Humble Pie

Sweet or savory? Either way, the folks at Frieda’s and Bluebird Bakery serve up comfort.
Pie. Such a small word with great meaning. Even the crustiest curmudgeons will give up a smile at its mention. Offer someone a slice of pie and their demeanor softens, memory drifts: family picnics, county fairs, holiday gatherings. “Damn good pie” topped with a scoop of cold ice cream and a cup of hot coffee at a favorite diner. Whether filled with the sweet or savory, pie means no less than motherly love and certain satisfaction, such is its power. Or as British journalist George Augustus Sala wrote in 1882, “Men may come and men may go…but pie goes on forever.”

Although early Romans first offered it up to their gods, the British embraced “pye” as a form of animated entertainment at bacchanalian feasts—large pastry coffins from which small birds and animals were released when the crust was cut. Remember the nursery rhyme “…four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie”? Turns out a dainty dish of singing birds set before the king wasn’t just the hallucination of an 18th century English poet but a familiar delicacy. And lest you cake fans think your candidate deserves recognition for accommodating a stripper or two, 14th century Britain makes Las Vegas look like a tea party; written accounts source pie as the original treasure chest from which dancers, minstrels, dwarfs, even small orchestras emerged to toot their horns and perform the length of the banquet table.

While pie-eyed Saxons partied like it was 1399, pies became a staple of the family table, eventually making the pilgrimage to America to become a quintessential part of our culture. Today nearly every state can claim a pie identity: Florida key lime, Michigan cherry; pecan and peach from Georgia, shoofly and vanilla from the Pennsylvania Dutch; pies plump with blueberries in the northeast, blackberries in the northwest. Pie bridges all culture clashes, all perceived barriers of class and race. A slice of cold homemade banana cream pie is as good at the counter of a dive in the rural heartland as it is at the table of a famed restaurant under the bright lights of a big city—maybe even better. And though there are as many variations as there are pie makers, no two pies have traversed the 50 states as much as pumpkin and apple. I’ve never met anyone under the age of 12 who has not known paradise in a wedge of apple pie.

I proudly claim my pie heritage. Ours is a pie family. This is not meant to disrespect cake. Cake held its own at many a meal, but pie was the currency that soothed tears, assuaged guilt, and celebrated achievement. As my friend Chris Kemp, a writer living in New Zealand, recently confessed to me, “I would not want to live in a world without cake, but done properly, pie is religious.” To this day I uphold the legacy of pie bakers, not the least my paternal grandmother Millie, the culinary matriarch of our family, who could transform flour, butter, sugar, and apples into a slice of heaven. By the time I could reach my 5-year-old arms over her ebony walnut kitchen table, I was taught to cut cold butter into the flour, to wield the rolling pin, to gently line the pie tin and tuck a mound of sugared fruit under a top crust.

Pie is, in part, responsible for my career in the culinary industry. Though I envisioned myself attending art school and designing textiles for the house of Missoni, fate intervened by way of a group of energetic yogis who purchased Mecklenburg Gardens, a defunct German bier garten built in 1865 in Corryville, and restored it to its former glory. I was offered a position making desserts. Ensconced in the restaurant’s dank basement-turned-food prep area, I spooned chocolate and raspberry mousses into crystal wine goblets; lined clay pots with cheesecloth for creamy Russian-style cheesecake; and made hundreds and hundreds of what became known as the “Mecklenburg pie”—a rich confection of chocolate pecan crust, smooth mocha cream filling, and cumulus puffs of coffee whipped cream. Three bites of this sexed-up pie are enough for most sane people. One piece is not wholly unreasonable. We watched, agog, as customers devoured one, sometimes two slices, and then ordered a whole pie to go.

