Saturday, November 29, 2008

It's all about the pie

Alan managed to get the appliances hooked up, the lights working, the plumbing...plumbed, and when I came home on Wednesday, he had cleared away the cardboard and drop cloths, vacuumed, cleaned the floors and hooked up an extension cord so I had outlets for the food processor, etc. With all visible signs of construction cleared away, the kitchen was breathtaking:

Unlike past years, I had done zero prep for my pie baking, because I wasn't sure it would happen. I got up early Thanksgiving morning and started  prepping:

The past few years, I have cut down on the number of pies I bake (I used to bake "extras" in case anyone wanted to take some home), so I was planning on four pies: apple, cherry, pecan and pumpkin. I'm not a fan of pumpkin pie, though I love pumpkin in other things, but I have grown to accept that others equate pumpkin pie with Thanksgiving to such an extent they may walk out if one isn't on the dessert table. 

I discovered that even though I had a special box labeled "PIES," it didn't hold nearly everything I needed for the pie process. So I made repeated visits to the pile of boxes in the living room to look for sauce pans, saute pans, my favorite rolling pin, etc. It was kinda like a treasure hunt, but one where the prize was something you already owned.

Now, I used to drag out a large piece of marble I bought for $40 twenty years ago at Williams-Sonoma (they now sell for $129!) With the granite countertops, this is no longer necessary. I rolled out the pie crusts (I'm partial to all butter, better flavor and not hard to work with) really quickly and with no sticking or tearing (thanks to Deb at Smitten Kitchen for her Pie Crust 103 post!) I use a technique from the cookbook "Baking with Jim Dodge." It calls for freezing the flour for 15 minutes, then adding the butter in large chunks and freezing for another 15 minutes. Then you roll the butter and flour together, creating long, wide layers of butter in the flour that create steam in the oven. It's that steam that makes the pie crust flaky. 

After the crusts were rolled out, I turned to the fillings, starting with the apple pie. I use a technique the New York Times ran a couple of years ago, namely, sautéing and caramelizing the apples with butter and sugar before they go in the pie crust. It does away with the domed crust with the cooked down apples, and the resulting need for thickeners to absorb the excess juice. I was going to link to the recipe but it isn't working. Sorry! After that one was in the oven, I quickly made the pecan pie (I replace the dark corn syrup with maple syrup, an idea from the same NYT article) and put it in the oven. The apple came out of the oven. That first pie coming out of the oven makes me so happy. Pies really don't take a super baker and they taste so much better than store bought.

The pecan smells amazing in the oven, which just makes me happier. After that one, I worked on the pumpkin and cherry at the same time.  Both are Cook's Illustrated recipes (the pumpkin can be found on their website and it and the cherry are in the New Best Recipe cookbook). The pumpkin calls for a little planning since you pour the filling into the hot (blind baked) pie crust. My pie crust shrank like crazy (I wonder if I shouldn't be baking this one in my favorite Pyrex pie plates??) The filling kinda ran over under the crust and burned on the bottom. Not a yummy smell (but fortunately it didn't set off the smoke detectors).

I wanted to give the cherry pie a lattice crust (not very practical when the day has practically evaporated and you're due, with pies, at your friend's house in 90 minutes). But I figured I could miss the appetizers and would be forgiven as long as I brought pie. So I made the lattice crust, tucked the cherry filling in the pie plate and sealed it up. It baked in about 55 minutes, but was VERY runny when I pulled it out of the oven. I took a couple of rushed photos before the trip to my friend Susan's house.

Susan LOVES LOVES LOVES Thanksgiving. She'll be the first to admit cooking is not her number one hobby, but for years she has cooked Thanksgiving dinner for all her friends and as many family members as she can convince to come to California. She had 16 for Thanksgiving this year, and her home is smallish. She plans carefully to accommodate the crowd, and she cooks this huge dinner in a microscopic kitchen. She allows others to bring side dishes, but she does the turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, and she does a great job. My thing, in case you dozed off during my rambling account, is the pies, and I love not having to take my focus off of them to make an actual meal. I love that people try different ones, some have their favorites, and we have leftovers for a snack the next day. M loves pie, too, and every year he tells me this year's pies were the best ever, no really. So sweet.

The star of the pie evening was cherry, and the filling had firmed up and wasn't runny. It was a struggle to save a slice for the next day's snack. M doesn't like pumpkin pie either, so we snarfed down pecan, apple and cherry for dinner last night. Maybe my diet starts again on Monday...

If you've never made a pie, it's a skill worth learning. Find a recipe that speaks to you. That's how I felt about the Jim Dodge method. It made sense to me, and it's near impossible to overwork it (like I always did in the food processor or Kitchen Aid). And then buy a lot of unsalted butter, and start experimenting. Do it till you get it right. Practice rolling it out (you can do it on a wooden cutting board, or even a glass table). When you have a crust you feel good about, bake a flavor of pie you really like (if blueberry is your thing, do it!) You'll be more likely to do the trial and error if it's something you want to eat. Then get ready to wow your coworkers (or whoever you choose to share with), because a home made pie is like nothing you've ever tried.

On Friday, the kitchen reverted to being a construction zone. They repaired the area where there was no hardwood, and put the first layer of varnish on it. I can still use the oven and cooktop until Monday; after that, the whole kitchen will again be off limits. They'll be putting layers of varnish on the whole floor and it takes time to dry. I'm OK with it. I got to test drive it and loved how it worked and how it felt. I can be patient until it's done. My worst fears were unfounded: it bakes well and the layout works, so I can wait for it to be ready for its close up.


Debbie said...

I would kill for your granite countertops. I know you will love your kitchen when it's done. It looks great already!

Ninny said...

What a gorgeous kitchen! Your pies look amazing too.

Jacque said...

Oh my! All of my favorite pies! They look fantstic and I envy your ability to make four pies in one session.

Congrats on the new kitchen, it's beautiful!