Post by author Lynn Marie Hulsman
The holidays call for homemade food, in all forms. That’s especially true of sweets and treats. This Thanksgiving, you may be looking to try your hand at any number of treats: cakes, cobblers, puddings, trifles, tarts, and more…
But pie is the pinnacle. And even as a cookbook author, and food writer, pie still intimidated me until very recently. It’s the gold standard of baking, in my opinion.
You can’t make one from a box. It’s a made-by-hand kind of food. Maybe you’ve thought about learning to make pie, but have never quite gotten over the fear. In the spirit of the holiday season, I invite you to trust and believe. Yes, there are things to know about pie-making, but it’s not rocket science. Could all those grandmothers and aunties of yore have turned out one pie after another in the days before automation if it were?
If you plan to make a pie from scratch this December, I suggest you go all the way, and do it the way your foremothers (and maybe a scant handful of forefathers) did. That means using a homemade crust and quality, seasonal ingredients for the filling. For my money, go with using only real butter, and only use fresh ingredients, never frozen.
Now that my grandmother and mother are gone, the mantel of holiday baker has landed on me. Sure, I could make a spice cake, or a sheet of chocolate chip cookies, but there’s something so much more substantial about pie. I’m not sure I would have gotten over my fear of the process and gotten my hands dirty had I not been presented with the chance to take pie-making classes from the foremost pie experts in my area: Cheryl Perry and Felipa Lopez, owners of Brooklyn’s own Pie Corps.
Here’s a photo of the first pie I ever made, in their class:
Pretty awesome, huh? And I never would have guessed I could do it. It’s a double-crust apple pie with an egg wash, sugar crystals, and decorations reflecting my family: A pig (our favorite animal) and a “C” for our last name (yes, I’m Hulsman, but my kids and husband are Cohen!). That pie felt like it weighed ten pounds, and it took my family of four days to eat. And we were working hard! It was hearty, and substantial, and made with love.
Cheryl instructed that one should make about 20 batches of pie crust (two per batch) by hand before switching to a mixer or food processor. Having done that and more now, I agree. In fact, I still make crust by hand. I’m starting to get the feel a perfect crust dough in my bones, the way bakers from yesteryear did. In class, Felipa demonstrated how 5 different measuring spoons, all marked “tablespoon,” held different amounts of water. Then, she showed us how much a “cup” of flour can vary based on the size of the cup and how tightly you pack the flour. Which brings me to my first tip:
Weigh Your Flour, Don’t Just Use Cups
Most Americans didn’t grow up doing this. It’s worth it until you learn to eyeball the amount you’ll need for a perfect crust, the way your grandma can. I was surprised to learn that a digital scale can be gotten online for around 20ish dollars/12ish pounds. Unless you have experts standing over you when you learn to make a crust, like I did, this will give you a huge advantage.
Now I’m going to brag: Here’s my deep-dish Bourbon Pecan Pie. See the nice, rustic, homemade crust? Did I mention that I wrote a cookbook called Bourbon Desserts? No? Well, I did! Bourbon Desserts
Freeze Your Butter
The key to flaky pie crust is keeping things cold, cold, cold. When I used to read recipes, I had no idea that using ice water in baking wasn’t optional. Warm butter activates gluten, which gives you a rubbery, tough crust. Cheryl and Felipa taught me to add butter in two stages: The first half of the butter is grated, and the second half of the butter is cubed. After working the grated butter into a crust’s dry mixture of flour, salt, and baking powder, your dough should resemble grated parmesan cheese. The next round requires smashing the cubes with the heat of your fingers and fluffing the powdery mixture until the flour is coated, and the dough has a shaggy texture and barely holds together. Think “sponge.” This is why the dough should just come together. Pro-tip: It gets wetter as it rests.
Butter You Can See Means Flakes When it Bakes
Don’t overwork your dough. You want uneven speckles and chunks of butter. These form “pockets” in your dough. But be careful not to let the crust warm. The butter will then weep moisture into the flour and make everything soggy. Keep it chilled, and when the cold pie crust goes into the oven, the water in the butter in your pockets turns to steam, and puffs the pockets up.
After your dough comes together, form it into patty-shaped blobs and chill it in the fridge. This allows the moisture to distribute through the flour.
Speaking of butter, (can there ever be enough butter?), I made the Buttermilk Pie (featuring lots of butter) after the recipe for the Kentucky State Fair winner this year. Check out my flakes.
Rolling Requires Confidence (and two sheets of parchment)
Working quickly, so your butter doesn’t melt (beacause cold is key, remember?), place your patty between two sheets of parchment sprinkled with a tiny bit of flour.. Starting in the middle of the patty, roll pushing away from your body using firm, even pressure. Now, give the entire parchment package a one-quarter turn. Do this again, and keep rotating the dough. From time to time, peel back the parchment to see if the dough is sticking. If it is, sprinkle on as little flour as you can get away with, and flip the entire parcel, rolling on the other side. Cheryl told me, “if the dough doesn’t travel, it’s a wasted pass of the rolling pin.” This means the sheet of dough should be growing longer with each push. As you rotate, you’ll get a general circular shape. And once you can make a crust, you can make savory pies, like my Cottage Pie.
