Her leading ladies are blessed with amazing culinary skills, but did you know that Lynn Marie Hulsman, author of Christmas at Thornton Hall, is a chef herself? Here she shares some of her tips for baking the perfect holiday pie.
As the holiday season rolls into full swing, our hearts turn to home and hearth. The nesting instinct kicks in, and even the least crafty among us itch to fashion wreaths from scraps of our grandmothers’ aprons and to bake comforting goodies by hand. Of all the baked goods in the recipe canon, the most essential, in my humble opinion, is pie.
Pie is the ultimate in slow food. You can’t make one from a box. Pie is a small-batch, made-by-hand kind of food. And my advice is this, as long as you’re investing the time and care to plan and shop ahead, and to assemble this sturdy dessert by hand, why not go all the way? That means a homemade crust and quality, seasonal ingredients for the filling. What does that mean? I say use only real butter in all cases, and only use fresh ingredients, never frozen.
I’ll admit that my philosophy crippled me. Until fairly recently, I didn’t make pies because I wouldn’t cheat and take short cuts. It worked out fine when my grandmother and mother were here to be on pie duty. I could make a Bundt cake or a trifle and be done with it. With their passing, I was promoted to matriarch. I never wanted to face a Thanksgiving without homemade pie, so I was obliged to take matters in hand. Filled with trepidation and fear of ultimately being declared a failure, I signed up for several pie-making classes, including a master class in crust from the most 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 made under their tutelage:
A double-crust apple pie with an egg wash, sugar crystals, and decorations that my family would love: 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. Ten pounds of all-butter DELICIOUS!
The women at Pie Corps didn’t let me fall through the cracks. They made a pie-maker out of me. Cheryl instructed that one should make about 20 batches of pie crust (two per batch) before switching to the Kitchen Aid. Having done that and more now, I agree. In fact, I’m likely to always do it by hand. I’m starting to get the feel of the crust in my bones, the way bakers from yesteryear did. They knew the feel of the dough at each stage, they knew how hot their ovens ran, and they knew how much flour their measuring cups held. 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:
1. Weigh Your Flour
Most Americans didn’t grow up doing this, and I feel resistance, too. It’s worth it until you learn to eyeball the amount you’ll need for a perfect crust, the way your elderly aunts can. I was surprised to learn that a serviceable 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.
Here’s a little eye candy. It’s my deep-dish Bourbon Pecan Pie. See my nice, rustic, homemade crust? Did I mention that I wrote a cookbook called Bourbon Desserts? No? Well, I did!
2. Freeze Your Butter
If you don’t know this already, the key to flaky pie crust is cold, cold, cold. When I used to read recipes, I thought that using ice water in baking was optional. Warm butter activates gluten, which promotes 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 result should resemble grated parmesan cheese. The next round involves smashing the cubes with the heat of your fingers and fluffing until the flour is coated, and the dough has a shaggy texture and JUST holds together. Think “sponge.” This is why the dough should JUST come together. It gets wetter as it rests.
3. Butter You Can See Means Flakes You Can See
Don’t overwork that dough! You want to see uneven speckles and chunks of butter. These form “pockets” in the dough. But for the love of God, don’t let the crust warm. The butter will 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. This is how your flakes are formed! So, honor the speckles and chunks.
After your dough comes together, form it into patty-shaped blobs and let it rest in the refrigerator. Like I said (again and again), cold is still key. This step also allows the moisture to distribute throughout the flour.
Speaking of butter, because there’s not enough in the crust (ahem!), I made the Buttermilk Pie (featuring lots of butter) after the recipe for the Kentucky State Fair winner this year. Did someone say flaky crust?
4. Rolling Requires Confidence (and two sheets of parchment)
Working quickly, so your butter doesn’t melt (cold is key, remember?), place your patty between two sheets of parchment sprinkled with a tiny bit of flour to discourage sticking. Starting in the middle of the patty, roll pushing away from yourself with 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.
5. 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. Sometimes patience and method is required for something to turn out right. Pies fall into this category. Like I said, pie is slow food. Making pies is like a meditation for me. It’s like yoga: When I have lists in my head of what I need to accomplish today, and my cells are humming with the need to achieve, if I surrender to yoga, I become calm and centered. 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 taste right. 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.
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.
Because as we say down south, “Ain’t no one ever said, ‘Hell no, I don’t want me no damn homemade pie.’”
Drool! Those pies look so good! Is anyone planning to make a pie this Christmas? We’d love to see your finished pies!
Christmas at Thornton Hall is out now