Courtesy Mike Bitzenhofer/Flickr
In America, the culinary practice of filling a pastry shell with anything edible is known as making pie. The word “pie” could mean a spicy and tart apple pie to one person, and a meaty shepherd’s pie to another. The possibilities are limitless and left up to the baker’s imagination.
Pie goes by many names, including the dumpling, the empanada, the tart, the quiche, the turnover and the hand pie. It can be made sweet and fruity, salty and crunchy, light and fluffy, or filling and heavy. And pie isn’t choosy about its ingredients—almost anything from your local farmer’s market or garden has a rightful place within a pie.
Whether you’re working with good from your own garden, bartering with local farmers or trying to find a use for an item in your CSA basket, pie is a great option for a meal any time of day. But don’t rummage through your drawers looking for an edger or head to the store for expensive pastry gadgets. We’re going to show you how to make one—easy as pie.
Step 1: Make the Crust
Hang around a country pie festival for a few minutes, and you might hear a little competitive banter about the perfect crust. But for the sake of practicality, let’s be serious about what exactly you need to make the most basic pie crust: flour, fat and ice water. The ratio is easy to remember:
- 3 parts flour
- 2 parts fat
- 1 part water
The ingredients you use are up to you—you can incorporate corn flour, whole-wheat flour, gluten-free flour or all-purpose flour. You can use all lard, all butter, a combination of both, or even a vegan option like coconut oil.
You can blend your crust the old-fashioned way: in a bowl with your (clean) fingers. If you have a pastry cutter, use it to break up the chunks of fat added to the flour mixture. Or, pulse the mixture in a food processor for the quickest results. The crust should eventually form into pea-sized bits, and that’s when you know to start adding water. Be conservative with the amount of water you add, as you don’t want to make the crust overly sticky—that can lead to disaster when rolling out.
At this point, you can put your own personal twist on the crust by adding in embellishments:
- Add a pinch of salt and a variety of chopped herbs from your garden or farmers’ market for a savory pie.
- Mix a sprinkle of sugar, freshly ground nutmeg, or the zest of an orange or lemon for a sweet pie.
- Folding in your favorite cheese—perhaps a creamy goat cheese from the farmers’ market or sharp variety from a local creamery—works for both a sweet or savory pie.
Squeeze the flour mixture for your crust into a round ball, wrap with plastic, and put in the refrigerator for a little bit. Once chilled, roll out the crust and determine its final shape. You can use a fancy pastry liner, parchment paper or a sheet of heavily floured plastic wrap as a helpful layer between dough and countertop to easily lift and relocate the dough after rolling.
If you don’t have a rolling pin, many linear glass jugs and bottles filled with warm water do the trick—just make sure there are no leaks and that they are dry and floured thoroughly. You can roll the dough out in any shape, but a traditional pie crust will need to be as close to a circle as possible. You can also try these alternatives:
- Form your dough into a rectangle; fold over or pinch the edges and place on a pizza stone. Yes, this dense crust can also serve as the foundation for a pizza pie.
- Cut out circles 4 to 5 inches in diameter and heat up a fryer. Tuck in your filling to make fried dumplings or empanadas.
- Use a cookie cutter or knife to cut dough into small squares and fold the edges over for a collection of tarts.
Step 2: Make the Filling
Most anything fresh and seasonal has a place inside a pie crust. In your pie-making process, you’ve reached the crossroad of deciding whether your pastry will be savory or sweet. If you’re going the sweet route, use the following options. (If you want to go savory, skip to below.)
- For a berry-filled pie, you’ll need 4 to 6 cups of small-sized berries, fresh or frozen. Add 1/2 cup brown or white sugar to sweeten the pie. To add thickness, add either a tablespoon of cornstarch or a few slices of skinned apple, which is loaded with the natural thickener pectin and will blend into the pie seamlessly. A few tablespoons of butter help with flavor and thickness.
- Peaches, plums, nectarines, quinces, figs, apples and cherries also make wonderful sweet pie fillings. Pick two of these beautiful fruits as companions for a sweet pie—one of my favorite pairings is peaches and plums with a bit of bourbon. Add sugar and a thickener. Lemon zest, spices and liquor can help make more dynamic flavors. Remember, bruised or aged fruit will work just as well when baked.
- Custard pies, like banana cream pie and pumpkin pie, are crowd-pleasers. Whip up eggs (at least three), sugar (at least 1/2 cup), and heavy cream or another dairy product (at least 1 cup) to make the most basic custard pie. Then add in puréed produce of choice (pumpkin, sweet potato, butternut squash, et cetera), spices, melted butter, and cornstarch for thickness. Eggs are the stars of these pies, so source only the best from a local provider.
Sweet filling needs to be prepared in pre-cooked pie shells, and slowly on low heat to set well.
If you are going the savory route, consider the following options:
- Quiche is an easy and adaptable pie, and it won’t require a complicated topping. Beat half a dozen farm-fresh eggs. Throw in the greens from turnips or beets, which serve as a nice salty substitute for spinach. (Roast the root portion of those vegetables to serve on the side.)
- Gravy-based pies are filling and comforting foods for colder weather, and one of the most famous of those is chicken potpie. For your version, consider turkey or any stewed meat as a substitute, or simply fill the pie with a variety of veggies. A traditional chicken potpie includes onions, carrots, peas and celery, but you can add whatever is in season, including leeks, mushrooms, peppers, green beans, potatoes and more. For your roux gravy, you’ll combine a 1:1:1 ratio of butter, flour and a dairy product: milk, cream or buttermilk depending on the thickness you like.
- When tomatoes are in season, cooks are desperate for fresh ideas for using them. Consider buying a variety from the market—heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and even green tomatoes —for a colorful tomato pie. You can peel them, or simply slice and stack in the pie shell. For a cold pie, bake the piecrust ahead, cool and spread with fresh herbs and goat cheese before assembling your slices of tomatoes.
Step 3: Add a topping
Although a pie topping is optional, you can decorate it with a golden layer of leftover pastry dough or another tasty combination of ingredients. Here are a few options:
- For sweet pies, consider a basket weave topping. Cut a thin layer of dough into 1-inch strips, and then drape the strips across the top of the pie. Fold back every other strip to the middle of the pie, and then drape strips perpendicular to the first layer of strips. Unfold the original strips over the new strips and repeat the process until you arrive at a basket-weave pattern. Trim the edges and roll and crimp the crust with your fingers. Brush with egg whites or butter before baking.
- For a simpler pastry pie topping, roll out your remaining dough onto a sheet of floured parchment paper, until it’s very thin. Drape the sheet over your pie and peel away the parchment paper so the dough is covering your pie. Use scissors to trim the edges away and use your fingers to crimp the edges of the pie, or flatten the edge with a fork head. Use a sharp knife to cut two small slats into the middle of the dough for heat to escape while baking. Brush with milk, egg wash or melted butter for a golden crust.
- Cut decorative shapes out of pastry crust and simply arrange them on the top of your pie.
- For a sweet pie, sometimes a crumble crust is the easiest topping, which would include an even ratio of cold fat (lard or butter), sugar and flour.
- For a savory pie, you might choose to top with a cheesy crumble of a combination of grated cheesy, bread crumbs, herbs, flour and butter.
About the Author: Elizabeth Adams is a freelance writer based in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. In addition to gardening, cooking and homesteading, she loves riding horses, practicing yoga, and spending time with her French bulldog Linus and husband Shawn. She blogs at www.bluegrassgoodness.com.