Tuesday, December 06, 2005


(Apologies for my extended absence. L., my nine-year-old daughter, was performing in the local ballet's production of The Nutcracker this weekend, and she had a dress rehearsal Friday night, two performances on Saturday, and another performance on Sunday. I spent the entire weekend shuttling her back and forth to the theater and putting her hair up in a bun. This last activity has long been a source of trepidation for me, and her recent haircut has made it significantly worse, though I was, eventually, successful each time. There was little time for anything else, however. Further apologies for the lack of a picture, but a picture has been taken, so I will remedy that lack this evening.)

With the possible exception of barbecue, there is no food that evokes in Americans as much delight and disputation as pie. If you do not love pie, you are not an American, no matter where you were born or how proudly you may wave the flag. There is, of course, nothing wrong with not being an American, though I go so far as to suggest that being non-American is a good deal more convenient if you are a citizen of another country. It is possible, of course, to be an American and not hold very strong opinions about pie, but it is very, very wrong, and (while it hardly seems possible for anyone still reading my blog) you should really spend some time alone with your faults or in a crowd at a diner considering your crust and filling preferences.

Some of my online friends (with whom I have spent a great deal of time discussing pie) have developed the concept of the pierarchy. The pierarchy (I am not sure which of my friends invented the word, but it was not I) is a list of your favorite pies, from highest to lowest. You can tell a great deal about a person from his pierarchy, though of course, the most salient point you get from it is his favorite pie. Once you've developed your own pierarchy and shared it with your friends, you can look for trends. Some, for instance, have suggested that the nearer to the ground the fruit, the better the pie. The proponents of this theory tend to have strawberry pies at the tops of their pierarchies and, it must be said, also tend to ignore some of the available evidence when they make their (overly broad) generalizations.

When you're considering your pierarchy, you will want to consider something a shade or two short of the Platonic ideal of each pie. In other words, when I'm placing pecan pie at the top of my pierarchy, I am not considering the dreadful syrupy pecan pies that are so sweet as to be inedible. I'm considering the best pecan pie that I can make. You may not be able to convince me that Mr. Plato could actually conceive of a pecan pie better than the tangible specimens that come out of my oven, but what comes out of my oven is what I consider. Similarly, when you're placing the apple pie, you'll want to consider the pie you can make in the autumn when the new crop of good pie apples is available, and you'll want to assume that you've made a good and flaky crust.

Crust, of course (notice that I have segued into crust without giving you my personal pierarchy because, inconsistent hothead that I am, it changes all the time, though I will note that a sour cherry pie made during the far-too-brief sour cherry season is second only to pecan) is a topic that engenders a debate all its own.

It is well known (or at least frequently repeated) that the best pie crusts are made with lard. I confess that I cannot bring myself to make a pie dough with lard. I prefer an all-butter crust for flavor, but the all-butter crust requires an excessive amount of care if one is to avoid burning it during the initial high-temperature baking period. I will sometimes take that excessive care, but I will, alas, more often bow to expediency and use a half-butter, half-shortening crust. There are many, many fine pie dough recipes available in cookbooks and online. My own recipe varies from time to time. This is how I made it on Sunday.

Sunday Pie Dough

1 stick butter
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
3 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 T. sugar
Iced water

Let your butter come to room temperature, then mix it and the shortening together thoroughly. Refrigerate for at least two hours.

Put your flour, salt, and sugar in a bowl and stir well to combine them. Cut the refrigerated butter and shortening into about eight pieces and drop it into the flour. Cut in using a pastry blender or two knives or your fingers, until the pieces of fat are the size of small peas.

Add 8 tablespoons of iced water, and stir with a big fork. Continue adding water a tablespoon at a time until you can form the dough into a ball. Knead it very briefly to make it stick together, then cut it into three pieces. Form each piece into a disk, then wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you are ready to use.

You will want to refrigerate your dough for a minimum of an hour. This recipe makes enough for three single-crust pies or for one single-crust and one double-crust pie.

The important points to remember in making pie dough is that you want the pieces of fat to be the right size when you've finished cutting in; you want to add enough water so that the dough is soft and easy to roll but not so much that it's wet and sticks to your marble; and you don't want to handle it any more than necessary because handling the dough makes it tough.

