Back in the day, everyone was a locavore. America was an agrarian society so like it or
not, you ate what you grew. Who could have guessed that the Industrial Revolution would have delivered us to where we are now: wallowing in an anonymous, over-processed, “Big Brother” food industry. Do you want fries with that? Still, deep in the cockles of our comfort food-deprived hearts, it seems that everyone has a home-baked memory wrapped in pastry.
If your mother didn’t bake pies then your grandmother probably did. The art of pie baking – and pie pastry in particular – is deeply ingrained in our cultural vernacular. Pies have been around for thousands of years dating back to the ancient Egyptians. Pies have been documented in England as far back as the 12th century (the Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of the word “pye” to 1303) and showed up in America with the first colonial settlers. Early pies were predominantly savory and meat-filled. Flaky pastry fruit-filled turnovers first appeared in 19th century America and have remained popular ever since.
You’d think that with so much pie history, we’d be…well…to be honest…we’d be better at it! Nothing strikes fear into the heart of an otherwise accomplished cook than the prospect of making a pie. Oh, the filling is fine, easy even. It’s the crust that the tricky part. Piecrust is a funny thing comprised of equal parts alchemy and dumb luck. Attempt to make pastry on a humid day and you’ll end up with a sticky paste. But try to roll out the dough when double-digit wind chills are whipping outside your kitchen window and even your finest efforts will crumble into a floury mess before the crust is lifted, ever so gently, into the baking pan.
As for me, nothing can hold a candle to my mother’s piecrust. Growing up, we enjoyed a freshly baked pie nearly every Sunday. She made her crust the old-fashioned way – with lard. (Yeah, lard! Arteries are slamming shut as I write this.) It was crumbly-crisp with the perfect amount of “tooth” to compliment the sweet, fragrant fruit that was no doubt bubbly inside.
Try as I might, I’ve never been able to master the art of pie pastry. Since I cut my teeth on my mother’s apron strings, this has been a frustrating lesson in Darwinism: only the strong-willed cook will survive when confronted with the successful pie-makers mantra – “You can just ‘feel’ when the dough is right.” The perfect pie dough will be smooth, slightly elastic, and never-ever sticky. So, after several failed attempts to get it right, I think I’ve hit upon the perfect piecrust recipe. No, it’s not exactly like my mother’s – there’s no lard in this version – but it’s consistently delicious and nearly foolproof.
Consult any cookbook for fruit filling directions. If you’re lucky, you can still find blueberries and raspberries. If you’re smart, you’ve frozen some sour cherries last July to use this fall. Otherwise, stop by your local farmer’s market and pick up some peaches; they’re still plentiful but don’t delay. According to Lora Partyka of Partyka Farms, “Peaches will be on our stands for another 1 ½ to 2 weeks.” What better way to showcase the best of summer’s bounty?
Foolproof Pie Crust*
1/3-cup whole milk
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into ½-inch wide pieces
Whisk milk & vinegar in small bowl to blend. Whisk flour and salt in medium bowl to blend; add shortening and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in milk mixture; briefly knead in bowl just until dough comes together. Gather dough into a ball. Divide into 2 pieces, 1 slightly larger that the other. Flatten each piece into a disk. Wrap disks separately in plastic and refrigerate 30 minutes. When ready to bake, roll out larger dough disk on lightly floured work surface to 13-inch round. Transfer to 10-inch-diameter glass pie dish. Fill pie with fruit filling. Roll out second disk on light floured work surface to a 12-inch round. Place on top of filling. Crimp edges decoratively to seal. Brush with an egg glaze and bake as directed.
*The best ingredients yield superior results. And while I’m hoping you’ll use organic flour (Eden Foods makes a good one as does Bob’s Red Mill), you can also get away with a more widely available commercial brand. King Arthur Flour is a good substitute. It’s never bleached; never bromated.
A special “thank-you” goes out to Lora Partyka of Partyka Farms and Gail Christ of Christ Farms for providing the fruit for our test kitchen. Twenty acres of apples on their 600+ acres of farmland in Holley, NY make Gail an apple expert! Her favorite apple for baking? A mix of Cortland and 20 Ounce. Partyka’s produce some of this area’s best peaches on 15 acres at their farm in Kendall, NY. She owes the success of their crop to “good field management and good lakeside weather” at their 400-acre farm. Lora says peaches really shine when they’re baked “in a shortcake with a biscuit, some good vanilla ice cream, peaches, and topped with whipped cream.” Peach Shortcake – and various other treats – is available at her Partyka’s Farm Market, 1420 County Line Road, Kendall. Produce from Christ Farms and Partyka Farms is available at the Genesee Country Farmer’s Market, Batavia Downs Parking Lot, Batavia. Hours: Tuesday & Friday from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.