Consequently, I spent a lot of time in the basement. With a visionary chef at the helm and one of the first “fusion” menus in the city, Mecklenburg Gardens became a Mobil four-star restaurant overnight, and my career as a pastry chef snowballed. I never did make it to art school. And while I left Mecklenburg Gardens after five years, I continued to bake pies professionally for many more. Today I make them from home, with my grandmother’s rolling pin. In addition to the pecan-crusted mocha cream orgasm that carved my path, we offer you recipes from two of the finest professional piemasters in town: Jenny Dennis’s “best” apple pie from her Bluebird Bakery, and pumpkin pie from Armin Hack, the wizard of wicked-good pastry at Frieda’s, whose pies make me shout, “Hell, yeah!”

Such is the power of pie.

Bluebird Bakery Apple Pie

Whether it’s Pink Lady or Gingergold, Granny Smith or Northern Spy, Bluebird’s owner and piemaster Jenny Dennis insists that the quality of apple determines the quality of your pie. She recommends firm fresh apples that hold their shape when cooked, a combination of sweet and tart varieties for a more complex flavor—and lots of them. Though Dennis’s 12-year-old Bluebird Bakery features Danish, coffee cake, scones, and cookies, she shyly acknowledges that its reputation has been built on its pies, and that male customers often outnumber female. “Pie recalls the comfort of home more than cake,” she says. Dennis prefers the flakier style shortening crust, tapioca over flour for thickening the juices, and advises the proper oven temperature to ensure a brown crust without turning the fruit to mush. Adored by Bluebird’s customers, her apple pie is available two ways: with a traditional double crust or—Dennis’s favorite—crumb topping. “It reminds me of grade school apple crisp,” she laughs. “The smell fills the neighborhood and they start lining up.”

Pastry Crust
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 cup shortening (or combination of butter and shortening)
1/2 cup water

Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Cut in the shortening until consistency is mealy. Add water and mix just until the dough comes together. Lightly flour surface and rolling pin, and keep dough loose as you roll into a circle. Fold and place over a 9-inch pie pan.

Apple Filling
6–8 cups peeled, cored, and sliced apples
2 Tablespoons tapioca
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 Tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup water

In a large mixing bowl, toss all ingredients together and let stand 15 minutes while oven preheats. Fill prepared pie crust and top with crumb topping. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 1 hour, until the juices form bubbles that burst slowly.

Crumb Topping
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
6 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Combine flour, sugars, and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Add butter, working it in with your fingers or a fork, until just mixed.

Bluebird Bakery, 29 Village Square, Glendale, (513) 772-5633

Frieda’s Bakery Pumpkin Pie

Croissants you’d beat an old lady to the door for; tiny cakes and tarts that look as if they were made by sugar plum fairies; brilliant, plump fruit pies—apple, cherry, peach, and lemon. Is there anything that pastry chef Armin Hack makes that does not send your taste buds into spasms? In my experience, no. A fourth generation certified master pastry chef from Düssledorf, Germany, Hack began “playing with dough” by the time he was five. Fourty-four years later, his all-butter crust and intensely fruity fillings have earned him a sweet reputation at Frieda’s. Don’t let the tiny bakery’s single east side location discourage you. If you have to drive across town, do it, or you may never know the romance of Hack’s coconut dream or strawberry rhubarb pies. And if it’s pumpkin you’re after, do it now. Customer demands for his pumpkin pie alone number in the hundreds. “I woke up to the smells of pastry every morning of my childhood,” he says, “and I never wanted to let it go. It’s my passion.”

Flaky Pastry Shell
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
10 Tablespoons unsalted butter
3–3 1/2 Tablespoons ice water

Mix flour, salt, and sugar together. Cut cold butter into the mixture until small flakes form. Add ice water, form into a dough ball and chill until ready to use. When ready, roll out flat then fold and place into a 9-inch pie pan.

Pumpkin Filling
2 cups plain pumpkin puree (fresh or one 16-ounce can)
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
2/3 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup milk

Using the whip attachment of your countertop mixer, combine the pumpkin puree, sugar, spices, and salt until completely incorporated. In a separate small mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until well beaten. Slowly stir the beaten eggs into the pumpkin puree mix, then the heavy cream and milk until completely combined, approximately 2–3 minutes. Chill filling for 6–24 hours. After chilling is complete, stir the mix and pour into an unbaked 9-inch pie crust and bake at 350 degrees for 45–50 minutes, until pumpkin slightly cracks around the edges and the center wiggles slightly when gently shaken. Cool on a rack for 1 hour and serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.