It is wrong of me to say so, but the crust matters more on some pies than on others. If the crust on your pecan or pumpkin pie is not flaky, then it's not as big a deal as if the crust on your apple pie is not flaky. I mention this idea only as a lead in to my confession that on Thanksgiving I did not make my own pie dough. I unrolled a crust from a box that had been sitting in my freezer. This, reader, was a mistake. Even if you're dealing with a liquid filling and your dough isn't going to be as flaky as you might like, flavor matters. And that was partly why I didn't post about pie right after Thanksgiving. I needed to make another one with real dough so that I would actually feel like eating it. The pies I made on Thanksgiving were largely eaten by V. and by the kids.

Anyway. I did make another pie this Sunday, and both the crust and the filling were far superior to what I made on Thanksgiving.

When you make any sort of pecan pie, you need to start with a blind-baked crust. In other words, a crust that has been partially baked before you put the filling in. So roll out a disk of pie dough, fit it in your pan, and finish the edges as you see fit. Because it's going to be baked blind, your chances of getting a finger-crimped crust to hold its shape are practically zero, so you really need not bother, but that didn't stop me. When you have the crust rolled and formed (and well pricked with a fork, please), you should probably pop it back in the refrigerator for fifteen minutes to help it hold its shape. There was no room in my refrigerator (or freezer), alas.

Line the pie dough with aluminum foil and then fill it with whatever you use to weight your pie dough. You can purchase little pie weights which are specially designed for this purpose, but I hope you don't really have pie weights unless they were a present from someone. I use black beans, and if I'm good, I put the black beans in a jar when I'm done so that I can reuse them. Any sort of bean will do, and rice will also do.

Bake the shell for fifteen minutes at 350 degrees, then remove the foil and weights and bake for another five minutes, then remove from the oven. If your filling isn't ready, then your shell will get to cool while you get it ready. I don't think it matters whether you let it cool.

Chocolate Pecan Pie

1 9-inch partially baked pie shell

3 cups pecan halves
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup liquid sweetener (light corn syrup, dark corn syrup, golden syrup, honey, and/or molasses in any combination to equal half a cup; I used corn syrup and honey in a two-to-one ratio)
pinch of salt
1 t. vanilla extract
62.5 grams 70% bittersweet chocolate

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Toast your pecan halves for ten minutes then remove and let cool. Take one cup of the halves and chop to a medium coarseness. Increase the oven heat to 350.

In a saucepan, put the butter, sugar, cream, liquid sweetener, and salt. Put over medium heat until everything is melted and dissolved, then remove from heat. Add the chocolate and stir until melted. Add the vanilla extract and stir to combine.

Add the pecans to the mixture and stir well to coat. Dump the pecan mixture into the pie shell. Put the pie shell on a baking sheet (and, preferably, a Silpat) and bake in the lower part of the oven for 20 minutes. Move to the middle of the oven for 20 to 30 minutes more, or until the pie is well glazed.

The mixture will bubble up significantly during baking, so if your crust doesn't have a nice high rim, you might want to hold a bit of the filling back during baking. I didn't, and I didn't use the baking sheet and Silpat, and I had a (small) mess in our brand spanking new oven.

I didn't have any bourbon, but if you want to use a tablespoon or two of bourbon in place of or in addition to the vanilla, who would argue with you?

The original recipe did not call for chocolate and had different proportions. I made everything 1/2 cup so I could use the same measuring cup over and over. I also increased the pecans for obvious reasons. The original tells you to coarsely chop all the pecans, but I just can't get behind that.

The 62.5 grams of chocolate is one row of a Trader Joe's 500g (Pound Plus) 70% chocolate bar. You could just use two or three ounces of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, and I'm sure your pie will be delicious.


Anonymous lindy said...

Chocolate and pecans? The mind boggles...in a good way.

I greatly resent the absence of a Trader Joe's in Pittsburgh. Someone should tell those guys we have a crying need for one. Cleveland is too far for food shopping.

4:35 AM  

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