Monday, March 02, 2009

Spreading the gospel of pie...

I'm tuckered and paying the price today, but I sure enjoyed myself yesterday teaching another class for Continuing Education called "Homemade Pies from Scratch: Yes, You Can! (I wrote the workshop description right after Obama won! Tee hee.) It was a small group of just four nice ladies from the community, but we had a grand old time! Not that the day was without its frustrations. I guess I had repressed how long it took me to pack up the entire contents of my kitchen at home for transport when I did my canning classes last fall, so I was late getting to school. I had to go to the main building first to copy my handouts and snitch the postal cart to help me unload. And it was SO COLD! It had nearly hit 40 degrees on Friday, but the wind was frigid and nasty yesterday. I finally got everything hauled inside, and of course, the door to the kitchen was locked, so I had to call security and wait for them to come, losing even more time. They had clearly had some sort of big event in the science building atrium, and it was still a bit of a wreck. And the kitchen...SHEESH! Before I could even get set up, I had to rearrange and tidy the whole place! Naturally, as I'm doing all of this, the students arrived....EARLY! I actually had to ask them to wait in the atrium until there was enough room for them to come into the kitchen. But they were very nice and accommodating, and we managed to get started on time, even though I was a little frazzled.

My big plan for the workshop was to make three pies: one single crust, one double crust, and one pre-/blind baked custard pie. For the single crust, I chose my very favorite, the pecan pie that I almost burned the house down making for Thanksgiving. For the double crust, I decided on cherry (recipe follows). I considered apple--it is the North Country after all--but I knew we wouldn't have time for the peeling and coring and slicing and all that jazz and still be able to do two other pies. Plus, I still had lovely pie cherries from the Hudson Valley in the freezer. And for the custard pie, I had to do my famous chocolate cream pie. Or at least, that was the plan...

Things started off well enough. I had a system of swap-outs that would have made any Food Network show proud. My plan was to make one of each pie in advance for the students to sample at the end of class and to make the three pies again as a group in class. Then we'd also make a couple of crusts by hand in class for them to get the feel for how to cut the fat in and how much water to add. And I'd also make a couple of crusts ahead of time for them to practice rolling out in class. So I made ten crusts in all on Thursday night to make the three pies on Friday night, and also to roll out and fit the crusts in the pans and chill for the pies that we'd make in class. Of course, wasn't it just my luck that I'd purchased a different kind of flour that I hadn't used before (and never will again--Robin Hood brand) which turned out to be a PAIN! It was almost like working with whole wheat flour; I couldn't get it hydrated enough, and even with extra water, it still cracked and crumbled. So the resulting crusts were more crisp than tender and flaky, but oh well. One thing I've learned over the years is that there's rarely a pie that's perfectly made without incident, but even imperfect homemade pie beats pre-fab pie hands down!

The next challenge was the oven. I used a professional convection oven (you know, that kind that looks like a glass-fronted cabinet of sorts), and that thing was a veritable FLAME-THROWER! It cooked things in about two-thirds the time, I'd say. I learned this the hard way after scorching the first blind-baked crust a bit. Of course, as I normally do, I used a pie shield and foil to try and prevent the over-browning. But the pie shields that I used were flimsy as heavy-duty foil, and the convection fan kept blowing them up and off, so they were basically useless. I got the hang of the oven eventually by turning the temperature down by 25 degrees, decreasing the bake times, and keeping an eagle eye on things as they baked, all while I was trying to talk to the class, roll out pie crusts, and remember everything that I needed to do. Whew!

But the biggest nightmare was when I discovered, mid-way through the class, mind you, that THE STOVE DIDN'T WORK! How was I to brown my butter and toast my pecans? I had to do it in the oven, of course. And we just made the cherry pie without pre-cooking the filling as I normally do. But there was no way to prepare the chocolate custard for the chocolate cream pie. I was so mad at myself for not making it ahead of time as I was thinking about doing the night before. But I figured that people who have only made pudding from a box might find the process of making homemade custard new and somewhat tricky, so I wanted to demonstrate it in class. As it turned out, I could only talk them through how to do it. (Boo hiss.) I guess it was all for the best anyway, as I charred the crust for that pie, and the class ran a little long as it was. Still, it was very vexing and more than a little embarrassing.

