I do not come from a family of pie makers. My mother made beautiful cakes — county fair prize-winning cakes. But no pies, except for the occasional rhubarb custard pie. My grandmother made pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving. But no one in my family made two-crust fruit pies!
But my boyfriend’s mother made beautiful pies, especially cherry pies that she took to our church bazaar. I remember there was always a little competition among the women about whose pie was best!
In my introductory foods class at Miami, I paid particular attention to the chapter on pies and pastry, just so I could understand the science behind flaky, tender crusts. Then I really started making pies. After Mike and I were married, that was always what he wanted for his birthday. No cake — just an apple pie, or cherry pie, or any kind of two-crust fruit pie.
When he started in politics, and we decided to host an ice cream social, it was only natural that we serve ice cream and pie. My friends and I made about 20 to 25 that first year. For our last big ice cream social at our home, we made more than 200 pies. And although I had lots of great help, I made all the crust.
There are many very good crust recipes — crusts made with eggs, or some with vinegar. I’ve heard many people swear by recipes that use vodka. And of course there is a lot of debate about what kind of fat to use — shortening, butter, oil, or lard, like many old time cooks used. I still make my crust like I did years ago — with white flour (not unbleached, which has more gluten), Crisco-lard combination (unless my recipient prefers no lard), salt and water. If I use lard, I prefer farm fresh lard with no preservatives, which is harder to find and also much softer so it needs to be very cold to cut it in to flour.
Making dough is as much about technique as it is the ingredients. So here are a few tips. The fat should be cut into the flour with a pastry cutter or two knives into small pieces, about the size of peas. When I am making huge quantities, I use my fingers to work the fat into pieces. (This can be adapted to a food processor.) When the pieces of fat flatten out, they form layers that make the crust flaky. I frequently keep a bag of flour in the freezer to use in making pies. It helps keep the fat cold and firm as you cut it in. Use ice water. Sprinkle the water in a tablespoon at a time and toss with a fork gently to mix. Over-working the dough develops the gluten and makes the dough tough. A pastry cloth helps to keep dough from sticking to surface. I use a big piece of canvas or denim. Chilling the dough for an hour or overnight also helps to relax the gluten. A couple of pats of butter on top of the fruit, and a slit in the crust help to let the air escape and keep pie from running over. Foil around the edge of the crust will help keep it from over-browning. And remember to preheat your oven. A cold pie put into a hot oven makes the pastry puff and be more tender.
For Mike’s birthday this week, I made him a cherry pie. We didn’t have anyone here with whom to share it, but as each of the kids called to wish him a happy birthday and sing to him via Facetime, I re-lit the candle and he blew it out again. He’s been enjoying it all week!
Mike’s Favorite Cherry Pie
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening (I usually use half shortening, half lard)
½ cup ice water
Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl. Cut in the shortening, using a pastry cutter or two knives, until the shortening is in very small pieces, some the size of a pea. Sprinkle on the cold water and mix very gently with a fork. Form into 3 or 4 balls, depending on pie pan size. Chill dough.
Mix together in a bowl:
4 cups cherries ( I use frozen this time of year)
1 cup white sugar
1/4 cup flour
2 Tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Flatten ball and dust with flour. Put some flour on your surface where you are going to roll out dough. (I use a pastry cloth.) Roll your rolling pin in the flour also. Place your disc of dough on the surface and gently roll out to a circle a little bigger than your pie pan. Place in bottom of pie pan, and trim extra edges. Fill with cherry mixture. Put a couple of small slices of butter on top of cherries, and dampen edge of crust with your finger dipped in water. (This will help seal the two crusts together). Roll out next dough disc and place on top. Crimp edges. Make slits in top for steam. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. Turn oven to 350 degrees and bake 30-40 more minutes, until filling is bubbling out in center.
Ohio First Lady Fran DeWine is a Cedarville resident, Yellow Springs native and guest columnist.