If it’s Worth Doing, it’s Worth Doing Right
Pies are teaching me this lesson. I’m a big-picture girl. I work in broad strokes, and “quick and dirty” is my motto. That quality has helped me get things done in life. I’m a rainmaker. But some endeavors require attention to detail. Pies fall into this category. Pie is slow food. Making pies is like a meditation for me. You simply have to be in the moment, and do the next right thing. Just as with pie-making. That’s why when I made this pumpkin pie, I roasted fresh pumpkins and scraped out the pulp to make custard for these pies:
In short, like Cheryl says, “Don’t make a rhubarb pie in January.” Sure, you could dump a bag of frozen rhubarb into a bowl, but it won’t be good. In fall and winter, scrape your pumpkins. Use the apples you picked from the U-pick farm, or at the very least get the apples that your supermarket handles from a local farm. Peel luscious pears, and grate whole nutmeg over them. If you’re going to make that velvety-rich Coconut Cream Pie, take the time to top it with meringue.
Can you believe I made that?
Cut corners elsewhere. After all, if you’re going to put all of your love into making that crust, be sure and fill it with worthy ingredients.
And, without further ado, here is my famous pumpkin pie recipe:
Deep-Dish Pumpkin-Custard Pie in a Cream Cheese Crust
Makes 1 9-inch Pie
For best results, this recipe should be done over two days to allow for overnight chilling.
Cream Cheese Pie Crust
For best results, make this crust the day before, and allow it to chill in the refrigerator
- 1 cup all-purpose (plain) flour
- 1 tablespoon powdered (Confectioner’s) sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 cup salted butter, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, confectioner’s sugar, and baking powder. Set it aside.
- In a separate large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer, cream together the butter, cream cheese, and vanilla until it’s light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
- Add the butter mixture to the dry ingredients a little at a time, using your hands. Crumble it together with your fingers until it resembles small marbles in sand, about 3 or 4 minutes.
- Turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured surface and blend it well, using the heels of your hands. Press the dough into a ball, and wrap it in plastic wrap, then refrigerate it overnight.
- The next day, Preheat the oven to 400 F°/ 200 C°. Roll the dough out on a clean, lightly floured sheet of parchment paper, with another piece of parchment paper on the top. Essentially, you’re rolling the crust out like a “sandwich.” Roll away from your body, pushing the crust so that it “moves.” With each roll, turn the sandwich a one-eight turn. The thinness of the crust is important because this recipe contains baking powder, which will lift and aerate it.
- Once rolled, peel the parchment carefully away, and lay the crust over a 9-inch pie cast-iron skillet, then press it down, crimp the edges and prick it all over with a fork.
- Bake the crust until done, but not golden-brown, about 10 minutes. Remove the entire pie pan to a wire rack and allow it to cool for at least 15 minutes before adding the filling.
Pumpkin Pie Filling
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 3/4 cup pumpkin puree*
- 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
- 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
- 1/3 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon dry ground ginger
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
- scant pinch ground clove
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup full fat (whole) milk
- 3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
*(If you’re using canned pumpkin, this is equal to 1/2 of a standard 15-ounce can of pumpkin. Using too much pumpkin will keep your pie from forming a nice custard.) Recipe for homemade pumpkin puree at bottom of post.
- Preheat oven to 400 F°/ 200 C°
- In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs until frothy.
- Stir in the pumpkin, sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and clove.
- Mix in the cream and milk, add vanilla extract, using a large whisk, and blend until smooth. Don’t be alarmed if the mixture appears filling soupy. It will thicken into a custard as it bakes. Pour filling into cast iron pan.
- Bake 15 minutes at 425 degrees F, then lower the temperature to 350 and bake 60 minutes.
Assembling and Finishing the Pie
- Carefully pour the filling into the pre-baked shell. Place the pie on a baking tray, and place it in the center of the oven.
- The pie will be done when it is firm around the edges but still runny in the center. It will only look semi-solid texture and will ripple slightly when moved. Your pie did not fail!! Place the entire pan on a wire rack to cool. Allow the pie to rest for at least an hour in order for the custard to cook through using the reserved heat of the cast iron skillet. Once firm, cut and serve.
- Store tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Homemade Pumpkin Purée
This is less a recipe than a “how-to.” And I can’t give you an exact yield, as pumpkin sizes vary, as does the density of the edible flesh. I like to make a lot of pumpkin purée at one time, and freeze it flat in heavy-duty gallon freezer bags, which I then stack for space economy.
- I suggest starting with a couple of sugar pumpkins, each larger than a grapefruit, but smaller than a football.
- You don’t need to cut pumpkins open before you roast them. Instead, pierce them with a sharp chef’s knife a few times in order to vent steam, arrange the pumpkins on baking sheets, then bake at 350 F° / 175 C° for about an hour.
- The pumpkin aroma is a clue to readiness. When they’re done, you should easily be able to insert a fork in, all the way to the end of the tines, without resistance.
- Once done, set the pumpkins aside to cool before circles in the top, the way you would with Jack-o-lanterns. Then, simply lift the lid to access the insides.
- Scoop out the seeds and guts, then peel off the outer skin using your hands if it’s soft enough to fall away from the flesh. If not, use a chef’s knife to fillet off the outer layer of inedible skin.
- Take the soft, orange flesh, and run it through a blender or food processor until it’s the consistency of applesauce.
Lynn Marie Hulsman is a romance and cookbook author. Her latest HarperImpulse title A Miracle at Macy’s joins 2013’s Christmas at Thornton Hall as one of the most fun and uplifting Christmas tales around. Her books can be purchased digitally or pre-ordered in paperback.