Summertime, and the livin’ is easy

First, I’ll say right off that I come from a pie family. We’re also a musical family and a storytelling family, but I’ll save those topics for another day (except to say that, of course, I hear Ella singing in my head as I write).

But back to the pie! If you’ve never made a pie from scratch, let this be the day you change that. There’s really no mystery to great pastry. I personally like butter or a butter/shortening blend, but my mom and grandma used straight shortening and everyone always said they made the best piecrust in town. A while back someone I work with had some pie I took for an office potluck. She was impressed with the crust and commented, “I always buy frozen crust. It never even would have occurred to me that I could make my own.” Now this woman is one of the smartest people I know, and I’m certain she could successfully combine three ingredients with some water and end up with pastry…and so can you!

This particular pie started with an invitation to our friends’ for dinner. Jerry knew he could safely volunteer me to bring a pie because it’s my favorite type of dessert to make. Plus, these particular friends have a big blackberry patch right by their house, and the berries were ripe. So Jerry went over after work one day to do some picking with them, and I made the pastry that night and put the pie together the next morning. What can I say? It was the essence of late summer on a plate! Here’s the how-to:

Perfect Pastry

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cups cold butter (I’m not generally picky about distinguishing between salted and unsalted butter – whatever you have is fine, but margarine simply will not give the same good results)

Combine the flour and salt in a large shallow bowl. Cut about half of the butter in, using a wire pastry blender or two knives.

Then add the rest of the butter and continue cutting, so you have a mix of large and small flour-coated butter particles (with the large particles about the size of dry pinto beans, and the small ones about like lentils). Then take a half-cup to three quarters cup of very cold water and sprinkle a tablespoon at a time over the flour mixture, while at the same time lightly stirring it together with a fork until it just starts to form a dough.

Be careful not to add too much water – you don’t want it to be sticky, and you also don’t want to knead the dough or the crust will be tough instead of flaky. Once you can press it together, divide the dough in half, flatten each piece and wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for an hour or so.

When you are ready to roll, lightly flour the surface and your rolling pin. Plop a circle of dough down on the floured surface, then flip it over so both sides are lightly floured. Roll from the center to the edge, occasionally lifting with a big metal spatula and lightly re-flouring the rolling pin in between passes. Half of a 3-cup batch of dough will make more than enough for a bottom crust, but that is intentional. Place your pie plate on the dough and allow an extra couple of inches as you trim around it. Put the trimmings on a baking sheet for later.

Once you have the pastry round the size you need for the pie plate (dough should be about 1/8 inch thick, or even thinner if you can do it without it sticking and tearing), lift all around again with the metal spatula, then fold it in half, slide the pie plate in under the dough, and unfold it. By the way, I don’t generally butter the pie plate and it seems to come out just fine, probably due to the amount of butter in the pastry. Press the pastry edges up and pinch to make a rim, fluting with your fingers and thumbs to make it pretty if you like. Then go ahead and follow the same procedure for the top crust, except you will leave it on the rolling surface for a while if you are going to go ahead and bake the pie right away.

If the pastry-making is a preliminary step and you are making the pie another time: cover the bottom of a dinner plate with plastic wrap; loosen the pastry with the metal spatula and flop it onto the inverted plastic-covered plate (again, it will be more pastry than you need – put the trimmings on the baking sheet). Cover the rolled-out dough on the dinner plate and the pastry-filled pie plate with another layer of plastic and refrigerate both the bottom and top crusts until you are ready to bake.

And the trimmings? Sprinkle them with cinnamon and sugar and bake at 400 F. until golden brown. They can be enjoyed right away for a delicious foretaste of your perfect pastry, or you can save them for children who might be there when you serve the pie (for some reason fruit pie is not a favorite dessert for lots of kids, but they almost always like these cinnamon crusts).

Blackberry Pie

  • Prepared pastry (double crust)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 6 cups fresh blackberries
  • 1 egg, separated
  • 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat oven to 400 F. and remove crusts from the refrigerator if you made them ahead of time.

Combine the sugar and cornstarch in a large bowl and stir in the berries. Let sit for 15-20 minutes, stirring gently from time to time to release berry juice and dissolve the sugar.

Line the bottom crust with foil and fill with dry beans or other pie weights; bake for about 10 minutes (I always do this “blind-bake” step, even for two crust pies, because nothing ruins a pie faster than a gooey bottom crust).

While the fruit is sitting and the bottom crust is baking, beat the egg white with a wire whisk until it is frothy. After the crust has baked a while, remove the weights and foil and brush it with the beaten egg white, then pop it back in the oven for a few more minutes. If the crust starts to puff up, give it a couple of pokes with a fork to release steam.

Note: before continuing to the next step, if you live at a high altitude like Janessa (our Colorado cohort), you will probably need to pre-cook the fruit mixture in a saucepan so that it will thicken properly.

Use a big slotted spoon to lift the berries out of the juice and into the crust. Reserving just enough of the egg white to brush the top crust after you finish assembling the pie, pour the rest of the egg white and the yolk into the juice/sugar/cornstarch mixture and stir it together. Pour it over the fruit in the pie plate, then dot with pieces of butter.

With both layers of plastic still in place, flop the top crust off the plate onto the counter, remove the plastic from the concave side that is now on top, then use the other layer of plastic to help you position it on top of the pie. Press the edges together (it’s OK if you don’t get a perfect seal), trimming as needed. Brush the top with the rest of the egg wash, sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar for extra sparkle and crunch, and cut slits to allow steam to escape. A pie like this is bound to drip at least a little, so put it on a foil-lined baking sheet on the bottom rack of the oven.

Bake for about an hour. If after 30 minutes it seems to be browning too quickly, reduce the heat to 350 F. and pull up the foil from the baking sheet around the edge of the crust. It’s also a good idea to take the pie out and look at the bottom about halfway through the baking time (that’s why I always use a glass pie plate), and if it looks like it is getting too done, move the pie to the middle of the oven. You might need to re-cut the slits in the top crust during baking if they seal over. The pie is done when it is a beautiful golden brown on top and juices are bubbling happily through the slits in the crust.

Still with me? I realize I wrote this for a brand new never-made-pastry-in-your-life baker, so I hope if you are already experienced at this, you realized that you could skim through this long set of directions. I have lots of other pie recipes in the oven (I think I can safely promise at least a pie a month for quite a while), and in the future, I’ll cut back a bit on details and refer readers to this post as a tutorial for the basics.

As you can see in the last photo, this pie was minutes from perfection when it was time for me to go to work, so I turned off the oven and left it, and it turned out juuuuuuust right!


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