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Pie Expert Chats About Great Pies and Traditions

Pie Expert Chats About Great Pies and Traditions


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While many of us find solace in the form of a pint of ice cream, Beth M. Howard, pie baker extraordinaire, finds hers in a perfect slice of the flaky, fruit-filled heaven.

After reading her moving book, Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Pie, about finding comfort in baking pies after a terrible loss, we thought to chat with Howard on the art of a good pie. Basically, her thoughts narrow down to this: stick to what you know.

When it comes to Thanksgiving, Howard believes it’s all about tradition and we have to agree. "Pilgrims made pie, they didn’t have a Cuisinart," says Howard. "Make your grandmother’s recipe; we don’t need the new, especially since pie is about traditions, as is Thanksgiving."

Here are Howard's tips of the trade:
• "When it comes to pumpkin pie, no can tell the difference between canned or fresh."

• Roll out your dough beforehand and freeze it so you’re one step ahead.

• When it comes to the holidays — especially Thanksgiving — keep your pies simple. "It’s a classic meal, so keep the recipe classic."

• "Apple pie is great for Thanksgiving for two reasons: It’s great for leftovers and it will make your house smell fantastic."

And when Howard's not making her own amazing pies, here are a few of the pies she is eating:
The Apple Pan (Los Angeles): "At this old-time burger joint, there is a Banana Crème Pie that’s all about the banana," Howard said.
Bipartisan Café (Portland, Ore.): "The Merry Berry Pie is the classic grandma pie — flaky and rich and comes highly recommended."
Pie Face (New York City) "When you walk in, there are all of these little pies that are smiling back at you. Their sweet and savory packs are a perfect gift."

According to Howard, the world needs more pies — which is exactly what she named her website. We couldn’t agree more. Head here for her blog and stay tuned for a recipe!


Pie Expert Chats About Great Pies and Traditions - Recipes

Think very deep pie filling encased in a pretty brioche bun. Uniquely positioned between an artisan pie and a gourmet sandwich - branded ‘pie’wich’

My piroshki - which means small pie - is a lightly-sweet, soft baked yeast dough wrapped around an exquisitely seasoned savoury pie filling. Hand-decorated and beautifully baked. Equally enjoyable cold or hot and can be eaten in the hand or as part of a main course meal.

Our tag line is "Gourmet convenience food for busy people.".

Our Piewiches have earned the status of “Gourmet” by winning dozens of major National food awards.

These include 8 Great Taste Awards including the hard-to-win 3 star level. Over 25 British Pie awards including Class Champion twice. Plus voted Best Christmas Pie by the British Baker trade magazine, Best Chilled Product at a National Trade Show, plus many other awards of a similar stature.


This 'Pie Consultant' Has the Best Job Ever

And for Stacy Donnelly, those decisions really had nothing to do with baking, which was a hobby she shared with her mother since childhood. Instead, Donnelly became a professional dancer at around age 16 and danced for various companies in New York until she turned 40, when an injury from a bad fall never quite recovered. By then, she’d been baking as favors to friends and had a business, Cute as Cake , selling pies and cakes for clients big and small. And desserts big and small, for that matter, from Cinderella’s castle cakes to Pinterest-perfect cake pops.

When you walk into the lobby of the Nederlander theater to see the musical Waitress , the smell of baking apple pie hits you in a subtle, subliminal way. You can’t see where it’s coming from, but the forces at work are telling you: PIE, I NEED PIE.

The mini pies available in the lobby at Waitress. Photo: Leah Gerstenlauer

Those forces are Donnelly’s small army of eight bakers who provide the show with 32 real pies onstage a week, and up to 1,400 mason jar pies a week, which are sold by apron-wearing ushers who pace the aisles. The pie team bakes from a pink-walled studio in Hell’s Kitchen outfitted with a handful of convection ovens that can push out four full-size pies, or 50 minis, at a time. Whoever shares the floor in their high-rise building has the privilege of getting a whiff of baking crust in the hallway every day—there are worse smells to have to adapt to in New York.

If you saw the 2007 movie with Keri Russell, you may remember the plot of Waitress as being something like: Lady works in diner, gets unintentionally pregnant, hates husband, bakes a lot of pies.” And that’s the crucial info here. Lots. of. Pies.

