Making Pies and Tarts

  • A Plum Galette A Plum Galette
  • Making Pies and Tarts

Making Pies and Tarts

I taught myself how to bake pies.  Even though my mother was an excellent pie baker, she limited herself to apple and pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving and chocolate cream for family birthdays.  I had bigger ambitions.

The first pie I made had a store-bought frozen crust that I filled with a mixture of melted vanilla ice cream and lemon Jello that took on the texture of a creamy chiffon.  At the time I thought this was the best pie I had ever tasted.  Would I make it again?  I don't think so.

My pies got better.  I advanced to buying a small metal rolling pin and sticks of pie "dough" that I'm sure were some combo of gums and trans fats.  Anyway, you'd break these sticks of dough into a mixing bowl, add water and with a fork, get the water absorbed as the texture of the dough softened enough to be rolled out and placed in a pie plate and baked empty.  Once cooled, I'd fill the crust with chocolate or vanilla pudding made from a mix and topped it all with whipped cream and maybe some sliced bananas. 

Soon I became fixated on making my own piecrusts.  After studying The Joy of Cooking and New York Times Cookbook, I bought a hefty wood rolling pin, a pastry blender, and a bag of flour and decided to make a pumpkin pie -- completely from scratch.  Although it was decades ago, I clearly remember becoming so angry at my failure to get the pie dough to come together that I balled up the gloppy dough and tossed it against my kitchen wall.  I took a walk.  I smoked a couple of cigarettes (hey, this was a long time ago).  And I returned home to start again, although first I had to scrape the remnants of my pie dough off the wall where it had stuck while I had walked around the block.

Looking back, I was making progress.  And with the quality of the pies I make today, I am so glad I did not give up.  I am humble about most things I've learned to do in life but when it comes to my pies, I have pride.  They are damn good.  And having mastered something that many superb home cooks still find intimidating, I want to give you some encouragement and basic wisdom about making pies in small city kitchens.

Making Pie Dough

I've tried scores of methods and recipes.  I've done the dough entirely by hand.  I've done them with all butter, all lard, all Crisco.  I've made versions with vinegar and with oil.  I've made dough completely in the Cuisinart.  I've mixed the ingredients in the pie plate, on a cold marble slab, and in a bowl.  And here are some things I know for sure about pie:

Pies, Tarts and Galettes

If you want variety or are still feeling clumsy when rolling out and constructing an actual pie, there are easier alternatives:

Galettes.  Roll out a circle of dough.  Fill it with sugared fruit.  Fold up the edges into a rustic tart that has an opening in the center.  Use a spatula to transfer the tart onto a piece of parchment paper and place it on a rimmed sheet pan (the fruit juices may leak) and bake like a pie.  We have a recipe for a Plum Galette that explains the process in more detail.

Turnovers.  Roll out the dough and cut it into 4-inch squares.  Place a spoonful of sugared fruit or preserves or bits of semi-sweet chocolate into the center, leaving about an inch border.  Fold the dough over so to create a triangle shape.  Bake like a pie until the crust is golden.

Tarts.  Use a fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.  Line the pan with the dough.  If the dough breaks don't worry because you can add the dough in pieces and just press together at any seams or breaks.  Fill the pan with thin slices of apples or other fruit and bake. Or you can pre-bake the empty pastry tart until it is golden brown and crispy.  When it's completely cooled, fill it with fresh fruit and whipped cream.  Tarts can be more flexible and easier to construct than pies simply because there's no top crust to deal with.

Overall, my best advice is to just practice.  Pie is primarily about assembly.  And since we're talking about flour and butter and Crisco, if for some reason your dough fails, just toss it away and start again.  With every pie you'll get better until one day, you won't even think about your technique.  However, I strongly recommend you do not throw it against the wall of your kitchen.  I never did get that stain completely washed off.




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