scrambled
- Cold water as needed, start with 2 Tbsp. (I used vodka here)
1. Dice butter, and portion shortening. Freeze for a couple of hours or overnight.
2. Gather all dry ingredients and place in stand mixer with paddle attachment. Add frozen cubed butter and turn on mixer, starting to break up butter into smaller pieces.
3. After a couple of minutes start incorporating shortening into mixer adding little pieces at a time. Continue to mix, checking butter pieces every so often. Some big and small pieces are okay.
4. Beat eggs and add to dough. Then add water. Check hydration of dough and add more water if dough doesn’t hold its shape.
5. Bring dough together, divide into two and form into two packs, wrap in plastic and refrigerate overnight.
6. The next day, pull dough half hour before rolling on a floured surface and roll to desired thickness 1/4" or 1/2" are usually safe.
7. Form pie crust immediately after rolling. Line crust interior with plastic wrap and fill with baking beans. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 20-30 minutes. Remove beans and fork bottom of crust. Bake for an additional 5-10 minutes to cook pie crust all the way for a nice light golden color. Cool completely. Fill with desired curd, custard, filling.
Chocolate cream filling
- 1 pint heavy cream
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 5 egg yolks
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 8 oz. dark chocolate (around 64 percent cacao preferable)
1. In a medium sauce pan, place milk/cream/vanilla/salt/and half amount of sugar and bring to a gentle simmer.
2. In a medium bowl add yolks and other half of sugar. Whisk together.
3. Temper warm liquids with the yolks (pour custard into the eggs). Add back to pan and cook until thickened, enough to coat the back of the spoon.
4. In a clean bowl place all chocolate.
5. With a fine strainer pour custard over chocolate and whisk to bring together.
6. Pour chocolate custard into cooled and fully baked pie crust. Refrigerate over night until custard is completely set. Finish with fresh whipped cream and chocolate garnishes.