Pie evokes nostalgia for a pastoral past—fresh-baked, buttery goodness cooling on the farmhouse windowsill—and yet it touches just about every American soul, urban and rural alike. Historical records indicate that in 1895, some 22 million pies were baked and sold in Manhattan alone. That’s when a nickel got you a coffee and two slices of pie, which was considered a very fine and fast workingman’s lunch.
In 1872, William Thompson founded what’s considered the country’s first pie wholesaler in Manhattan, just north of Canal Street, and eventually produced more than 20,000 pies a day—long before sophisticated automation or refrigeration. But by the 1970s, James Beard, born in 1903, the same year Thompson died, was unhappy with the quality of New York’s pies, noting, “It seems the only way to get a good pie is to make it yourself.”
And making a good pie is easier than you think.
Although no one can deny the British roots of our own pie tradition—even the all-American apple pie has a centuries-older English antecedent—there’s something unique about our workaday approach to pie. Crusts are rolled and pressed, fillings sweetened and dumped, the whole thing baked or chilled until set. Like early American furniture, American pies are beautiful in a rough-hewn way.
Contrast that with a French tart, the shortbread-like crusts neatly trimmed and pre-baked, crème patissière piped just so, fruit and other toppings arranged with the precision of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the whole thing glazed to a vitrine shine. Each piece of a tart is compact and tight, like a couture jacket. The pitch of the French tart ring and the American pie plate says it all: French tarts stand erect; American pies recline.
Amid our current fascination with local and seasonal eating, the pie holds a special place, and for the grower of fruit, pie making serves a practical purpose, like jam—a way to honor the harvest while using up excess. Cups and cups of fruit go into a pie filling. Make ’em, freeze ’em, bake ’em. Use fresh or frozen fruit. You can preserve the taste of one season before you delve into the next.
Though not difficult, there are two important aspects of pie baking that require particular attention. The dough should not be overworked, neither when mixing it together nor when rolling it out. What exactly overworked means is, of course, difficult to define, especially if you are new to the craft. Resist the urge to combine everything to the point where it looks well blended and smooth. A slightly shaggy mass dappled with bits of butter is fine. If in doubt, stop sooner than you think, as rolling it out will work it more. Letting the dough chill, both literally and figuratively, between mixing and rolling is more important than it seems. The resting time allows the elastic strands of gluten (the protein in flour) to relax, making the dough easier to manipulate, more likely to hold its shape, and more delicate to eat.
The second matter is the filling, the preparation for which you should allow some time. (Make the dough and start on the filling while it sits.) You don’t necessarily have to peel your fruit—though peach pie is better without the fuzz. But you do have to pit, slice, or otherwise pare it. Sprinkle the prepared fruit with sugar and let it macerate for a moment so you can drain off any juice that runs. Doing so will help prevent a soggy bottom. Toss with some cornstarch to bind any remaining juice as it bakes and add whatever seasonings you like before you dump it in the crust to seal.
Steamy Does It
How do you top that? There are many options. A woven lattice is beautiful and lets moisture and steam escape so that the filling concentrates and compacts. A whole double crust increases the ratio of crust in each bite, a good thing, right, Martha? (Make sure to cut steam holes to release the moisture.) Crumbles and crumbs are other delicious topping possibilities. Open-face is easiest and pleasing in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of way.
Bake your pie longer than you think. When it first looks done, it isn’t. Keep it going and going so that the filling is cooked through and the crust is crisp, top and bottom. If in doubt, bake it longer. An hour and a half is not too much.
Then Cool It
One last thing: Let your pie cool completely before you slice and serve. You will be tempted to dig in before then, but doing so will destroy the integrity of the filling, which will revolt by pooling into puddles in the pan. Mind you, as the French are masters of restraint and discipline, Americans are all about immediate gratification and indulgence. Consider yourself warned and do what you have to do.