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Friday Food Post: In Search of the Perfect Pie

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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A reader wrote to ask me for my best pie recipes. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I love pie. In fact, my favorite food in the whole world is purple raspberry pie, a delicacy that unfortunately is not available to most people because purple raspberries do not store well, so the only way to get them is to pick your own. My official position on pie is that the benighted fools who do not like it have never actually had good pie, which is to say, a pie homemade by someone who knows what they are doing.

That's because pie is one of the trickiest foodstuffs in the American culinary canon. Good pie is sublime. But good pie basically cannot be had from a commercial establishment. Making it well is too labor-intensive to be profitable, and its ephemeral crust does not benefit from storage. It is best eaten on the day it has been produced (though I do not hesitate to dip in on the second and third day, even knowing that the crust will be chewy). Most people who think they do not like pie labor under this delusion because they have confused pie with the dreadful things that are available in bakeries. Of these, the only positive thing that can be said is that probably no children were killed in the production process.

We will not even speak of those premade pie crusts that you can buy in the refrigerator section. Except to note that anything cooked in one of these would taste even better if you just stuck the filling in a pie plate and cooked it by itself.

Unfortunately, making pie well requires skill and the aforementioned labor. These are not the easy delights of the layer cake, which can be mastered by anyone capable of reading the instructions for operating a stand mixer, and usually put in the oven in less than 20 minutes. Pie is a riddle wrapped in a mystery enclosed inside a crust that will toughen to the consistency of a brown paper bag if you overhandle it the least little bit. Yet at the same time, getting flakiness and the appropriate shape requires that you spend a lot of time slapping the dough around on a pastry board. Achieving this delicate balance requires practice and a spouse or a canine companion who will happily chew through your mistakes because, unfortunately, the only way you will know that you have erred is when you take that first bite.

So why bother? Because, as I said at the top, pie is delicious. Done right -- and most of you have probably never had it done right, which moves me beyond words -- you get a delicate, almost velvety crust that melts in your mouth as the filling spreads over your tongue. Pie is well worth all the effort it takes to make it, and it will leave you with the satisfied feeling of having mastered a dish that is rapidly becoming extinct in these days of takeout and Pillsbury pie crusts. I'm just saying, it's not for the faint of heart.

Before we can even get to recipes, we need to discuss the principles of learning to make pie crust. These are not even the principles of making pie crust -- we'll get to those in a minute -- but how you should approach the project if you are trying to teach yourself.

  1. If at all possible, find someone who knows how to make really good pie crust. You are not looking for someone to teach you how to make pie crust -- I mean, it's nice if they offer, but watching them will prove surprisingly little help. The way you are actually going to figure it out is by making a lot of pie crust and determining what doesn't work, which is almost everything you will try. What you are looking for is someone to bake you a pie. That way, you'll know what it's supposed to taste like. This will be a tricky task because most people who think they know how to make good pie crust don't. A surefire sign of someone who doesn't is someone who tells you that it's not that hard to learn. They are making terrible, tough pie crust and will lead you to a bad end.
  2. Buy 10 pounds of good unsalted butter (I'm partial to Land O'Lakes) the minute it goes on sale. Pie crust uses a lot of butter. You're going to be making a lot of pie crust. Use whatever you have left over to make layer cakes, to remind yourself that you really do know how to bake.
  3. Make the biggest pie-crust recipe you can find, certainly bigger than your pan. I taught myself to make pie crust using a recipe for a 10-inch pie, even though I did not own a 10-inch pie pan. Why? Because the first few times you roll out a pie crust, the results are likely to look a lot less like the beautiful circles pictured in cookbooks and more like some sort of shape that appears only in theoretical n-dimensional universes from science-fiction novels. Having more than you need means that you will still have room to cut a circle out of it.
  4. Keep the pie itself simple: No prebaked pie shells. This is the most basic form of pie, and it is the easiest to learn. 
  5. Get a good silicone rolling pin. It's less sticky than a regular one, which means you run a lower risk of toughening your crust by adding flour.
  6. Use either a food processor or a pastry cutter. Messing around with two forks is a challenge for the amateur who doesn't know what it's supposed to look like in the first place. And using your hands is a recipe for tough, tough crust.
  7. Make a lot of pies. Assume the first ones will be bad. (The filling will still be very tasty!) My grandmother, a legendary pie maker, had to throw her first pie crust out over the bank behind the house. My mother, another legendary pie maker, spent a holiday evening assembling her first pie crust in the pan like a jigsaw puzzle. My first pie crust was tough, about an inch thick, and nonetheless leaked filling everywhere. Maybe you will be the exception, but don't go in expecting it to be so.

The easiest, not-quite-foolproof-but-close crust recipe is the Cook's Illustrated Vodka Crust. Water binds with gluten, which can make your crust tough; adding alcohol gives you more liquid but fewer troublesome protein bonds.