Nevertheless, we had a merry time. We made two crusts by hand so they could know what they should look and feel like. And one brave lady was even willing to practice rolling in front of God and everyone! I also demonstrated how to make a lattice crust (thanks to some helpful tips from my husband, Alton Brown). We ended the class by sampling all three pies, and it was SO wonderful to watch them genuinely ooh and ahh. Amazingly, three out of the four had never had pecan pie before (can you imagine?). And they really LOVED the cherry pie! But the most rewarding moment for me came when, after they had been making some noise about the ease of pudding from a box and pre-fab graham cracker crusts, they tasted their first forkful of my chocolate cream pie. You should have seen their faces--like kids on Christmas morning! All I could do was laugh and say, "See?" If you can't convince people of the glory of homemade pie just by talking to them, let them taste one, and they'll be instantly converted! And of course, I sent them all home with the leftovers so that they could share the gospel of homemade pie with their loved ones--my disciples, if you will. ;-)

After the ladies left, I spent some quality time doing the dishes and getting the kitchen back in order while the last pie finished baking. By the time I had everything loaded up and hauled back out to the car, it was going on 6pm! I had been up since 6am (my idea of hell), and all I wanted to do was go home and fall face down on the couch. My back was killing me and my dogs were barking! But I couldn't take all that pie home with me. So I drove straight over to my dear friends' house, the Padulas, and gave them a choice of pecan or cherry (Janice chose cherry, but she got outvoted by daughter, Domenica, and husband, Dom!). And then I headed a couple of blocks over to Lee Ann's (my officemate), and left the cherry pie for her to share with her hubby, two daughters, and her precious mom (who is also quite the baker herself, and took one look at my pretty pie and called me a show-off--ha!). I must say, despite my fatigue, it was fun driving around town, delivering pies that were still warm from the oven. I felt like a cross between Santa Claus and Martha! ;-)

By the time I got home, unloaded the car and put everything away, pottied and fed the dogs, pottied and fed myself, you would think that making another pie would be the LAST thing that I'd want to do. But I still had that one, albeit overly-crispy, pre-baked pie shell that never became a chocolate cream pie. I did bring home a couple of pieces of the chocolate pie that I had made the night before, so instead of making another one of those, I decided to go a different route. Something told me that what I needed to make was a BUTTERSCOTCH pie! I had made homemade butterscotch pudding before, but never a butterscotch pie. I used a recipe from Country Living's website. It turned out quite good, if a bit on the sweet side, particularly when garnished with some whipped cream and chopped Skor or Heath Bars. For my next slice, I may try a sprinkle of chopped, buttered pecans to cut the sweetness a bit and to add a slightly salty balance.

Butterscotch Pie
(Source: Adapted from
Country Living)

1/2 cups butter
1 1/4 cups brown sugar (preferably, dark--and I will try cutting this to one cup next time)
1/4 cup cornstarch
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
4 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 baked pie shell

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until it begins to brown. Stir in the brown sugar. Add 1 1/2 cups hot water and whisk until the mixture comes to a boil. Continue to cook for 2 more minutes, remove from heat, and set aside. Combine the cornstarch, flour, and salt in a small bowl. Whisk in heavy cream and milk until smooth and pour into the butter mixture. Whisk continuously, over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens — about three minutes. Remove from heat.

Lightly beat the egg yolks together in a medium bowl. Stream in a half cup of the hot mixture while whisking the egg yolks. Whisk the egg mixture with the milk mixture in the saucepan over medium heat for one minute. Remove from heat, strain through a fine sieve, and stir in the vanilla. Pour into the baked pie shell, and chill until set.

Top this pie with whipped cream and a sprinkle of toasted nuts or grated chocolate (or toffee bits!).

Classic Cherry Pie

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups sugar (to taste)
2 tablespoons corn starch
2 tablespoons tapioca flour
pinch of salt
4 cups pie cherries, drained (reserve juice)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
few drops red food coloring, optional
1 tablespoon butter

pastry for two-crust 9-inch pie

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In a saucepan, whisk together the sugar, corn starch, tapioca flour, and salt. Whisk in about 1 1/2 cups cherry juice into the combined dry ingredients. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until thickened. Remove from heat. Gently stir in cherries, vanilla and almond extracts, and food coloring, if using. Let filling cool for 10-15 minutes. Pour filling into pastry lined pie pan. Dot with butter. Adjust crust, seal and vent. Place the pie on a Silpat or parchment-lined sheet pan on the lowest rack of the oven, and bake 15 minutes at 425 degrees. Then cover the edges with a pie shield or foil, turn the oven down to 375 degrees, and bake for another 50-60 minutes or until crust browns and filling begins to bubble thickly. Cool pie at least two hours to allow filling to re-thicken before slicing.


Anonymous said...

To quote one of my fave 80's movies and sum up how I feel about you & your pies:

"Ferris Bueller, you're my hero"

Joanna Taylor said...

Hurrah for pie! And you're doing good work, spreading the gospel-- let's hope you've won some true converts and that there'll be no recidivism.

Anonymous said...

Not to make everyone else jealous or to take away anything from Santa but trust me when I say making this list was was especially nice...the best pecan pie EVER (as is her way)...and the Padula's sure know pie!

Randi said...

Isnt Robin hood flour Canadian? I freaking HATE canadian flour. Everytime I try to bake something with it, its a huge flop. I'm now off to read the rest of the post, just wanted to comment first on the flour.