If that was real flour, all of the sctrw Photo: Joan Marcus

Jessie Mueller, who earned a Tony nomination this week for her performance as Jenna, goes through the motions of baking onstage, tossing eggs, flour, sugar, and butter into a mixing bowl to the carefully choreographed movements designed by Lorin Latarro. and score by none other than Sara Bareilles . You might dance and sing while you bake, but not like this, where hands appear next to your station with perfectly portioned Pyrexes of chocolate sauce. There’s a lot of theater magic at play, Latarro told us. The egg Jenna cracks with one expert hand is actually a sliced peach with corn syrup inside a plastic Easter egg (raw egg onstage=not sanitary) the melted chocolate is mixed with oil to pour smoothly and sensually whipped cream pies are instead topped with buttercream so they won’t melt under stage lights and the flour they blow onto the crowd to end the recipe dream sequences is inositol, a powdered form of vitamin D that movie prop managers use to fake cocaine.

But everything else is very real, though a few extra egg washes and coatings of sugar make them sparkle like the Broadway stars they are. There are pies-as-decor stacked high in cases on the sides of the stage and slices eaten by the ensemble (one, bacon-blueberry, is surprisingly salty-sweet amazing)—with one sugar-free pie for an older cast member, and yes, a few fake pies here and there, though good luck pointing out which is which.

By now you’re wondering a few things: How long do these things last on stage before they start smelling? And do they throw them all away? The pies hold up onstage for three to four days before the lucky crew gets to take them home to eat, so very few are thrown out.

And back to the lobby, where the apple pie scent wafts through the crowd for hours. You can’t see it, but there’s an actual oven in the corner, enclosed in an oven-safe cabinet, baking a super-concentrated pie filled with a major overdose of cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s set at a low temperature while the pie over-bakes, becoming a shrived raisin of its past self.

It tempts the audience in the best way possible, and Donnelly has overheard them debating whether or not to give in: "These two women were like, ‘Oh. I really want the pie.’” So Donnelly intervened: “I was, like, ‘Just have the pie. Don't worry about it. You're here. You want it. You had a great experience, you'll be really happy.’ We have a feeling she was right.


Pie Academy

Maybe you learned how to frost a cake perfectly or even weave your first lattice from Erin Jeane McDowell in her first book The Fearless Baker or in one of her great recipes on the New York Times or Food52. In The Book on Pie, you’re invited to continue your baking education, but narrow in on pie. Go deep with puff pastries, master meringues, or learn the wonder of frybread crusts.


Mini Pies Where Popular Hundred of Years Before Now Even though these pies are sometimes called “Mincemeat”, there’s no meat in it. These cute little Mince Pies, also known as Mincemeat, are made with a flaky buttery pie pastry and a really good mincemeat (homemade or store-bought) supplemented with fresh fruit for the filling. Mince [&hellip] Read More

Vinegar Pie will surprise you! When I discovered this pie, I couldn’t wait to give it a try. What is the pie called, ‘Vinegar Pie’. Yep. You heard right. Vinegar. This pie is another of the “Desperation Pie Era”, basically around the 1930’s. I researched dozens of recipes. You can categorize the recipes for Vinegar [&hellip] Read More


3 Ingredient Key Lime Pie Filling

Yes, my key lime pie filling is only 3 ingredients. (!!) If you’ve tried my key lime pie bars or mini key lime pies, you’ll notice that today’s filling is a little different. I typically add a little cream cheese to the filling to ensure stability and structure, but decided to skip it today. We’re keeping it traditional with this classic key lime pie, which means we’re using egg yolks, sweetened condensed milk, and key lime juice.

  • My tip: Do yourself a favor and buy a bottle of key lime juice from the store. There’s a brand of bottled key lime juice that I love called Nellie & Joe’s in most major grocery stores next to the bottled lemon juice. Just make sure you’re using key lime juice, not regular lime juice. Otherwise you will spend 100 years juicing 500 tiny key limes yourself. You need an entire cup of key lime juice and yes, it will take you 100 years to squeeze them all!


