There's clearly something I find addictive about pie baking. It's not just that I love to make them. It's that I can't stop learning how to make them from the experts. First there was my Nana Tillie, who had me rolling out dough for Thanksgiving apple and pumpkin pies when I was a kid. Much later I took classes at Great News!. Several years ago it got downright crazy--in a good way. Baker Rachel Caygill taught a class that highlighted her butter and lard recipe and technique. Michele Coulon of Michele Coulon Dessertier taught me her strictly butter approach. I got teased with techniques (but no recipe) by my buddy Elizabeth Harris of Betty's Pie Whole. And last summer I took a pie-making class that's part of the culinary degree curriculum pastry chef Tina Luu teaches at the Art Institute of San Diego.
You'd think I'd have had my fill--but no. When I learned that Kathleen Shen of Bake Sale Bakery teaches baking classes and that a pie-making class was coming up, well, I signed up, curious to see what more I could learn. And my intent that evening was to do what I often do at cooking classes when I'm going to write about them. Hover and take notes and photos. But Shen is an irresistible instructor and I found myself with a dusty camera by the end of the class because I couldn't keep from participating.
The class is intimate. Six students around a large marble-topped table. What's so brilliant about it is that it's both hands on and demo. Shen and her boss, owner Terryl Gavre, have figured out what concepts--like making the dough and piping meringue--students need to do at that moment and what can be done in advance and simply explained, along with a fulsome recipe. So, we learned technical skills and we learned why we do what we do so that, as Shen explained, we can figure out how to fix things when they go wrong. That's powerful knowledge in the kitchen.
We started out making a basic pie dough, of course. Shen likes the classic blending of butter (for flakiness and flavor) and shortening (for tenderness). She explained the science behind keeping the ingredients cold and why you want to have packets of fat. "You don't want to work all the fat into the flour," she explains. "You want those pieces of fat because they create pockets of steam and thus flakiness. And you want to minimize how much you work the dough to avoid developing gluten. Then the dough gets tough. Instead, it should just hold together."
Through the process of mixing it ourselves we learned how it should feel. Our dough, which we pressed into a disk, went into the fridge to cool. Then, with pre-made dough disks, we learned how to roll it out--always a source of anxiety. Shen's technique worked for me. Brush with flour and let the rolling pin do the work, not my arms. Roll. Turn it a quarter. Roll. Turn. Roll. Turn. You end up with a nice evenly rolled circle that doesn't stick to the surface. (For extra flaky dough, you can also fold your rolled out dough into quarters and roll it out again--like laminating dough for croissants or puff pastry.) Fold the now large circle gently into quarters and lift it into the pie plate. Unfold. Press into the plate and that's it. Sure made me look good.
She taught us great tips for how to blind bake dough for pies with liquid fillings, like lemon meringue and chocolate cream. She taught us how to effectively add a second, top crust to a fruit pie so the edges would be both pretty and contain the filling. (Fold the top dough over the bottom at the edge, press to close, then crimp.)
Shen also gave us tips for creating novel crusts. Instead of graham cracker crust for our chocolate cream pie, she gave us a primer in making a cookie crust. Make a chocolate chip cookie dough, sans the chips, bake it, run it through the food processor to get the crumbs, and add sugar and butter. Then press into the pie tin and refrigerate until ready to use. Want to add some extra structure to a pie dough for lemon meringue? Instead of rolling the dough out with flour, use graham cracker crumbs.
We then learned techniques for making chocolate cream and lemon curd for our pie fillings. On individual propane burners we each prepared our chocolate cream after Shen demonstrated the technique. We poured the cream into our already prepared cookie crusts. Then she did a demo for the lemon curd and taught us how to make meringue, offering some great tips. (Use a clean bowl and room-temperature egg, add cream of tartar to relax the whites and only add sugar once there's volume in the whites.) Then we each had to each use a pastry bag with a tip to pipe it onto our lemon meringue pies, which then went into the oven.
We did all this in just over two hours. And we got to take everything home with us that we'd made: our chilled unbaked dough, an uncooked but oven-ready strawberry rhubarb pie, our chocolate cream pie just needing whipped cream, and our stunning lemon meringue masterpieces. Plus recipes.
Since lemon meringue pie is my mom's absolute favorite, I took it over to her the next day. She only allowed me a small bite, but it was terrific. Even overnight the crust remained flaky and the meringue stiff. The lemon filling was a perfect melding of tart and sweet. My mom says that she doled out small pieces to herself for a couple of days and even with the last piece the crust remained solid, not mushy. So, we've got splendid recipes and techniques here!
I'm feeling even more confident now.
Bake Sale Bakery holds a variety of pastry classes year round. To find see their schedule, go to http://bakesalesd.com/events/category/classes/.