Fear of Pie-ing

The circle is often used as a symbol of perfection. The delicious combination of sweet or savoury filling and flaky pastry at its best when round is known as “pie.” The magic number that tells us everything we need to know about a circle is called “pi.” Coincidence? I think not.

Perhaps this relationship between pies and perfection is why making a pie is a mind-numbingly terrifying prospect for many. If one cannot attain that flawless texture, that inimitable form (and one can’t, if it is truly inimitable), is there a point in trying? Will the resulting dish always pale in comparison to the perfectly formed creation in our collective imagination?

The mind is wont to fill with textural defects – too soggy, too crumbly, too dull, too anything that prevents the confection from reaching, well, perfection. In the interest of science I did try making a pie in a square baking dish once, and I confess I found it lacking.

It was only recently that I moved from pastry-phobia to pastry-philia, or at least to an ambivalent place where it really isn’t a big deal at all to throw together some butter and flour. I’m not sure exactly why this simple procedure – achieving the consistency of breadcrumbs etc. – has inspired such terror, but I am glad to be rid of it.

I am by no means a master of the technique, but it is nice to feel like I don’t have to be an expert to muck about in my own kitchen. I think it began for me as a kid, probably my first pie, which I don’t recall at all – it may have been flaky, or it might have been crumbly or soggy, but I remember being praised along with that harpoon to the creative spirit, “Oh that is so difficult!”

It is? I wondered, and was gripped by paralysing fear that prevented all forays beyond press-in crusts for years afterwards.

Last summer a friend working with us nonchalantly declared it was a pie day, and proceeded to whip up a very satisfactory dough in no time flat, without making any fuss about it.

I watched surreptitiously, and over the following weeks built up my courage, determined to conquer if not the crust then at least the mental block.

I made pie after pie – sweet, savoury, with butter and with lard rendered from homegrown animals, and with a wide variety of flours.

I was a little stunned to discover that even if they weren’t all amazingly flaky, they were unequivocally satisfactory. None were what you could call a disaster.

As I was coming to terms with this new pie-friendly reality, I read a great tip in a new cookbook that is all about the simple side of French cooking – the cooking that happens at home. The author, who is obviously very skilled at haute cuisine says she rolls her pie – or galette – crust out at room temperature, because it is just way easier than chilling it.

This in contrast to the received wisdom from every other cookbook I own that invariably leads to frustrated pounding on the counter with a rolling pin while a cold lump of dough glowers back at me sullenly, remaining decidedly unmalleable.

Who knew life could encompass this much ease? I have by no means mastered pie-making, in fact I’m not even sure I would call it something I’m particularly good at – but that doesn’t stop me from having fun and being creative. The worst that happens is that something ends up in the compost, and the more likely outcome is more pie in the world. Really, what could be wrong with that?

The Pie I Came Up With Yesterday

Somehow I have been accumulating egg-whites in the freezer – obviously making too much custard. So I thought in the absence of lemons, why not a berry meringue pie? Turned out to be a heckuva good idea. I hope you concur.

The Crust:

For the crust I used a single recipe of galette dough: 1½ cups of flour to ½ cup of butter to ¼ cup of water, with 2 tablespoons of sugar and a little salt. I rolled it when it was warm, and blind-baked it for 15 minutes at 350ºF. It wasn’t super flaky, but it was quite tasty, moist without being soggy, and it held together.

The Filling:

I heated up 3 cups of frozen Saskatoon berries and 1 cup of frozen blackcurrants with ½ cup of sugar and five small apples, coarsely chopped – I used our Autumn Delights – which are quite small, so adjust the number if using a larger variety and pick something that holds up well to cooking. Once the mixture was simmering I added 3 tablespoons of instant tapioca to thicken the juices, then let it cool slightly.

The Topping:

I made a soft meringue by whipping three or four egg whites (a 250 mL mason jar full from the freezer) with a pinch of salt until foamy, then dribbling in ½ cup of sugar while continuing to beat. When they formed soft peaks I assembled the pie, spreading the meringue over the filling and popping it into a 300ºF oven.

It baked for an hour until the top was golden brown – a little less time and there would have been delightfully contrasting colours but hey, who said it was going to be perfect?

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