Why Southerners Celebrate Desperation Pies

American desserts are characterized by their ruggedness and practicality. Fruit pies and stack cakes were baked to make the most out of what the vast landscape offered, without the complicated steps and multitude of ingredients typical in many prominent European pastries. A basic butter and lard crust filled with warm sweetened fruit and cakes baked out of cast irons and topped with simple sugar syrups and frostings typify the early-American approach to dessert that has shaped so many of the traditions we hold today.

But before widespread refrigeration and the mass transportation of produce from around the world, what did bakers make for dessert when nothing was growing and the pantry was limited: desperation pies. These baked marvels are simply the product of creative bakers who would not allow a shortage of ingredients to prevent them from making something sweet and delicious. Desperation pies are made from simple ingredients that are almost always on hand. Chess pies are a type of desperation pie that only contain flour, butter, sugar, and eggs at their most basic. Vinegar pies are the desperation pie version of lemon meringue pie, using vinegar (which was available all year) instead of the juice of lemons for acidity and tang, allowing the baker to offset the sweetness of the rest of the custardy pie filling.

WATCH: How to Make a Classic Buttermilk Pie

Even though vinegar pies and four-ingredient chess pies might sound like an unnecessary dessert choice due to the produce now available year round, pastry chefs across the South are harkening back to old recipes and finding that these desserts born out of scarcity are also works of genius. Delicately balancing rich sweetness and the savory tang of simple ingredients, buttermilk pies and cornmeal chess pies can now be found both at the diner in your grandmother&aposs hometown and as plated desserts at some of the best restaurants in the South.


How to Bake a Classic Custard Pie

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Classic old-fashioned custard pie is a delicious staple of every grandma’s and diner’s pie repertoire. You may be surprised to find out that it’s really not that hard to make, either! The crust is probably the trickiest part to get perfect, but you can always cheat and use a store-bought pie crust to save time and effort if you prefer. Make this rich, tender, creamy custard pie for a special occasion or whenever you’re in need of some homey, comforting pie.


Pie Debates: The Experts Weigh In

There are many types of pie pans out there — glass, metal, ceramic — and even more ideas about which is best.

There are theories. There are facts. But perhaps most important, there are personal preferences. And for Nick Malgieri, a cookbook author and the director of baking programs at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, the answer is oven-safe glass.

“People have a misconception that because glass is a poor conductor of heat it doesn’t make a good pie pan,” he said. “But in my many decades of baking, I’ve found that not to be the case.”

Although metal pans conduct heat better, glass more than makes up for that because it is clear, so radiant energy can pass through the pan and help the crust bake. Metal and ceramic pans impede this.

That means that although glass takes slightly longer to reach the same temperature as the oven, it cooks crusts faster and darker. This is why many cookbooks suggest lowering the oven temperature by 25 degrees when using glass, so the filling can catch up.

The downside with glass, Mr. Malgieri conceded, is that it’s more slippery than metal, making it easier for crusts to shrink and slouch, even when secured with pie weights.

His solution: Add a touch of baking powder to the dough. It helps the crust expand into the pie plate, he said, which is good no matter what your pie pan is made of.

Mr. Malgieri’s priority is control.

“I like glass because I hate guesswork,” he said. “I like to see I’m getting the color I want.” But, he quickly added, you can make a great crust in any pan “as long as you start with a good dough.”

So how to choose a pan? If you want more control and don’t mind a little shrinking (or if you are comfortable experimenting with baking powder), go with glass. If you would rather give up control of the color for a neater shape without altering your dough recipe, choose metal. Ceramic pans make the prettiest presentation, though they are the slowest to bake.

Maybe the better question is: what is your pie priority? — MELISSA CLARK

The Pre-Baking Dilemma

Should you, or should you not, bake a pie crust before you slip the filling into it?

The question stirs up such a quandary that Dorie Greenspan, a prominent cookbook author and one of the owners of a newly hatched New York cookie company called Beurre and Sel, can’t quite figure out how to answer it. “This is a big issue,” she said. “It’s huge. This is really a problem issue.”

