Editors’ note: In this new monthly column, the author focuses on dishes that can travel well and feed a crowd.
Hello, dog days of summer — a time for potlucks, cookouts, family reunions and pool parties. By their very nature, these gatherings are dependent on the guests’ generosity and collective enthusiasm and on, by my reckoning, three key types of contributors: the Pick-Up Artist, the One-Dish Wonder and the Showstopper.
Happy to provide critical essentials, the Pick-Up Artist buys chips or drinks or cold cuts, slaws or salads, cookies or paper goods.
The One-Dish Wonder arrives with the same tried-and-true platter no matter the occasion. It might be mac and cheese or potato salad, barbecue or fried chicken. In my neighborhood, Mr. Bishop’s meatballs are legendary: sweet, tangy, perfectly sized. If I went to a gathering and didn’t see them, I would be bereft.
The Showstopper is competitive to the core; in a potluck guest, this is by no means a negative quality. As hosts, we count on the sensational contributions from our friends the Showstoppers. These are the guests of whom we can ask, “Will you bring a vegetarian dish that will feed a crowd?” Or, “Do you have a dessert for 25?”
A slab pie can put you in the Showstopper seat. For a winning dessert in the glorious fruit-filled months, nothing beats pie; slab pies are easily transportable and can yield 24 to 36 pieces, so they are a crowd-size contribution. Part pie, part giant Pop-Tart, a slab pie is for crust lovers. It’s easy to serve and easy to eat.
And, as it turns out, easy to make. Even though I am an experienced pie maker, I once feared slab pie. I wasn’t sure I could roll out the dough large enough to cover a rimmed baking sheet. I thought transferring it from the floured counter would be nightmarish.
I’m going to tell you straight: It wasn’t bad. The trick is using plenty of dough. And any patchwork on the bottom crust won’t show.
For my first attempt, I made three standard batches of pie-crust dough, using 1½ batches for each layer. The result was skimpy in the pan. A slab pie needs a significant crust. For the next attempt, I upped the quantity to four batches. The crust was sturdy, not too thin, with plenty of flaky layers, well crimped and pleated at the edge to hold back the flood of fruit juices once the pie started to bake. Every subsequent iteration has only gotten easier. As with so many kitchen techniques, practice really does make perfect.
I like a slab pie with a top crust, as opposed to a streusel topping; it’s a far sturdier option when you’re serving on paper plates. With peaches or apricots, a top crust protects the fruit from overcooking and keeps the filling juicy. And if that top crust tears a bit as you get it situated, steam-vent slashes cover a multitude of sins.
Lattice or other decorated lids are the bailiwick of the Showstopper. Go ahead and get fancy.
While four cups of fruit will make a plump nine-inch pie, a slab pie requires a generous six cups. My preference is for a tart taste, using scant sugar, but add more sugar if you prefer a sweeter filling. Herbs and spices added while the fruit macerates can serve as counterpoints to the fruits’ flavor. Lemon verbena is my favorite for any stone fruit (peaches, cherries, plums, nectarines and apricots) and many berries, but mint or thyme are also good choices.
Freeze the unbaked pie for an hour, or overnight. Starting with cold pastry in a blazing-hot oven means more flakiness in the bake. The egg wash and sprinkling of sugar help burnish the top; a nicely browned slab pie looks best.
Traveling with a hot pie is never a good idea. Allow plenty of time to let it come to room temperature — about 2 hours — just to be safe. Although it’s fine to make a slab pie the night before the party, I’m a fan of baking the morning of any event. The pie will taste fresher, and the crust is going to retain the snap and flake that will set this dessert apart.
Go ahead. Strut into the potluck, head held high. You’ve got a Showstopper dessert.
Barrow is a Washington cookbook author. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
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