Monday, November 23, 2015

The Big Holiday Pie Roundup: You Can Do It!

With Thanksgiving coming up later this week, I thought it would be helpful to do a roundup of all my pie-baking posts. Pies--or more specifically, pie crusts--seem to give people the most angst of all Thanksgiving dishes.

I've been baking pies since I was a teenager, more or less successfully. But over the years I've gained confidence, especially since 2011, when I went on a tear talking with San Diego pastry chefs about their pie-baking techniques. I learn, I try, I repeat. I learn more, try something new, and either go with it or revert back to the other technique. Regardless of what I do, I feel like I understand the science of it more and so can correct mistakes or make my own choices.

Over the years, I've met with Michele Coulon (Michele Coulon Dessertier), Rachel Caygill, Tina Luu, Kathleen Shen (Bake Sale Bakery), and Nick Brune (Local Habit). Finally, if the whole crust thing is still too intimidating--or you're just not into crusts, you can try my apple pie crisp.

First up is Michele Coulon. I loved the pie-baking experience with her. She basically just put me to work and had me make the pie as she instructed me. Michele is all about the butter--unsalted European butter. She has some very fundamental opinions about baking apple pies--everything from what type of pie plate to use and avoid to whether or not to add spices. So take a read. You'll find a great mentor here, like I did.

Then, there's Rachel Caygill, formerly the pastry chef at Bankers Hill. What a terrific teacher. We miss her terribly in San Diego, but while she was here she gave a group of bloggers a pie-baking class and invited me. I learned about making crusts in a very traditional way with a combination of butter (for flavor) and lard (for flakiness). You'll want to try this option, so read about it here.

Tina Luu recently left her long-time position as instructor at the Art Institute. Before she left, she invited me (or I invited myself--I can't remember) to her pie and tart class. What a revelation. Here's where I began to learn the science of pie doughs, like the differences between pie and tart doughs, how to create a flaky crust, and what options there are to do it. We also learned a lot about fillings and layering flavors. Dig deep here.

Kathleen Shen invited me to her pie-baking class at Bake Sale Bakery earlier this year. I came to the class thinking that I already had the skills, but Shen is a terrific teacher and the hands-on class she runs is irresistible. She gives you the confidence to go out and bake pies for every occasion. I learned so much here, mostly about technique. Like not fully incorporating butter and shortening into the flour when mixing because,"You want those pieces of fat because they create pockets of steam and thus flakiness," she explained. "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." Here's another piece to read if you can't take the class. (Take the class!)

Now Nick Brune didn't teach me how to bake a pie crust, but he did share his secrets for baking a traditional Southern Buttermilk Pie. It's easy to make and will thrill your holiday guests as a change up from traditional custard pies. Add this to your repertoire.

Alright, maybe neither all these chefs nor I haven't convinced you. Or, maybe, like my dad, you don't love pie crusts--you just love the filling. For you I offer the apple crisp. This recipe makes baking a dessert easy and still feel traditional.

Caron's Crisp Mix
(printable recipe)

What I love about this recipe is that I can make the mixture in advance and store it in the freezer. Then I can create an individual serving for myself or a large dessert for company, using whatever fruit is in season. In cool seasons, I peel, core, and slice a Granny Smith apple. Then I toss the slices in a small amount of flour and sugar, and place the slices in a large ramekin or individual pie dish that I lightly coated with baking spray or vegetable oil. I’ll pull out the crisp mixture from the freezer and spoon out just enough to top the fruit, then bake. In less than an hour I have a pretty healthy, fiber-rich dessert.

Makes 8 to 10 servings, depending on how much you use per serving

Mix together:

2 cups quick cooking oats
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1 ½ cups lightly packed brown sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon fennel pollen
1 cup unsalted butter, melted

Store in the freezer until you’re ready to bake.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare fruit. Toss with a little flour and sugar. Arrange in a baking dish lightly coated in baking spray or vegetable oil. Top with enough crisp mixture to cover the fruit. Store remaining crisp mixture in the freezer.

Bake for about 40 minutes or until fruit is bubbly and the topping is browned.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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