Calculating the Perfect Pie

Be it custard or fruit, mousse or chiffon, a pie is only as good as its crust. Drawing as much passion as it does ire, the art of crafting the perfect pastry is a contentious subject among bakers and eaters alike. Everyone has an opinion about this essential dessert foundation, ranging from the most minimalist approaches inspired by the sage advice of grandmothers the world over, to high-end culinary graduate specifications that require a firm grasp of the scientific intricacies of baking to appreciate. There’s more than one way to go about the circumference of the dough, but there is one important rule that must be obeyed: Never let the hype go to your head.

When you find a solid formula, stick with it. There will always be new suggestions to explore, such as the substitution of vodka instead of water, or coconut oil as the primary fat, but if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

Since Pi Day, March 14th (3.14) is right around the corner, now has never been a better time to strengthen your pie making prowess. That all begins with the crust.

What follows is the crust that’s seen me through the stickiest of fillings, the most temperamental of ovens, and the hottest of summers. This “Old Reliable” is a baker’s best friend, capable of standing and delivering anything loaded into it. The ingredients are nothing noteworthy; it’s all a matter of how they’re combined for the magic to happen. Keep everything, including bowls and utensils, as cold as possible so as not to melt the fat. Though a point of contention, I do adhere firmly to the belief that an all-“butter” crust is best. You may lose a little bit of flakiness, but the added flavor and crisp texture is worth that small sacrifice. For a lighter texture, feel free to sub out half of the butter for pure vegetable shortening, and proceed as written otherwise. Do not be tempted to play around with coconut oil or any liquid oils in this one, as the structure simply isn’t built for that kind of tinkering.

Even when I’m planning to make a single-crusted pie, I always use the double-crust proportions, to make the most of my time. The extra disk of dough can be frozen for up to 6 months with no harm, as long as it’s thawed gradually in the fridge before use. That way, you’re always prepared to whip up a pie at a moment’s notice.

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A Pumpkin In Every Pot

Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, you recently carved a delightfully ghastly jack-o’-lantern face out of pie crust. I know, it’s quite a reach, but humor me for a moment, will you? Imagine, with those features missing from an otherwise perfectly good, full sheet of pastry, the possibilities for further baking witchcraft.

Pumpkin is still at play here, but under a more savory guise, you see. Humble pot pie pulls on an autumnal cloak in this phantasmic fall affair. Beneath that buttery, golden brown exterior lies a rich stew of tender orange squash, bolstered by an infusion of pumpkin puree throughout. A touch of umami tomato paste and warming spices sets it apart from the standard child’s play.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Such a wildly abstract thought could easily be written off as a dream… Vanishing almost as quickly as the dish itself.

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All Jacked Up

Gather ’round the campfire and pull your loved ones in close. It’s time for a ghost story more haunting than the Winchester Mystery House, more frightful than Frankenstein, and more bewitching than the lovely ladies of Salem. I’m talking about the tale of Stingy Jack.

Naysayers may call it a myth, but legend has it that Stingy Jack was a classic con artist, scraping by on someone else’s dollar while swindling his way into another man’s coin purse. He was already a man on the fringes of society, making more enemies than friends, so it should come as no surprise that eventually, the only creature willing to share a drink was the Devil himself. When last call came, predictably, Jack didn’t have the means to pay for his drink, so he made a dangerous bet with the devil instead.

Calling out his demonic power or lack thereof, he suggested that there was no way the devil could turn himself into the necessary coinage. With enough taunting and cajoling, already somewhat tipsy himself, Satan proved his prowess, transforming into a gleaming golden coin without any difficulty. Snapping up the opportunity along with the cash, Jack decided to ditch the bill and keep the money instead. Securing it in his pocket next to a silver cross, the Devil was prevented from transforming back into his original form.

Only when Jack died was demon freed, and quite peeved, to put it lightly. Hell was too good for this malicious man, so he set him off into the night, with only a piece of burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. Somewhere along the line, repeated reiteration of the story turned the turnip into a pumpkin, and that’s how we ended up with Jack-o’-lanterns.

Mea culpa; perhaps that was more of history lesson than a horror story. I can’t help but find myself enchanted by the origins of our strange holiday traditions. If you made it this far through my rambling tale, though, you definitely deserve a drink. How about a shot of applejack, on the rocks?

Better yet, let’s put it in the pumpkin.

That, my friends is the TRUE history of how the Applejack-O’-Lantern Pie came to be.

Cradled in a flaky pastry crust lies a layer of spiked and spiced apple filling, topped by a creamy pumpkin custard. Tender fruit mingles with brown sugar-infused pumpkin puree; each bite is highly spirited, in all meanings of the word. It’s a sinfully good treat to commemorate villainous old Stingy Jack… Just don’t make any deals with the Devil to secure a second slice.

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An Educated Palate

Math has never been my favorite subject. If there was one black mark on my quarterly report card, it would be filed under algebra, or calculus. Quite frankly, it’s a small miracle that anyone let me graduate with such a flimsy understanding of numbers in general. One limited concept that I can comfortably wrap my mind, and my lips around, is pi.

Okay, you got me. Not actual pi, but pie. Flaky pastry and comforting fillings both sweet and savory always make perfect logical sense. Pi Day, March 14th (3.14) is the only day of the year I’m happy to bridge the gap between baking and calculating.

This year, I’d like to present to you an appropriately educated provision. Inspired by daigaku imo, imagine a chunky sweet potato pie with a touch of Asian flare. Directly translated, daigaku imo means “university potatoes.” Though still murky in origin, the name can be traced back to two plausible explanations.

Tokyo University, sometime in the early 1900’s, saw the rise of this cultural sensation. Some say a snack shop began offering lightly fried sweet potatoes drenched in sugar syrup and tossed with sesame seeds, while others are adamant that it was a student selling these sweet and savory delights to raise funds for tuition. Either way, we have Japan to thank for yet another viral food hit.

Rather than pulling out a vat of bubbling oil, my adaptation uses only a touch of toasted sesame oil to roast the tubers to fork-tender perfection. Creamy yet still toothsome, the pale white flesh takes on greater dimension with the umami notes of soy sauce rather than plain salt, plus the acidic edge of vinegar for balance. These subtle, delicate nuances will keep tasters guessing, but this is a culinary equation that’s easy to solve.

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Hello Gourd-geous!

No Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without a pumpkin pie on the menu. Over 50 million of the crusted custards meet their demise on this fateful day, despite the fact that the pilgrims didn’t serve a single slice at the first harvest celebration. Somehow, the American love affair with the warmly spiced, sweet and simple pastry blossomed into an obsession spanning the generations. Everyone has a secret recipe that their grandma made, or a special twist that no one can replicate.

My enthusiasm for pumpkin pie is admittedly a bit tepid at best. It’s just so predictable, so plain! Every bite has the same flavor, the same texture, the same sugar overload. That was, until at a friend’s behest, I tried topping tradition- Literally.

Crisp, buttery streusel, the best part of crumb cake and bakery muffins, turns ho-hum pumpkin pie into the legendary dessert that everyone will crave all year long. The creamy filling itself is still the main attraction, sweetened with a balanced hand and highly aromatic, redolent of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.

Considering its popularity, there’s no need to give the classic pumpkin pie a gut renovation. Just a light touch-up, once in a century or two, may help win over some new fans.

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