Sisters in Pie

cranberry pies (left) and apple pies

The Sisters in Pie held their annual Thanksgiving Eve meeting today, and I believe the results speak for themselves. I so look forward to this each year, when my neighbors Kay and Cathy (aka Queen of Pie) get together to make pies for our respective family dinners and finish off any bottles of red wine that might be in my refrigerator.

Because Cathy is the expert crust-maker, she prepped and rolled every inch of the pie crusts. That’s something like 12 crusts. Kay and I chopped fruit, handed stuff to her and refilled her wine glass. Those tasks we can do.

Cathy taught me to make pie crust, and I can do it. But comparing mine to hers is like putting Pashmina next to a silk scarf. But I have vowed to get there. That, someday, my crusts will be as smooth and flaky as hers and not look like a 4-year-old was let loose with Play-Doh.

Our pie day is a tradition that we all enjoy, and I hope we can keep it going. It really means a lot. And The Hub is even learning to pat and roll.

We made our usual apple pies this year, with fillings full of cinnamon, mace and a dash of cardamom. Plus some spirits: cognac in mine, dark rum in the other two.

Pumpkin? Oh, come now. So overdone.

We added our adapted version of a cranberry pie recipe in “Southern Pies” by Nancie McDermott. Below is our edition – which has a little kick, naturally.

Cranberry Pie from the Sisters of Pie (adapted from “Southern Pies” by Nancie McDermott)

Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie

1 cup sugar

1 bag fresh cranberries

1/3 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 cup golden raisins

Grated rind of half an orange

1-2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a pie pan with one of the crusts. In a large bowl, stir together the remaining ingredients. Pour into the pan. Use a pizza cutter to cut the remaining crust into approximately 1 1/2 to 2- inch wide strips. Weave them across the top of the filling in a lattice pattern. Place the pie on a baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake until the filling is bubbly, about 40 minutes.


Sky high over pie

cranberry pie by the benevolent sisterhood of pie

The Benevolent Sisterhood of Pie, having convened for our annual Thanksgiving pastry-making festivities, make this proclamation: Pie is the Official Holiday Dessert. The BSP’s current membership – the Queen of Pie, Sassy Kay and myself, plus The Hub as president and sole member of the men’s auxiliary – agreed on one sole guideline for perfect pie: Homemade crust. Yes, I have stooped to the red box in weak moments – forgive me sisters. But this year’s crusts for Thanksgiving were tender as angels’ wings and as flaky as a GOP debate. Just how good crust should be. Tasting it will spoil you for the box.

For a two-crust, 9-inch pie, here are the instructions. It helps to see someone like the Queen, who is a pie crust expert, make it. And just keep trying if the first one doesn’t work out. You’re just out flour and shortening. Also, if you’re using a deep-dish pie pan, as I do, add half again as much of all ingredients so that you’ll have ample crust. Double it, if you like.

Put 2 cups flour (the BSP likes White Lily) in a bowl. Stir in  1 1/4 teaspoons salt. Add 2/3 cup shortening. Cut the shortening into the flour with a pastry blender until it looks like cornmeal and small peas. Don’t overwork the dough. Have a cup of ice water ready. Sprinkle a tablespoon of ice water onto the mixture. Toss it in with two knives. Be gentle and don’t mash. Repeat with up to 4 tablespoons of water, but just enough for the dough to come together without being soggy. The weather makes a difference. Humidity means you need to add less ice water. We also discovered, in a scientific comparison, that the same brand of flour kept in the refrigerator, vs. in a canister on the counter, was drier and required more water.

Turn the dough onto a piece of wax paper, put your hand under the paper and press the dough together lightly, without squeezing. Twist the paper closed and let it sit on the counter for 20 minutes.

For rolling out the dough, I found that using a pastry cloth (I ordered one from Sur La Table) is helpful. Mine also has circles for 8- and 9-inch pans. Flour the cloth and the rolling pin. A sock-like sleeve for the rolling pin (it came with the cloth) helps, too. Roll firmly but gently and smoothly. Don’t pound the dough. With it’s the right size, use a scraper to gently lift the dough and roll it partially on the rolling pin, lift it, and place it in the pie pan. Repeat the process for the top crust.

We’re in the season of red, so grab some cranberries and make this festive pie. It was a hit for the BSP this Thanksgiving. We started with a recipe from the excellent “Southern Pies” by Nancie McDermott of Chapel Hill, N.C. and “doctored it up.” We thought the filling was so pretty that we did a lattice crust instead of a full-coverage crust. Simply cut strips with a pizza cutter and weave them across the top.

