The Anti-Pie Rebellion of 2017
On Pi Day, of all days, it should not be necessary to defend the sacred American tradition of various delicious dessert substances wrapped in a flaky pastry crust. And yet, the militant anti-pie fanatics will have their say, even if it ruins everyone else’s holiday. Yes, I see you there on Twitter, posting a link to Nathan Heller’s strident pie-hating screed, or Mark Bittman’s more measured, but no less disappointing, assertion that “pie crust adds little to a fruit dessert apart from heft and calories.”
I have but two things to say to the people who are trying to ruin Pi Day for the rest of us:
- You’re wrong
- Have you no shame? At long last, have you no shame?
Properly made, pie is delicious. Fruit pie is especially delicious, because it has fruit in it. A thin layer of light, flaky crust, stretched across tender fruit that is softly melding with its own sugar-laced juices … ah, paradise.
Now, I readily concede that pie often isn’t properly made. Indeed, instead of “often”, I should say “usually”. Pie crust is not well suited to our modern era. For one thing, it is labor intensive, and little of that labor can be picked up by a machine. In this day and age, getting a layer cake into the oven is a matter of minutes. A pie will take you hours: first, making the pie crust, then putting together the filling, and then rolling out the crust, assembling the pie, and baking it. Nor have these problems been eased for us by the food processing industry. Quite decent commercial puff pastry is available in your freezer case. Ready-made pie crust, on the other hand, is only slightly more tender and delicious than the cardboard box it comes in.
You can’t even get good pie in a bakery. Oh, maybe you can, somewhere. All I can say is that In my experience, anyone thinking about buying a pie from a supermarket bakery would do just as well to amble over to the baking section, buy a can of pie filling, and eat it … without opening the can first. Fancy bakeries do somewhat better, but I’ve never encountered a single pie in a commercial establishment that compares to the ones I grew up with, or indeed, the other desserts available at those same bakeries.
Good pie crust seems to be too labor-intensive to make on commercial scale; it requires skilled hand-work, and you can’t get enough money for a pie to make that worthwhile. Too, commercial bakeries have to worry more about consistent appearance than home bakers. To keep the filling from being too runny, they often load it up with thickeners like cornstarch or tapioca flour, which gives it a beautiful, shiny appearance, and also, a mouthfeel like an oil slick. Then they cover it with a very thick layer of crust, which looks gorgeous in the display case, but either crumbles in your mouth like shortbread, or requires fierce chewing, like a sort of flour jerky.
Unfortunately, good pie crust is also hard to do at home. It relies less on ruthless attention to the recipe than on technique. That technique is impossible to adequately describe in writing, and it doesn’t really come across on video either. The only way to learn it is to watch someone who knows what they’re doing, learn the feel and close look of a good crust-in-process, and then mess around with it a bunch yourself. Even then, you will not always get it exactly correct; humidity and temperature can affect your results, as can things like the amount of moisture in your fruit. And yes, if you make a fruit pie, the filling will rarely stay neatly confined to the wedge shape, but will display a marked tendency to displace itself all over your plate.
You may think that I am myself making the case against pie. Far from it! Pie is not a dessert well suited to our modern era, but that is our loss, not pie’s. Its very difficulty and imperfections of form are part of its charm. They remind us that appearance is not everything, and that some of the most worthwhile things in life can only be attained through our own hard work.
Moreover, pie’s sublime deliciousness reminds us that greatness lies in simplicity as well as complexity. Much as I love Mark Bittman’s fantastic cookbooks, I must dissent from his opinion about pie crust and fruit. Streusel toppings, clafoutis, and similar, which he offers as better alternatives, are fine in their own way, but they tend to put the fruit into second place. Pie crust, on the other hand, enhances without distracting, an unostentatious but decorative bookend to the main event. It doesn’t change the flavor, or decorously absorb the fruit’s moisture, just keeps it still long enough for you to enjoy, and provides a hint of richness and texture to complement the melting sweetness of the pie filling.
Pie is delicious. It is American. It is well that we celebrate it. The only tragedy is that with pie-making declining as an art, not enough Americans know just how much they have to celebrate in this proud tradition.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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