“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.” ―David Mamet, Boston Marriage
While I wish the above statement were true, I must confess that this challenge created more stress than I expected it to. After all, I thought, a double-crusted pie is about as American as, oh, I don’t know…apple pie? On top of that, I’ve made many pies in my lifetime, so why should this one be any harder?
Well, first off, I didn’t want to make just any old pie. I had a hankering for peach pie. Undaunted by the fact that we are in the middle of the 2020 coronavirus stay-at-home order, and that peaches are not in season in the middle of April in the upper Midwest, I was determined to find some peaches. Amazon Fresh to the rescue! When my order arrived, however, the peaches were still pretty green and hard as rocks, so I left them in a paper bag to ripen. A week later, they were still pretty hard, but some were also getting wrinkly, so I figured it was now or never.
Secondly, I wanted to try making the flakiest, most tender pie crust possible. So I researched different ingredients and techniques. Who knew there were so many varying opinions on how to make the best pie crust? From the right type of flour to what the pie pan is made of, every element can make a difference, and it seems like everyone has their own favorite method.
Two unique ingredients stuck out in my searches. Lard (the essential pie crust staple in our grandmothers’ day) and vodka. Since I still had some lard in the freezer left over from making Paul Hollywood’s hand-raised pies, I decided to incorporate some into my pastry.
Lard has a higher melting point than butter, so it doesn’t soften as quickly when you’re handling it, and it makes for a crisper, flakier pie crust than those made with butter alone. But butter has a better flavor, and the water content in butter (usually 15-20%) creates steam during the baking process, which separates and puffs up the layers. So I chose a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that uses both.
The theory behind using vodka is that, unlike water, the alcohol won’t contribute to the formation of gluten, which can cause the crust to become leathery, so Cook’s Illustrated calls for half water and half vodka in its pie crust recipe.
I knew that keeping the ingredients cold when making pie crust is essential. Keeping the fat cold will make the dough easier to handle and, again, will create those flaky pockets of air when the water evaporates in the oven (as opposed to when you’re rolling it out, if the butter is too warm). The recipe in my Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook (Copyright 2011) calls for freezing the butter and grating it directly into the flour mixture, so I did that with both the lard and the butter. I also chilled the flour ahead of time and gave the dough several intervals of refrigeration in between making it, rolling it and baking. For more helpful advice on keeping things cold, I highly recommend this article from SeriousEats.com.
Once I had chosen my ingredients and method for making the crust, I had to determine what to use in my pie filling. I love the combination of peach and ginger, so I decided to use crystallized (also called candied) ginger. It adds the warmth of the spice without making the flavor overpowering if you happen to bite into a piece. I also included a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves to round out the spices. To add interest to the pastry, I thought I would put some nutmeg in the crust. In the end, however, I wasn’t able to taste the nutmeg in the pastry, so next time I would either double or triple the amount of nutmeg or leave it out altogether.
When I started peeling the peaches, I knew I was in trouble. Instead of ripening, they had turned brown on the inside without really softening up. While they tasted like peaches, they were still a bit crunchy, and I didn’t know how they would cook up in the pie. Fortunately, I had ordered a bag of frozen peaches “just in case,” so I was able to substitute about half the peaches in the filling with the frozen ones.
After I had my pie crust rolled out and my filling made, it was time to put on the top crust. I had the idea of making the pie look like a peach by creating a seam along one side of the top crust, similar to the “seam” in the side of a peach. Borrowing an idea from the pie that Howard made in the Great White Tent, I also inserted a cinnamon stick in the middle of the pie. This creates a steam vent (like a pie bird) as well as what looks like the stem of a peach. After placing the top crust over the filling and crimping the edges, I cut out a bunch of small leaf shapes from scraps of dough to place around the outside edges of my pie.
Once the pie was out of the oven, it was time for the moment of truth. Ideally, I would have waited until the pie was completely cooled to cut into it, but what tastes better than a piece of warm, freshly baked pie? Cutting into it too soon meant that the piece fell apart and the juices ran all over the bottom of the pie plate when I took it out, but I didn’t care! The flavors of the peaches and the warmth of the spices (especially the ginger) made for a great-tasting pie. Unfortunately, the unripe peaches made the texture of the fruit less than ideal. In the end, I took away these lessons:
- If you want to make a peach pie when peaches aren’t in season, use frozen peaches. (But it’s probably better to wait till they’re in season, because nothing beats the taste of a just-picked, ripe peach!)
