Nobody ever really called my mom’s mom “grandma” or any of the other variations of this term. She never wanted to be called such a thing, and so opted to have us all call her Marnie instead – a nickname for her real name, Marion. Marnie was a master pastry chef. I mean, she was never a pastry chef by trade, but she definitely made the best pie crust ever. EVER. Other grandmothers, back off, because Marnie had it down. And she always said that if you want to make good pastry, that you need to make a pie a week for a year. That’s a lot of pie, but when she had five kids plus two parents whipping together a pie for Sunday night dinner wouldn’t be too outrageous really. For the last number of years that she was alive, making pies on holidays became too much work for her, and so holiday pies became the task of my mom and I. And frankly, it was a harrowing experience. We always set out with a positive attitude and relatively high hopes – at least the first few times we had a positive attitude, but I think it dwindled over time, after many overworked, broken, dry, burnt-edged pie crusts we came to dread trying it again. Every time someone else would say “Here! I have the EASIEST pastry recipe. It’s fool-proof”. You know, calling something fool-proof really does a good job of making you feel like a failure when it doesn’t work out for you.
Anyways, last year I decided I wanted to make a peach pie. Peach was always my mom’s favourite of Marnie’s pies, and I wanted to try it out and take another crack at pastry. I used my then-roommate’s Cook’s Illustrated America’s Test Kitchens recipe to make a pretty decent peach pie, though when I took that pastry recipe home for Thanksgiving it did not work out so well. That was the biggest pie disaster of all time, and I don’t even know if I want to talk about it. I came back to pie again this summer, and really wanted to make a cherry pie, having never had one made with real cherries and not canned filling. I used (as always?) a recipe from Smitten Kitchen, and also used her pastry recipe and that cherry pie was PERFECT. I mean it, it was perfect. So today, I try peach pie again, armed with a new pastry recipe and some tips that made all the difference. On Smitten Kitchen she explains her pastry recipe, and I had never fully understood the mechanics of pastry before reading it, and it has made all the difference, because ladies and gents, pie crust is SCIENCE.
The most crucial bit of information is this: People like flaky pie crust, that is what makes a perfect pie crust. The way that you get flakiness is with butter. But here’s the trick – butter melts when it’s hot, right? So when you blend your flour, etc. with your butter you want your butter to be REALLY REALLY COLD and you want to leave pretty sizeable butter chunks in your dough because then those butter pieces will be whole when you put the pie in the oven but when it’s in the oven THE BUTTER WILL MELT AWAY and THEN you will have little empty pockets where the butter once was. AND THAT IS FLAKINESS!
I honestly did not understand this before, and understanding this has made a big difference for me. So now, I cut up my butter into the little cubes and then stick them in the freezer for a few minutes before mixing them with the flour and I really like to leave big chunks, more than pea-sized, to get a good pastry.
One other trick that is particular to peach pie is one that I learned from that Cook’s Illustrated recipe. You see, peaches are very juicy. They are juicier than most other fruits that go in pies, and they tend to get a bit soupy. So you need to add a thickening agent, and people generally use flour or cornstarch for such a thing and MAYBE tapioca. But Cook’s Illustrated tested all those out and said that what actually works the best to cut down on soupiness while not leaving a gross floury taste is to use potato starch. Potato starch, what even is that? Who cares, because it works better than the others. I found a bag at the grocery store and I keep it around now for peach pies.
I also recommend getting an awesome vegetable peeler like the one I got for Christmas in my stocking – the peeler blade is serrated, which means that things that would normally be impossible to peel – like tomatoes and peaches – are totally peelable, which means I skip the blanching step that most people use to loosen the skins on peaches, because then you’ve got whole peaches without their skins and my god, have you ever really tried to pit those things? They are unbelievably slippery! Instead I get the pits out and then peel the peaches in halves or quarters with my awesome peeler. I also recently bought a pastry blender/cutter thing at an antique shop and was excited to use it, but abandoned it pretty quickly for my hands anyways. I prefer to use my hands to work the dough because I can feel how big my butter pieces are.
So what has all this pie ranting been about? Oh yeah.
Pastry recipe, from Smitten Kitchen. Rather than me repeat all the instructions, I suggest you just go to that link and read all about how to do it.
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces, 16 tablespoons or 1 cup) unsalted butter, very cold
Filling recipe, from Cook’s Illustrated
5-6 cups of peaches, pitted, peeled and sliced (I used 8 peaches)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup granulated sugar (I used a touch less)
3-5 tablespoons potato starch
Cinnamon, nutmeg, and whatever else you want to season it with
Oh yeah, and last but not least – if you don’t want burnt pie edges, you want to cover the edges with some tin foil. Put the tin foil on when you put the pie in the oven, and then you can take it off for the last little bit so that they brown up but don’t burn. Cook’s Illustrated also taught me the easiest way to do this, which is to fold a piece of tin foil in half and then cut a half-circle shape out of it that is about the size of your pie – then you’ll have a piece of tin foil with a circle in the middle, and thus the perfect piece of edge-covering tin foil. After years of cutting little pieces and trying to fold them around a hot pie plate with edges that had already started to burn, this made my mom and I feel pretty silly (again) for our old ways of doing things. See awesome looking space pie below.
Here’s the finished product. It has to cool for a LONG time before it’s ready to eat, and since I’m taking it to a friend’s house for dinner tonight I haven’t actually tasted it yet. But just LOOK at it. It’ll be good, I just know it.