Though it’s not a date on the calendar, “pie season” unofficially starts in summer. For some, it may begin even earlier, in the spring, and peak, say, around the Fourth of July and again in November at Thanksgiving, where pie rules the dessert table.
The ripeness of seasonal fruits (cherries, berries, peaches and more) in summer conjures images of fruit bubbling through the surface of buttery, flaking crusts. Fall finds us pondering spiced apples or pears in pie, or the rich custardy fillings of pumpkin and sweet potato.
I meet pie season each year with great anticipation, studying new pie recipe possibilities, but also ready to return to old favorites. I love to make pies. Nothing else is as satisfying as this homestyle tradition. I always say, once you’ve made a pie, you can really say you did something.
Crusts, however, can be the conundrum — or even the roadblock — to pie-making. Rolled-out pie pastry crusts are sometimes the source of great pie anxiety. I know, I’ve had it myself. My desire to get past this, as well as my great love of pies, had me spending all of 2011 making a different pie recipe each month, and I got a good self-schooling in all manner of pie shells.
I made rolled-out crusts that employed all butter, all shortening and a mix of both, as well as pastry made with cream cheese and sour cream. I made crumb crusts of crushed cookies, like vanilla wafers or gingersnaps, and graham and even saltine crackers (see the recipe shared here). I’ve made tarts with crusts containing cornmeal, ground pistachios, hazelnuts and pine nuts.
I’ve shaped my crusts by pressing, patting and coaxing them gently in. I’ve wound lengths of pie pastry around my rolling pin to unfurl them like flags over their waiting pie plates.
I’ve par-baked, blind-baked (and baked blindly), and double-crusted. I’ve made everything from humble galettes to hand pies; tiny tarts to a sheet-pan slab pie that resembled a giant Pop-Tart® (and was a hit at my last neighborhood July 4th block party).
Some things worked and some things, sadly, didn’t, even ending in tears, resentment and a blind-baked pie crust weighted with rocks gathered from the yard.
Here’s what I know: Pie-making is (or should be) fun. Making pies should be met with joy, enthusiasm and inspiration. Making pies should not be feared, seen as a duty or chore, or avoided altogether out of a lack of confidence.
If it’s crust holding you back, many options exist. There’s something for everyone — both the maker and eater, alike:
Get crumb-y: Cookies — like vanilla wafers, gingersnaps, chocolate sandwich cookies — or crackers, such as graham, animal crackers and even saltines and sometimes nuts are crushed (via food processor or, hey, break out the rolling pin for this), combined with melted or soft butter and, depending on the recipe, sugar, cinnamon and other flavorings, then pressed into pans and often pre-baked before fillings (mostly cream but sometimes fruit) are added.
Pat-A-Pie: Pat-in-the pan crusts are usually a flour-and-fat (softened butter or sometimes oil) pastry dough that works by pressing it evenly into pans for crust for fruit and cream fillings. The taste and texture resembles a rolled-out crust with less fuss. Many tart shells that include cream cheese in the recipe are pat-in-the pan variations.
Roll with it: Store-bought refrigerator crusts work in a pinch, but it’s so worth the effort to try a hand at homemade pie pastry. I’ve made many different recipes for rolled-out pie shells, usually comprised of flour, salt, sometimes sugar, shortening and/or butter, sometimes an egg or egg yolk and variant ingredients like vinegar or even vodka (both aid in tenderness), and water (often ice water). All have something to offer (including a favorite with lemon zest that tastes almost like shortbread) and the practice of mixing (minimal to keep the crust from turning tough) and rolling pie pastry and decorating a pie with it is among the most rewarding things one can make.
Seasoned pie bakers know pie season is worth celebrating. Don’t let it pass by this year without doing one thing — placing at least one homemade pie on the table.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
Atlantic Beach Pie Recipe