- If you want to flavor the crust with nutmeg, use at least 2 and probably 3 teaspoons of nutmeg for the flavor to come through.
- If using lard in your pie crust, look for the best quality “leaf lard” which is the highest grade there is and will not leave a distinct “piggy” smell on your hands after working with it.
I learned a lot from this bake, and I want to continue working on perfecting my pie crust. Next time, I may substitute the lard with vegetable shortening, which is supposed to keep its shape better during baking, so the decorative elements on the crust maintain their definition. I also want to try an all-butter crust, to see if the flavor is better, and try this folding technique, which would create layers similar to those in a laminated puff pastry.
Peach and Candied Ginger Pie
Pie filling adapted from Food52.com
For the pie crust:
- 2½ c. all-purpose flour
- 2 T. sugar
- 1 t. salt
- 2-3 t. nutmeg (optional)
- 8 T. leaf lard, frozen
- 13 T. butter, frozen
- 3-4 T. ice water
- 3-4 T. vodka
For the filling:
- To make the pie crust: Whisk flour, sugar, salt and nutmeg together in a large bowl. Grate the frozen lard on the large holes of a box grater into the flour mixture, then cut the mixture together with a fork or a pastry cutter until it forms pea-sized crumbs. Repeat with the butter, grating it and cutting it into the flour until it has the consistency of pea-sized crumbs.
- Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of ice water and 3 tablespoons of vodka over the flour mixture. Use a stiff rubber spatula to stir and press the dough together until the dough sticks together. If it doesn’t stick together, add another tablespoon of vodka, then a tablespoon of water, if needed.
- Handling the dough as little as possible, divide it into two balls, one slightly larger than the other. Flatten each ball of dough into a 6-inch disc. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour. (It can be refrigerated for up to two days or frozen for up to one month. If frozen, let dough thaw completely on counter before rolling it out.)
- While dough is chilling, make the filling. If using fresh peaches, blanch them in boiling water to make them easier to peel. Here’s how: https://www.thespruceeats.com/how-to-peel-peaches-2217611.
- In a small bowl, combine ginger, tapioca, sugar, spices and salt. Stir to make sure the ginger doesn’t clump together. Add to sliced peaches and let sit for 15-20 minutes so the tapioca can soften up before baking. Now is a good time to prepare your pie shell.
- On a floured work surface, roll each portion of dough into a circle slightly larger than the pie plate, about 1/8 inch thick. Carefully drape the slightly smaller circle of dough over the plate, carefully easing it into the corners of the pan.
- Spoon peach mixture into the pie plate. Drape the larger circle of dough over the filled pie. Using scissors or a small knife, trim all but ½ inch of both top and bottom crusts hanging over the edge of the pan. Tuck the top crust under the edge of the bottom crust and crimp to seal.
- Cut a small circle out of the center of the top crust big enough to insert the cinnamon stick. If needed, make a small hole in the filling with a knife or chopstick to make room for it. Insert the cinnamon stick into the pie filling until it stands up straight.
- Beat the egg with the 1 tablespoon of water and brush it onto the surface of the pie. Sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar.
- If desired, cut out decorative leaves or other shapes from excess pie crust dough and apply to top of crust, using the egg wash to “glue” them in place. Brush the shapes with egg wash, as well.
- Chill the pie in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before baking. (Alternatively, you can freeze the unbaked pie for several weeks, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap.)
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until the juices are bubbling and the crust is a deep golden brown. (If necessary, cover edges with foil for the last 15 minutes to avoid over-browning. Remove from oven and allow to cool before cutting.
- Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, if desired. Store leftovers in the refrigerator. (To get that almost-fresh-from-the-oven taste, microwave each piece for 30-45 seconds before serving.)
- *If using frozen peaches, allow them to thaw completely, then drain off liquid before adding the rest of the filling ingredients.
- **If you don’t have tapioca, you can substitute an equal amount of cornstarch, but mix the cornstarch with the sugar before adding to the fruit to avoid lumps.
- ***To make the best cinnamon-sugar mixture, use a 1:4 ratio. So for this recipe, use ½ t. cinnamon and 2 t. sugar. Mix together well.