Cranberry Pie from the Benevolent Sisterhood of Pie

Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie

1 tablespoon butter or margarine, softened

1 tablespoon flour

Finely grated rind of 1/2 of a large orange

1 cup sugar

2 1/2 cups raw cranberries

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the pie pan with the bottom crust. In a medium bowl, mash the butter, flour and orange rind together with a fork until it’s a smooth paste. Add the sugar and continue mashing to turn it into a crumbly mixture. Add the cranberries and Grand Marnier and stir together. Pour the filling into the pie pan. Top with the second crust and crimp the edges with a fork to seal, or turn under with your fingers and make a nice frill of it. If you’re doing a lattice crust, weave the strips across the top. Make 4 or 5 slashes in the top crust so it won’t explode while cooking. (Omit this if you did the lattice technique.) Sit the pan on a cookie sheet in case it overflows a little (better on the cookie sheet than your oven floor, believe me). Place in the oven and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the crust is brown and you can see through the slits that the filling is bubbling. Let cool to room temperature before slicing.

Getting flaky

Chapel Hill, N.C. author Nancie McDermott was winning over the room at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books on Saturday as she talked about her new cookbook, “Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes, from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan” (Chronicle, $22.95). The table full of pies from the book, that she’d baked for sampling later, was attracting gazes. Then McDermott said something that drew gasps: Crust doesn’t matter.

The biggest gasp came from my friend and neighbor, whom I call the Queen of Pie. She has been making pie crust from scratch since she was 10 years old and could do it in the dark.

Isn’t pie all about the crust?

McDermott explained that she meant that people should make and enjoy pie without stressing over creating The Perfect Pie Crust. The pressure of the crust often scares off cooks. Without that pressure, making pie is – well – easy as pie, especially when you compare it to the efforts frequently required to make even a simple cake. Cake is an opera; pie, a folk song.

Pie is a good filling, using things an even moderately well-stocked kitchen would have (sugar, lemon juice, buttermilk, canned pumpkin, peanut butter) inside a simple crust. It’s the weeknight dessert, not the towering special-occasion effort of a coconut or devil’s food cake.

There’s no fuss and bother about pie, just enjoyment. And McDermott encourages cooks to approach it that way. Her cookbook includes crust instructions, if you want to make your own. I do make pie crust…most of the time. I have to say, the refrigerated crusts are not bad at all. Don’t let a mere crust stand between you and pie.

The cookbook leans toward classic pies, with a whole section on variations of chess pie. There are a goodly number of chocolate pies and classic apple. But there are also some intriguing left-field pies, like Sweet Tea Pie and Summer Squash Custard Pie (another way to use up excessive summer squash without leaving it on neighbors’ doorsteps in the middle of the night).

When I left the signing, the Queen was having a word with the author over her crust statement – she had just won the QRB-sponsored pie contest and was flush with confidence. Emails were exchanged, but only sweet words.

What are you cooking, Dave?

It was the best apple pie I’d ever baked. I actually had enough crust to completely cover the top, instead of having to cheap out with latticework. And I’d even managed to roll the bottom crust gracefully into the pan without shredding it. Just the right amount of cinnamon and rum in the filling; flaky softness in the crust.

And it may be the last for a while.  When I removed the pie and pushed the “stop” button on my range’s electronic controls, there was a startling pop. The pop was accompanied by an arcing flash beneath the smooth glass top, at the edge of a saucepan sitting on a burner. When I got a whiff of burned wires, I ran to the garage and hit the breaker.

That was it for the stove, at a mere five years old, whose baffling problems had gone on all summer. It started with a pie – specifically, when I noticed that one didn’t get as evenly brown as usual. The rest of the stove still worked. Diagnosis: Broken convection relay. Relay replaced, problem remained. New diagnosis: Bad part. Then another new relay, same old problem. Third diagnosis: Bad electronic control panel. Panel replaced but…can you stand the suspense?…the problem remained. Third diagnosis: Guess what? Bad part.

A second panel still didn’t fix the convection problem, and it started beaming out cryptic error code messages and beeping at random. I felt like a demonically possessed R2D2 was living in my kitchen The hub’s opinion: “The stove is jinxed.”

The stove has had all the chances it’s getting from us. So, it’s the grill, slow-cooker and microwave for about 10 days until the new one arrives. The old one sits shut down and dark, a little menacing, like a disconnected Hal. At least it didn’t get my pie.

Food news roundup

On Wednesdays, North Carolina legislators’ thoughts turn not to pork-barrel spending, but to fried squash in the legislature’s cafeteria. Read about the weekly phenomenon in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), here.

I’ve said it before: Pie is the new cake. And the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer recognizes that fact today with all about pie (although I disagree about salt flavor in the crust – not my thing). The article is here (and in The News & Observer). For those of you who are in terror of making your own crusts, really, it just takes practice. And I find many people willing to eat my pie exercises.

At the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, it’s pie time, too, with recipes from winners of an apple pie contest at Historic Bethabara Park, site of the Moravian settlement that predated Old Salem. I notice that none of the three recipes contain my secret ingredient for apple pie filling: A couple of heaping tablespoons of spiced dark rum. Good for the cook, too. The article is here.

What parents should feed young athletes is the subject at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune today. Among other things, not sodas and energy drinks – good, old water is great, the experts say. Read more here.

The whole “Twilight” thing has now officially gone too far: There is a “Twilight” cookbook. I learned about this from the Salt Lake City Tribune today. The author of “Love at First Bite: The Unofficial ‘Twilight’ Cookbook,” Gina Meyers, posits that the series of books is “brimming with juicy forbidden recipes” and contends Edward is a vegetarian vampire. What, he only bites blood oranges? Read for yourself here.

