In honor of Thanksgiving…only a couple days away…here is a post I did last year with my mother. For me, no holiday celebration would be the same without her mouth-watering pies. I came over for a lesson in how to make her famous Pumpkin, Apple and Pecan pie and we had a great time in the kitchen together. One of the reasons I look back so fondly on our baking day together is because instead of it being the smooth demonstration we had planned on, every possible thing went wrong and I got to see my Mom’s true skills come out as she solved each and every pie problem with a bit of creativity and a lot of laughter.
I hope this post inspires you to jump in and try some pies of your own this year.
Whatever pie you make and whatever recipe you choose, there is always one thing every good pie needs. A tasty, flaky and tender pie crust. After trying my hand at more than a few pies, I have learned that the pie crust can often be the trickiest part of the process. Whether you choose a simple recipe or something more elaborate, every baker needs a couple tricks up their sleeves for handling the dough.
My mother is a master baker and is always in charge of dessert at any family function. She can be counted on for Thanksgiving pie, Christmas cookies, cakes, pizzas, breads…you name it, she bakes it.
A testament to her baking prowess is evident in a simple story.
For years now, our family has taken on the tradition of buying a professional cake for all our birthdays, anniversaries. We buy from our local and well-loved neighborhood bakery, Gayle’s Bakery. known simply as “Gayle’s”. It is the best you will find, anywhere. That is, until last year.
Last year, my mother decided to try making her own version of our favorite Gayle’s cake using their cookbook The Village Baker’s Wife.
Mom’s version was so tasty that we’ve begged for her version ever since.
So when Mom and I joined together to make this year’s Thanksgiving pies (all six of them), I realized it was a great opportunity to learn a few tricks of the trade.
When spending time in Mom’s kitchen, you learn two things.
1. She can fit an unbelievable amount of stuff in her tiny yet well-appointed kitchen.
2. The best trick a baker can have is knowing how to handle things that go wrong. How do you learn this best? By experimenting and by baking very often, in spite of things going wrong. I’ve suffered through my fair share of charred cookies, deflated cakes and burnt pies. So has my mother. These experiences help you to become a better cook. You can see what went wrong and then learn from it, developing enviable “kitchen intuition”.
I’ve mostly only seen the finished product of Mom’s baking…and enjoyed the delicious results. I’ve helped her out a few times, though I admittedly wasn’t paying much attention. The behind the scenes of baking can often look quite different.
When you are new to baking, or even to cooking, kitchen mishaps can make you feel like a failure. The best thing about going behind the scenes in my Mom’s kitchen is learning that even the best bakers and cooks have things go wrong. The skill, is knowing what to do next.
Now down to the specifics. Though there are thousands of great pie crust recipes and even more ways for them to turn out, they all have the same basic or foundational ingredients. Flour, butter (or shortening) and water. Here are a few basics you need to know.
Mom’s Pie Crust Tricks of the Trade
1. Keep Things Cold - Keep as many of the ingredients as cold as possible. While I think it’s a bit much to keep the flour in the refrigerator, always use cold butter and shortening. I noticed Mom even put ice cubes in the water to keep it as cold as possible. Why? It helps keep the butter from melting. You want to keep small chunks of butter in your dough as it makes for a more tender and flaky crust.
2. Add the butter or shortening in small chunks -While experienced bakers know this trick, those trying a pie for the first time might not necessarily know that the butter or shortening should be added to the flour a small chunk at a time. This helps the butter/shortening break up into small bits and pieces (see tip #1).
3. The flour should look less like dough and more like bread crumbs – The desired result is flour with chunks of butter. The end result looks like white bread crumbs. If you press a bit of the mixture together with your fingers, it will hold together. While most bakers recommend stopping at this point, pouring the dough out onto a rolling surface and bringing it together quickly and lightly with your hands, I noticed Mom brought it together in the electric mixer (using minimal beating) and it came out quicker and just as good.
4. Always leave the dough in the refrigerator to “set” or rest before rolling it out. The dough needs to harden up a bit so plan ahead to leave a bit of down time.
5. Rolling out the dough can be quite tricky. The dough can easily stick to your rolling surface, or in an effort to avoid sticking you can use too much flour, making the dough dry and hard. The dough can also be too hard, causing it to crack and lose shape as you roll it out. I believe the best way to learn how to handle and roll out the dough is to simply see it for yourself.
As Mom and I were mixing flour and whipping eggs there where more than a few things that went awry. Similar to a situation I recently experienced, we finished making the dough and though it was a good consistency (solid but not sticky), mom took a look at the dough and said “it looks really white”.
It did indeed look quite pale and when we turned around, we saw our tiny bowl of eggs still sitting on the counter having never made their way into our dough. Mom simply shrugged her shoulders and asked me “do you want some scrambled eggs?”
Things continued to take an odd turn as mom was transferring her rolled out dough to the pie pan. This is a tricky process, the one I have the most trouble with. and our dough just wasn’t behaving. As we tried to lift the dough into the pie plate, it began to crack everywhere.
An ingenious solution to a misbehaving pie crust:
She turned her misbehaving crust into a “press in the pan” pie crust.
Mom wasted no time and cut the dough into big chunks and pieced together the pie crust with her fingers, pressing it together in the pan.
I have to admit, this is when I began to think we might need to stop by Gayle’s bakery and pick up some Thanksgiving pies, but in the end, every pie came out of the oven looking perfect and when we enjoyed them later that night at dinner, they were the best pies Mom had ever made.
Mom’s Tricks for Apple Pie
1. The filling often takes longer to cook than the crust. To avoid an overly brown crust, Mom covers the rim and top of the crust with aluminum foil to protect it from the heat once it’s reached the desired golden brown color you want.
2. Even though apple pie a frequently baked American favorite it can be one of the trickier pies to make. You usually can’t see if the apples are done, mainly because of the top crust that is typically made with apple pies. It is no fun looking forward to your first bite only to sink your teeth into undercooked, crunchy apples.
Mom’s advice: When placing the top crust on the apple pie, always cut slits in the top. These are not just decorative, they help release the steam as the pie cooks. They also serve another, very important purpose when you pull the pie out of the oven.
Look to see if the filling is bubbling up through the slits. That way you know the apples are cooked.
The biggest lesson I learned after a day baking side by side with Mom was to have a sense of humor and not to be afraid to experiment. So the next time your cookies burn, your melting chocolate clots or your curry curdles, don’t lose heart.
Even the very best go through their share of trials.
Want to know my mother’s favorite piece of kitchen advice?
“ The best, best advice I have
is cook with the ones you love. “
Mom’s other best advice for adventures in the kitchen?
Always have a large trash can on hand. Just in case.