May 04, 2014

The question of pie

I’ve been stumped for a few days trying to write about pie. The blank entry has sat open on my computer screen all week with the words “the question of pie…” scattered between other thought fragments, including “the light was harsh that morning,” “I have never given much attention to pie,” “I don’t know how to write about pie” (among other real literary gems, let me tell you). Then, this morning (in the shower), I found my entry in the form of a neon sign of a Native American chief in headdress, glowing along Route 82 in a place called West Taghkanic. (Stay with me here, as I try to make my way, circuitously, back to pie.) 

The West Taghkanic Diner is an unremarkable culinary venue in the ostensible middle of nowhere. It is located “upstate,” in the region where my family would go in the summertime to escape the New York City heat and smog. I won’t bore you with pastoral scenes of little Vera frolicking in the pristine country pastures with her twenty-pound Maine Coon cat. Suffice it to say that these times in the country were the source of many, if not most, of my childhood memories. 

But the diner, along a “highway,” in its retro metal casing, with its glowing neon—offensive, yet charmingly nostalgic—Indian head, was where we would occasionally eat. Here, I would often order Strawberry Rhubarb pie (among other “American” classics like fried chicken and stuffed shells). The crust of the pie was gummy and soggy and again, unremarkable, especially when compared to the crust my mother could make; but the filling was another world altogether: tart and sweet and sticky and supple and vibrant red/pink, oozing every which way as you speared small bits with your fork. 

This diner is where I end up mentally when I try to retrace my history with pie; when I try to discover why it disappeared from my cooking (and writing) vocabulary for many years. And herein lies a possible answer: However fondly I remember my experience of consuming pie at the West Taghkanic Diner—and however much I loved it—I was aware, even then, that it was somewhat pitifully prepared. We were probably eating frozen berries; the crust was probably comprised primarily of lard; it had probably been sitting out on the counter for days. Its humility and simplicity were aspects that I liked; its dilapidated presentation and subpar ingredients may be what locked it in the memory-gates of childhood, to be discounted as a baking priority forevermore. 


1) I took up with a pie-loving man, who insists, against all arguments, on its greatness (even when it is soggy and gelatinous); and 2) the emergence on the scene of The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book

This book recaptures all of the promises of diner pie, but elevates it to a state of sublimity. It takes the homely proposition of fruit and butter and crust and makes it seasonal and uncommon, simple yet familiar. Its pages are filled with recipes for pies like Chamomile Buttermilk, Lemon Chess, Salty Honey, Rhubarb Custard, Honey Lavender, and Apple Rose. It advocates for fresh ingredients that are in season and locally sourced. (However cliche that might be at this point, it is still what makes something good.)

My recent venture from this book is the Strawberry Balsamic pie. This pie marries sweet and tart like your classic Strawberry Rhubarb, but the balsamic adds a complex, almost earthy note to what is otherwise a lighthearted, summertime dessert. If the strawberries are ethereal, which they should be when they are fresh and local, the balsamic is firmly rooted: all wood, grit, and soil.

The juices of this pie are a deep, sticky crimson. There is something moody about it, because it is rather sophisticated for a pie, yet it still feels effortless and carefree. The all-butter crust—tender, fragrant with apple-cider vinegar, latticed prettily, and encrusted with demerara sugar—is the perfect foil. Above all, it is a happy dessert (can I say that?), because it is sweet, berry-heavy, balanced, oozy, and fresh. 

If you share this with friends, you don't have to worry about it keeping very long, and I would suggest that this is the best way to “deal” with a whole pie. Let hours of work turn into minutes of eating, and an empty pie plate sticky with juices and crumbs be the only thing left behind. I would recommend eating this out of doors, in the spring or summertime air. You might want to bring along a twenty-pound feline, too, if you can find one lying around. 

P.S. Thanks to R. and B. for the great party that spurred this pie into existence. 

Strawberry Balsamic Pie
Adapted from The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter (cold, cut into 1/2-inch chunks)
1 cup cold water
1/4 cup apple-cider vinegar
1 cup ice cubes

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 pounds organic strawberries (washed, hulled, and quartered)
1 small apple (I used Golden Delicious)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2–3 dashes Angostura bitters
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch (or ground arrowroot)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2–3 grinds of black pepper

Egg wash (1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon water and a pinch of salt)
Demerara sugar

Make the crust. Gently combine the flour, sugar, and salt together in a large bowl. Add the chopped butter pieces, toss briefly in the flour to coat, and then, using a pastry cutter or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until it is mostly combined. There should still be pea-sized pieces of butter throughout; it is important not to over blend in this and the next step or the pastry will become tough.

In a large measuring cup for liquids, combine the water, vinegar, and ice cubes. Sprinkle 2–3 tablespoons of the water mixture over the flour mixture, and toss gently with a spoon. Continue to add the liquid, 1 tablespoon at a time, using a fork, bench scraper, or your hands, and toss together until the dough begins to form a ball. When it has almost come together, use your hands (but be gentle—you don't want the dough to become warm), to bring it together completely, adding drops of water as needed.

Cut the ball of dough in half, and shape each half into a one-inch high disk. Wrap the disks in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour; chilling overnight is preferable.

When the dough is chilled, prepare your top and bottom crust. For the bottom crust, roll out one of the disks out on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of about 1/8–1/4. It should be 12–13 inches in diameter. Fold the dough in half, and then in half again (folding the second time in the opposite direction), and then place in one quadrant of the pie dish. Unfold the dough and center it in the dish, so it hangs over on all sides. Trim the dough so there is about 1 1/2 inches of overhang, measuring from the outer rim of the dish. Cover with plastic wrap, and return to the refrigerator.

Roll out the second disk to the same thickness and diameter. Using a pizza cutter or a sharp knife, cut the dough into eight strips, which will form the lattice top. Transfer the strips to a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

Prepare the filling for the pie. Hull and quarter the strawberries into a medium bowl, and sprinkle with the 3 tablespoons sugar. Stir gently, and set aside for 30 minutes.

At the end of 30 minutes, the strawberries will have macerated, giving off a lot of liquid. Drain them into another bowl, reserving the liquid for another use if desired. Peel the apple and grate it over the strawberries, using the large holes on a box grater. Sprinkle the balsamic vinegar and bitters over.

In another bowl, mix together the rest of the dry ingredients: sugar, brown sugar, cornstarch, salt, and black pepper. Fold this mixture into the strawberries and apple.

Pour the filling into the refrigerated pie shell, and then arrange the lattice on top. (This site offers a great guide for arranging a lattice; keep in mind that it starts with two additional strips than are called for in this recipe). Fold the overhang over the lattice, crimp the dough all around, and refrigerate again for 15 minutes.

While the pie is chilling, preheat the oven to 425 degrees, with the racks positioned in the bottom and center of the oven. Place a rimmed baking sheet on the bottommost rack.

Brush the pastry with egg wash, and sprinkle generously with demerara sugar. Place the pie on the baking sheet in the oven (lowest rack), and bake for 20 minutes, or until the crust begins to brown. Move the pie to the center of the oven, placing it directly on the rack (leave the baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch the juices), and reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees. Bake until the pastry is a deep golden brown and the juices are bubbling—about 40 minutes longer.

Let cool for about 2 hours before serving. Serve alone or with crème fraiche.

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