Big week for sweets

Can you smell the delight of lovers of baked sweets? First, the Krispy-Kreme on Person Street in Raleigh, N.C. reopened June 1, after month-long renovations left seekers of “Hot Doughnuts Now” with the cold comfort of packaged goods.

And today, the doors opened at Scratch Baking in Durham, N.C. The long-desired permanent store at 111 Orange Street gives fans of baker Phoebe Lawless a place to get pies and doughnut muffins between her weekends at area farmers markets. The hours are Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Lawless’ pies aren’t your grandma’s pies. The pan-less pies have rustic crusts folded up around exotic fillings, which peek through the center like an open purse tempting a pickpocket. A dark chocolate-sea salt pie I got for a picnic last summer still sticks in the memory.

The pies have landed

apple pies in my kitchen

apple pies in my kitchen

Is pie the new cake?

It looks like it, from the pie shops that are popping up in the Triangle. Phoebe Lawless, whose remarkable rustic pies go like – well, I just can’t say it – at the Durham and Chapel Hill farmers markets is working on her own space in downtown Durham. Her Scratch Baking shop, which offers unusual flavors such as sea salt-chocolate and stresses local ingredients,  is projected to open in a few months. Donut Muffins for everybody! Read more about Scratch Baking here.

In Raleigh, PieBird will occupy the Person Street space that formerly housed Conti’s Italian Market. Sheilagh Sabol Duncan has been baking pies to order, and will open the space in a few months. So Oakwood residents can go there to get their fix of Pie Pops – little, baby pies on a stick. Duncan makes traditional pies like pecan and coconut cream, along with quiches. Find out more here.

More on pie

My husband and I collaborated on a pie for our neighbor, aka The Queen of Pie, on Saturday. She was unaware that it was National Pie Day – shocking! – but she plans to mark Jan. 23 on her calendar for next year.

We made a pie using blueberries that I froze last summer. I mixed four cups (thawed in the microwave) with a couple cups of sugar and some grated lemon peel and fresh ginger. I added cornstarch for thickening and a dash of mace. Mace is an underused spice. I like it because it has a sweeter flavor than nutmeg, which can be a little bitter, to me.

My husband rolled out the bottom crust – not too much trouble there. Besides, who’s going to see it? The top crust refused to cooperate, as it often does for me. But I used the secret I learned from the Queen: Cut the dough up in strips and make a lattice crust.

The filling tasted good, so I hoped that boded well for the actual pie. We left it at the Queen’s house to spur her recovery and to, I hope, show what we’ve learned at the feet of the pie master.

However you add ’em up, it’s good

Pi plateThere’s National Pie Day and there’s National Pi Day. Sure, National Pie Day is a concoction of the American Pie Council, which is linked to that pie crust ingredient Crisco, and is designed to promote pie and the ingredients used to make it. Commercial, yes, but I’m for anything that encourages the increased consumption of pie – especially in that dreary dessert period between the Christmas cookies and Girl Scout cookies.

So, on Saturday, make a pie. Even if you use the refrigerated pie crusts – it’s OK. If you make a fruit pie, it’s good for you. I plan to make a pie in honor of the neighbor who helped me finally discover the secrets of making a good pie crust. She could make pies in her sleep – she’s been doing it since she was a teenager – and makes learning really easy. From her, I learned that I did not need to beat the crust into submission with my rolling pin – it’s a pie crust, not a former boss. Deep cleaning breath now. My talented neighbor has been in the hospital recently, but is mending now, and I hope it won’t long before she’s back rolling out crust by the mile.

Stretch the metaphor and eat more pie by also celebrating National Pi Day, which is March 14. (Even if you’re not married to a math geek, like I am, I’m sure you can figure out why.) Pastry tastes a lot better than math. But you can mix the two, as you can see by the accompanying photo. Yes, it’s a pie plate with a pi theme.

Here’s a pie recipe from my friend Sheri. This pie has been known to cure broken bones – she brought it over after I fractured my wrist this summer. She thinks it’s named after a similar pie at the Raleigh restaurant, but she’s not sure about that.

Angus Barn Chocolate Pie

2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 stick butter
2 foil-wrapped rectangles semi-sweet baking chocolate (4 squares) . . . (Nestles comes 4 rectangles to the box . . . enough for 2 pies.  Bakers comes 8 squares to the box . . . enough for 2 pies).
1 regular (not deep-dish) pie crust

Preheat oven to 350.  Beat eggs, then add sugar and vanilla.  Melt butter and chocolate together over low heat.  Let chocolate mixture cool somewhat, then pour chocolate mixture, small portions at a time, into egg mixture.  (You don’t want the chocolate to cook the eggs.)  Beat well after each addition.  Pour into pie shell.  Bake for 30 – 35 minutes at 350 F.  Serve with whipped cream.

(Note: filling will rise above crust, but will go back down once the pie is removed from oven and it cools.)