My grandmother, Marjorie Rickard McEwen, was, among other things, a very accomplished cook. Like many women of her generation, she wasn’t much on the whole therapeutic conversation thing – “Least said, soonest mended” was one of her mottos. But in teaching me to cook – specifically to make pie – she taught me some very useful lessons.
First, the pie crust. Pie pastry has a reputation for mystery. Everyone has a family recipe, or swears by one rule or another, and most people perceive it as difficult and unforgiving and a lot of people are afraid of it and give up and buy them ready made. Gamma always made her own: a classic recipe using two cups of flour per pie, ice cold water, salt, and butter – never margarine or, god forbid, Crisco. But she wasn’t a total purist: her secret ingredient was a generous pinch of baking powder.
I asked her about this once. “Why baking powder? Julia Child doesn’t use baking powder and the Joy of Cooking doesn’t say anything about it either. Is it cheating?” She winked. “Everyone wants a flaky pie crust. With baking powder, you always get one. Why take a chance?”
Lesson one: First learn the rules. Then decide which ones to break.
I mastered the basics and then, under her tutelage (“Who ever said pastry had to taste boring?”) I learned to play with flavor, adding a bit of sugar or grated nutmeg to the flour before cutting in the butter. I also learned to grate the butter (toss it as you go with a fork to prevent it clumping up) rather than cutting it in with a pastry cutter or knives – a technique that’s a super time-saver and works every time.
Lesson two: don’t be afraid to experiment. It’s only pie crust.
Second, the filling. Four to five cups of fruit, a half to a cup of sugar depending on the acidity of the fruit, a squeeze of lemon, and a few tablespoons of flour – never cornstarch or tapioca. Why? “Cornstarch tastes floury and has a gummy texture and tapioca makes lumps. Flour is smooth and has no taste in a pie.” If making an apple pie, add cinnamon. If cherry, almond extract. “Each fruit needs a little help to come into its own.”
Lesson three: Listen to the fruit. It will tell you what it needs.
Third, the pie. Roll the crust. Fold in quarters and drape over the pie plate and carefully unfold. Then separate an egg and beat the egg white and brush the inside of the bottom crust with it.
Lesson four: If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. No one likes a soggy bottom crust, even if they say they do.
The most important lesson came with the final step. Fill the bottom crust with fruit and dot with butter. Roll the top crust out, fold in quarters, drape over fruit, unfold, and crimp the edges. Then cut slits in a starburst shape in the top crust to release the steam. Every time I do this, I can still her her voice, saying calmly, “You know, pies are a bit like people. If you forget the starburst, the steam builds up inside the pie and the pie can explode all over the inside of the oven. The slits release the steam a little at a time so that doesn’t happen.”
Lesson five: If you have a temper, learn to manage it – like a pie.
Gamma, wherever you are, I have never yet exploded a pie. And I have learned to manage my temper (most of the time).