Frieda’s Bakery, 6927 Miami Ave., Madeira, (513) 272-0939

Pecan Mocha Pie with Coffee Cream

This is the pie that launched my career as a pastry chef. It still can be found, in a similar version, on the menu at Mecklenburg Gardens. It’s a variation of a pie made famous at Blum’s, a San Francisco sandwich and sweet shop that closed in the 1960s. Though the preparation appears rather lengthy (it is made overnight in two steps), most people claim it’s similar to giving birth: After one bite, all memory of the long passage is erased, and they’re ready to do it again. This pie is wonderful year-round, but one note of caution: Unless you keep your kitchen extra chilly, I don’t recommend attempting this pie on a hot, humid summer day. That’s what blueberries are for.

Chocolate Pecan Crust

1 cup of pie crust mix
(I use my own, but a box of JIFFY Pie Crust Mix works fine)
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
scant 1/4 cup unsweetened chocolate, chopped fine
1 Tablespoon water
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9-inch pie plate. In bowl, combine dry ingredients, add water and vanilla, and mix until it just comes together. Press into bottom and sides of pie plate. Bake 12–14 minutes. Cool.

Mocha Cream Filling
4 ounces unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 ounce of bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
2 teaspoons instant espresso
2 eggs

In bowl of electric mixer, beat butter until creamy, gradually adding sugar. Blend in cooled melted chocolate and espresso powder. Add one egg; beat 5 minutes. Do not rush. This gives the filling a creamy, light consistency. Add the other egg; beat another 5 minutes. Again, do not rush. Turn filling into cooled shell. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Coffee Whipped Cream
2 cups heavy cream
2 Tablespoons instant espresso
1/2 cup confectioner’s (10x) sugar
3–4 ounces high quality semi-sweet chocolate, room temperature

Combine cream with instant espresso powder and sugar. Refrigerate, covered, overnight. Next day, whip cream until stiff peaks form. Pile cream on top of mocha cream filling. With a vegetable peeler, shave large curls of semi-sweet chocolate and drop over the coffee cream until covered as desired. Keep pie chilled until ready to serve.

The Crust of the Matter

A splendid filling may be the pretext for eating pie, but it is the crust that makes it memorable. Here are my tried-and-true tips for flake-tastic crust, every time.

Chill the ingredients. Warm fat will be absorbed by the flour too quickly, rendering the crust tough. Instead of one mass, think of pie dough as hundreds of flour-coated particles.

Use all-purpose or pastry flour. Bread flour contains too much gluten for a tender crust, and cake flour is too soft to support it.

Handle with care. Flaky crust = pockets of fat. Use two knives or a pastry cutter to create those coveted particles. When most of them are pea-sized, add the ice water until the dough just comes together.

Rest the dough. Shrinking and/or soggy crusts are often the result of dough that’s not given a conditioning period. Resting in the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes or more before rolling it out is ideal.

Roll quickly and efficiently. It can’t be said enough. Short on handling means long on flakes.

Rest it again. For an easily removable crust, lightly grease the pie pan. After the dough has been rolled and fitted into the pie pan, let it rest in the refrigerator while you prepare the filling.

No soggy bottoms. To keep from saturating the crust, brush an egg white over the bottom and let it set for several minutes before adding the filling. Setting the pie on a baking sheet also helps prevent soggy bottoms.

Glazing the top. For a shiny top crust, brush with milk before baking; for a glazed crust, brush with a mixture of 1 teaspoon milk and 1 egg yolk. Sprinkling with granulated sugar gilds the lily.

Forget Martha. As in Stewart. Think Julia Child and don’t aim for perfection. The rustic look shows that you made it by hand.

Photographs by Nathan Kirkman
Originally published in the November 2008 issue

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