THE STANDARD fruit pie and pies in general are rapidly becoming the whooping cranes of American desserts. Making a truly fine pie crust is almost a lost art, and the simple, honest American pie just doesn't seem to fit in anymore. It has been relegated to diners, a few hot spots in the Midwest and the freezer section of the supermarket.
It's difficult, almost impossible, to write about pies without sinking into nostalgia, but there is a good, inescapable reason for it. Grandma's was better. Besides, who among us is so hard-bitten as not to remember Grandma's kitchen with fondness. Warm and busy on a cool fall day, the air spiced with the tang of cinnamon as Grandma pried open the door to the massive oven, revealing the two 12-inch apple pies nestled within.
If you have no memories like these, we'll lend you ours. We'll even toss in a no-fail pie crust recipe that will make you the envy of your friends and the pride of your family.It's guaranteed. As good as Grandma's.
But first, a bit of history.
The Romans, who invented the 14-course meal eaten lying down, used pastry in place of silverware. The crust to a pie was merely a scoop, sometimes even a plate. Quality and taste were not considerations.
During the Dark Ages, a cruel and truly miserable period, dining out took place in huge, drafty halls where ill-dressed, surly men would eat with their fingers and throw food around the room. Huge pies were baked and live birds hidden beneath a thick top crust. These pies would be dragged into the hall, where the host would knock a hole in the top, freeing the imprisoned birds. As they flew from the pie, guests would leap to their feet, releasing trained hawks and falcons amid great shouts and much laughter.
Finally the Renaissance came along to relieve the situation. Man learned to cook his bird pies a little longer and actually eat the contents. Hawks and falcons were banned from the dining room.
By 1852, Charles Elme Francatelli, maitre d'hotel and chief cook to her majesty the queen, wrote this recipe in his trend-setting "Cookery Book for the Working Classes."
The ingredients: "one pound of flour, six ounces of butter or lard or drippings, half pint of water, a pinch of salt, ditto of baking powder."
One was instructed to dump the flour out on the table and punch a hole in the center with a fist. Into this depression would go the salt and the baking powder. The water would be poured in and butter would be added. The resulting "paste" was rolled out, placed on a baking dish of whatever fruit available, and popped into the oven, if you were wealthy enough to own one. If not, you sent it off to the baker's and paid a small fee to have it cooked.
By then everyone was into the act. The French had taken their primitive fouaces , a thick biscuit cooked in an oven, and distilled and refined it into the brioche-like fousses and fougasses .
It was America that created the modest but unbeatable Standard American Down Home Pie Crust. It is the pinnacle of sensible pie-dom, as thin and light as the Gossamer Condor, road tested and proven infallible by complete novices. GRANDMA CONWAY'S PIE CRUST (Makes 2 crusts for an 8-or 9-inch pie) 1 1/2 cups flour, less 1 tablespoon 1/2 cup shortening, plus 1 tablespoon 3 to 5 tablespoons cold water (approximate)
Cut shortening into sifted flour until it resembles meal. Add 3 tablespoons of cold water and stir until dough is formed. Add more water, a tablespoon at a time, until ball is smooth and flour absorbed.
Divide dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other.
There are two keys to making a thin, flaky pie crust. The first is to remember to use enough flour on the board, on the rolling pin and on your hands to prevent the crust from sticking.The second is never to roll out the pie crust more than once. Otherwise it can become a tough as leather.
Plop plenty of flour on the pie board (a piece of waxed paper or clean counter top will work as well). Take the larger section of the dough and flatten it gently with your hand. Dust the top well with flour and begin to roll. Using even, wide strokes, roll the dough into a thin, circular crust, about 1/8-inch thick or less, if possible, and about two inches larger than the pan. Transfer to pie pan. Run a knife around the outside rim of the pan to cut off excess crust.
After filling bottom crust with fruits of your choice, make the top crust. With any two-crust pie, seal the top and bottom edges together and flute, if desired. Prick the top six or seven times or carve your initial into the top for an air vent.
For a one-crust pie that is to be baked before the filling is added, prick the bottom and sides all the way through the crust in several places. Bake it "blind," with a filling of dried beans to keep the crust firmly against the bottom. remove the beans, add the filling and finish the recipe. when topping the crust with meringue, make sure the meringue touches the crust in all places or it will shrink during cooking. APPLE PIE FILLING
Slice tart apples (Stayman, York or Rome Beauty are good) into pie pan until apples produce a gently rounded mound (about 6 apples, depending on size).
In a bowl mix: 1/2 cup brown sugar 1/2 cut white sugar 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon ginger 3 tablespoons flour
Add apples. Toss.
Make the pie crust and put apple mixture into bottom crust. Dot with butter. Add top crust. Seal the edges with water and flute edges or seal with fork tines. Poke holes in top crust to let steam escape.
Bake in 450-degree oven for 20 minutes; reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and bake 40 minutes more. CHERRY PIE FILLING
Cook 1 1/2 cups sugar, 3 tablespoon flour and the juice from 1 can of sour cherries.(Drain 2 cans of cherries for the recipe). Cook until it boils. Cool.
Pour drained cherries and 1/4 teaspoon or less almond extract into the cooled liquid.
Put in bottom crust, add butter on top of cherry mixture and add top crust. Seal edges, flute and poke holes in top crust.
Bake in 450-degree oven for 20 minutes; reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and bake 40 minutes more. GRANDMA'S LEMON MERINGUE PIE
Bake pie crust shell for 8 minutes at 475 degrees. (Remember to prick holes in bottom and sides before cooking.)
Filling: 1 cup sugar 1/4 cut flour (rounded) 1/4 teaspoon salt or few sprinkles Grated rind of 1 lemon Juice of 1 lemon 3 eggs, separated; reserve whites for meringue
Mix sugar, flour, salt well. Beat yolks; add with lemon rind and juice to flour mixture. Pour in 1 cup boiling water. Cook until thick in a double boiler, stirring all the time -- about 20 minutes.
When thick, put into pie shell.
Meringue: 3 egg whites 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar 6 tablespoons sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Beat egg whites with cream of tartar until frothy. Add sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff. Pile on pie and seal edges with meringue.
Bake 8 to 10 minutes at 400 degrees. SHERRY CONWAY'S PECAN PIE 1 cup sugar 1/2 cup corn syrup (light or dark) 1/4 cup melted butter 3 eggs, well beaten 1 cup pecans (whole or pieces) 1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell.
Mix sugar, syrup and butter, add eggs and pecans. Fill unbaked pie shell and bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue to bake 30 to 35 minutes.