Thursday, November 10, 2011


Tarte Tatin alongside the cast iron skillet it was baked in.
Earlier this fall I got a hot tip.  It came from a very reliable source over at a certain cable network.  Pies will be the next big thing.  Move over cupcakes. 

You may have already noticed the signs and not just because Thanksgiving pie season is upon us.  Whole slices of pie are suddenly finding their way into our smoothies.  They are getting baked into stunt cakes at the Reading Market in Philadelphia.  Popular pie flavors like apple, key lime and Boston cream pie have been flavoring our yogurt for some time now.

But the real thing has always been big around here. My family was in the pie manufacturing business when I was in high school and through osmosis I learned about Michigan’s cherry harvests and the educational needs of migrant workers’ children.   I helped my mother sort through pie filling recipes  destined to go on the package of the unbaked pie shell crust product. During the holidays we kids helped my parents deliver thank you pies to everyone who had helped us out the year before—especially the mechanics at the garage who kept my mother’s carpool station wagon alive (somehow).  

Later, I worked at Pillsbury’s advertising agency in New York City while they were developing their hugely successful Refrigerated Pie Crust product.   (We called it by its "code name," ARPC –all ready pie crust--- during the test marketing).  

One day, our small media planning team was asked to join a taste test in our company's kitchens.  Could tell the difference between three apple pies?  One was baked using the Pillsbury test product, one was baked with an all butter crust and one used a lard crust. The test product was good, more than good, as sales have shown these past 25 years.  Still, I was able to distinguish between the three and knew in a flash that the one everyone adored (and my foodie boss thought was made with butter) was the lard crust.  The test product came in a strong second and the butter crust was third. 

What’s special about a lard crust?  It creates those flakes we love and keeps a pie from feeling leaden in out tummies.  (These days many people use a half butter/half lard recipe to get both flavor and flakiness.) 

Despite my pie company formative years, the real reason I could identify the perfect flaky crust was that my godmother had taught me to make pie dough a few years earlier.  This was the pie we ate when we spent Thanksgiving or Christmas at her home.  One year I asked for the recipe.  She said, “No.”

This year's apple mincemeat pie, ready for the oven.  Note the streaks of white lard, visible in the unbaked crust.  Flakiness is good.
And after a breath said, “But I will show you how and then you can have the written recipe.”  

Turns out there’s a bit of technique involved.  It helps to feel the cool flour in your hands, see the cornmeal texture emerge between fat and flour, and intuit the amount of moisture in the air versus ice cold water in the measuring cup. It is tricky to describe but so easy once you've seen it done. 

So I’m afraid I'll have to stick with tradition.  No written recipe today—but one day I promise I will demonstrate how to make a perfect pie crust.  Or maybe there is someone special in your family who will show you the ropes.  For many of us, cooking together is one of the finest holiday traditions we know.  And whether you roll out your own dough or one from the dairy case, it’s hard to go wrong if you are in the kitchen with a loved one. 

If you’ve been taught by a master as I was, this may be the year to start making an extra pie for your teacher or to show someone else how to do it.