And what do you put into the crust? Well, the possibilities are endless: savory or sweet, fruit or custard, baked or chilled. On pie, I'm basically a purist. I tend to prefer a single ingredient rather than "mixed berry" or "pumpkin chocolate," and I don't like flavors that are overpowering, such as peanut butter. Nor anything that's so sweet it sets my teeth on edge; I prefer pecan bars to ooey, gooey pecan pie. And I have a dark horror of evaporated or condensed milk, which I find disgusting to look at and unpleasant to eat. Yes, they make it easier to get a custard to set properly, but I can't stand them, so the exciting world of icebox pies is largely beyond my ken. 

I'm not criticizing other folks who like their pies drenched in molasses or towering with strongly flavored mousse or filled with condensed milk; as I've said time and time again, what you like is what you like, not a reflection on your character. But my taste is for a simple, old-fashioned pie that lets one ingredient shine.

The last thing I'll note is that if you can't get absolutely fresh fruit -- which is to say it came out of a farmer's market, roadside stand or your garden -- then in most cases, the best thing to do is use frozen. This is not true of apples or pears. But most other fruit is actually better frozen than from the produce section because the stuff in the produce section was picked green and shipped, while the fruit in the freezer case was picked ripe and immediately flash-frozen. Now, freezing fruit, especially berries, means it will release more liquid when it cooks, which can make your pie runny. But you can compensate for this by adding a little more of your thickener. (The recipes below use flour or cornstarch, but there are any number of exciting options once you get the hang of the basics).

Oh, and I promised to tell you the principles of making pie crust, didn't I? They are simple:

  • Freeze your butter.
  • Don't overhandle it. Don't overhandle it. Don't overhandle it. Stop! I see you there, tempted to give it just a few more pats. Let it be. Social interaction makes it very grumpy. Do the absolute minimum of work needed to get the butter and the liquid incorporated into the flour, then form it up and put it in the fridge. Do not fold, fondle, spindle or mutilate. Yes, you in the back, there is a technique where you smooth out small bits of dough with the heel of your hand and then pat the result into a ball in order to increase flakiness, but I am not going to tell you about it because frankly I don't trust you. Mix it up and leave it alone.
  • Use as little flour as possible when rolling it out.
  • Always work with it cold. Pie crust is like a polar bear: It's antisocial, and it gets very uncomfortable when it gets warm. If you are having trouble getting the knack, and the crust is starting to get soft, pop it back in the fridge and try again in 15 minutes when it has firmed up.

Now, on to the recipes. Because the person who asked is not an experienced pie baker, I'm going to stick to simple things: all baked pies, which require a minimum of custard- or curd-making skills and which don't have second steps where you top with meringue or try to spread chocolate onto your custard without breaking it. To my great sadness, I have also excluded the many delicious pies that can be made with uncooked eggs. I'll lead off with my family's recipe for pumpkin pie, which is about the easiest filling you can make. It's a simple custard that you pour straight into an unbaked crust: two eggs, some milk and a can of pumpkin.

Mom's Pumpkin Pie

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon mace
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine all of the above and add 1 1/2 cups pumpkin (one "one pie" can). Mix in two beaten eggs and a cup of milk. Pour into your pie crust and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 degrees until done, about one hour, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. (Those who remember this recipe from my old blog may remember that I initially erred and called for one egg rather than two.)

Berries and Cream Pie

This is a little odd-looking but very delicious.

  • 4 cups fresh berries
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup cream

Mix together the sugar, flour, spices and cream. Arrange berries in an unbaked pie shell and pour cream mixture over. Bake at 400 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes.

Sour Cherry Pie

If you can get the sour cherries, this is one of the most delicious pies you can make. (You can order them from Amazon, but it will cost you.) Sweet cherry pie is kind of cloying, but sour cherry pie is deliciously tart and sweet.

  • 1 1/4 cup sugar
  • 4 drops almond extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4 cups sour cherries (Morello and Montmorency are the most common varieties)
  • 5 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter

Combine everything but the butter in a bowl. Pour into a pie crust, then dot with butter and cover with your second crust. Bake at 425 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes.

Peach Pie

If it weren't for purple raspberries, this would be my favorite pie.

  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 4 cups sliced peaches
  • 4 tablespoons flour 
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon or 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter (optional, adds richness)

Mix all the ingredients except the butter together. Pour into a pie shell and dot with butter. Bake at 425 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes.

Cranberry-Raisin Pie

This is a holiday pie, like pumpkin, but it's delicious when you can get the cranberries. It's essentially homemade cranberry sauce baked in a pie, but the raisins give it richness.

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 3/4 cups cranberries, chopped
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Bring all the ingredients except almond extract to a boil over moderate heat and boil for about five minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, blend in the extract and pour into a pie shell. Cover with crust and bake at 425 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.

Ah, but how do you roll out a pie crust? I hear you cry. That is what YouTube videos are for. There is no written description I can give you that will beat watching someone else do it. But watching will only get you so far. You're going to need to start rolling yourself as soon as possible.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net