Purely from the standpoint of flavor and color and texture, the simple answer is yes: pre-baking a crust crisps it up and helps prevent it from going soggy when it comes in contact with the filling, Ms. Greenspan said

You make the dough, line a pie pan with it, freeze the crust for a while, cover the frozen crust with parchment or some other barrier, then pile a temporary filling (like rice and beans) on top of that protective sheath to keep the crust from puffing up. You bake the crust for 20 to 25 minutes with that paperweight-like filling, then another 5 minutes or so without it, which tans it nicely. When that round is done, you give the surface a brisk brushing of egg white. You let the crust cool.

What to Cook This Week

Sam Sifton has menu suggestions for the coming days. There are thousands of ideas for what to cook waiting for you on New York Times Cooking.

    • One of the best things about Melissa Clark’s chile-roasted chicken with honey, lemon and feta is the sweet-and-sour drippings in the pan.
    • Yewande Komolafe’s glazed tofu with chile and star anise is a take on the technique behind Sichuan hui guo rou, or twice-cooked pork.
    • Mark Bittman’s shrimp burgers are perfect with mayonnaise, mixed with Texas Pete hot sauce and plenty of lime juice.
    • This spring-vegetable japchae from Kay Chun is made with the Korean sweet-potato noodles known as glass noodles.
    • Millie Peartree’s brown stew chicken is built on a base of store-bought browning sauce, a caramel-hued burnt sugar concoction.

    Then you’re ready to pour in the filling (which, in the summer of Ms. Greenspan’s dreams, would be blueberries). You add a top crust before a follow-up stretch in the oven. “It works,” she said.

    But here’s the catch: In spite of all that, Ms. Greenspan usually does not bake her crust in advance. To affix that top crust, you have to use a sleight-of-hand, moistening the rim of the pre-baked bottom crust and getting the raw dough of the top crust to stick to it. “Somehow it feels like a trick and un-American,” she said. “It’s not the way American pies are supposed to be made. I prefer it pre-baked, but I don’t do it.”

    Maybe, she suggested, a touch of sogginess is not the end of the world. What she’ll sometimes do, before filling the bottom crust, is to sprinkle an absorbent layer of challah pieces or cake crumbs along its top, to sop up (theoretically) some of the liquid. Does that help?

    “It makes me feel better about it,” she said. — JEFF GORDINIER

    The Right Thickener

    You want to cut nice, neat wedges of that summer pie. The pieces of fruit must nestle cozily and close, thickly bound, and not run off into a soupy puddle. Do you reach for flour to bolster the filling? Cornstarch? Arrowroot? Tapioca? Nothing?

    Ron Silver, an owner of the TriBeCa restaurant Bubby’s who co-wrote “Bubby’s Homemade Pies” and has held a pie social with home bakers for the last 10 years, said his thinking on thickeners has evolved.

    He started using just flour years ago when he tried to enter the Pillsbury Bake-Off. (He was disqualified from the competition for amateurs because he did his baking at Florent, where he was the breakfast cook.) But now he prefers something along the lines of a butter and flour roux.

    “I toss the fruit with flour and then add melted butter,” he said. “It’s classic and the most flavorful.”

    With peaches or apricots he might even use brown butter. And with just one exception, he does not like cornstarch as much, even though it acts quickly and turns translucent. In his book, he warns that cornstarch does not thicken well with very acidic fruits. He also finds that the thickening effect of arrowroot does not last as long as that of flour, and the filling can become runny.

    “When you have very juicy fruit like raspberries or cherries, instant tapioca is also good,” he said. Tapioca turns clear and glossy, does not impart a starchy flavor and adds interesting little gelatinous beads to the texture.

    But for a fresh blueberry pie, Mr. Silver’s favorite, his choice is cornstarch. He cooks half the berries to make a thick sauce with sugar, lemon juice and the starch, which has first been dissolved in cold water. He then folds this mixture into the rest of the raw blueberries to fill a cooked pie shell. He does not bake the pie further, but lets it set for about two hours before serving.

    You might get away with no thickener (just sugar and melted butter) especially with denser fruits like figs, stone fruit, apples and pears. But thickened or not, Mr. Silver says it’s important to wait two to three hours before cutting into the pie, allowing the filling time to settle so the juices released by the oven’s heat are reabsorbed. — FLORENCE FABRICANT

    Choosing the Fat for a Crust

    As American as apple pie, the saying goes. But according to the food scientist Harold McGee, our national identity resides specifically in the crust.

    “As a country,” he said, “we value a macroscopic discontinuousness in our pie crust.”

    To translate: A pie crust that shatters into large crumbs and shards when you press your fork through it is good. A crust that crumbles into sand or needs to be sawed through is bad.

    Fortunately, that patriotic, macroscopic discontinuousness can be achieved with flour, water and almost any cool, semisolid fat such as butter, lard, suet or vegetable shortening.

    When Mr. McGee wrote his magisterial study “On Food and Cooking” in 1984, he came down in favor of vegetable shortening, because its consistent proportions of fat, water and air make it easier to produce flaky crusts. But since then he has modified that position, leaning toward the savor that butter and lard add. (Also, the hydrogenation process used to make vegetable shortening was later found to produce trans fats, which are unhealthy when consumed in large quantities.)

    For a truly ideal pie crust, Mr. McGee said, you would need a fat with the flavor of butter, the water content of lard and the temperature flexibility of vegetable shortening. When temperature is an issue, shortening is the clear winner. While a crust is being mixed and rolled, the butter needs to stay between 58 and 68 degrees to achieve the right texture: shortening works at anywhere from 53 to 85 degrees.

    “The Fourth of July brings a hot kitchen and hot hands,” Mr. McGee said. He said that not only the fat but also the flour should be chilled until the last possible moment.

    Lacking that fantasy fat, Mr. McGee said the proper choice is a matter of technical skill and personal preference. Sometimes the flavor of butter can be too aggressive: just as many chocolate cakes and banana breads are made with neutral oil to let the flavor of the main ingredient shine through, a plain crust made with vegetable shortening can be desirable.

    Marion Cunningham, the author of “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” and an iconic American cook if ever there was one, never used anything else. — JULIA MOSKIN


    New England’s claim to pie

    Southern cooks may have elaborated on, and perfected, the American pie recipe, but America’s early colonists — the English Puritans who made their way to a supposedly new world in search of religious freedom — are responsible for bringing pie to America’s shores in the first place.

    “When I talk about pies, I often ask what people, usually New Englanders, what they think is the most New England pie,” says Robert Cox, author of New England Pie: History Under a Crust, and head of special collections at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Ninety-nine percent of the time the response is apple and pumpkin. Though these are national pies by this point, all of those have deep New England roots.”

    Cox says pies have been a part of the American dinner table since the British established their first colonies in New England. So central were pies to their diet that when Emilia Simmons published American Cookery, the first cookbook written by an American in 1796 in Connecticut, she included an entire section of different types of pie crust. New Englanders were especially fond of savory pies squash pies and mince pies made with meat and fruit were part of the original colonial cuisine. The chicken pie was one especially crucial dish to the early settlers.

    “The chicken pie was really dearly loved and was indispensable in the winter time,” says Cox. “You could keep your chickens alive through January and February, when most meals consisted of dried and preserved things. So a chicken pie is a harbinger of spring, a moment of hope and looking forward.”

    Like the chicken pie, Cox says that pies were once New England’s most “utilitarian” food, appearing at breakfast, lunch, dinner, as a side, a dessert, or even the centerpiece of the meal. That’s not unlike how pie once functioned in South. And just like in the South, there are pie traditions that exist nowhere else. For instance, in Pennsylvania, shoofly pie is often eaten for breakfast, and it’s not uncommon to eat a piece of cheddar cheese alongside a slice of apple pie.

    These days, New England pies like apple and pumpkin are all associated with American history — the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving in particular — while those that were once wildly popular, like mince pie, have gone out of style. In that region of the country, pie’s roots are firmly stuck in the past.

    Both the South and New England hold their traditions dear, but Southern cooks treat pie almost as a living thing, constantly forcing it to evolve and reinventing old recipes. The South also has a wider range of traditional pies that are just waiting for a new twist, which allows for a more playful and experimental approach to baking. These modern pies are inspired by generations of bakers who started making pies in their kitchens for their families with whatever was available in the pantry. But one thing has stayed the same through all these years: The Southern chef has managed to elevate baking pie to an art form.