Let the good pies roll
You can call it Thanksgiving, but around here we know it as National Pie Day. And that means one thing: The pressure to produce the flakiest, butteriest crust and swoon-worthy filling is on. Gulp.
Luckily, three of the country’s top baking experts — Kate McDermott, Mark Bittman and Alanna Taylor-Tobin — want to help. They’re out to debunk every piemaking myth and reclaim the true meaning of the old idiom: Making pie, they say, should be just as easy as eating it.
From their new cookbooks, we’ve plucked three pies — a crowd-pleasing maple, a classic pecan and a pumpkin pie with an earthy buckwheat crust — that can be made without breaking a sweat. Whether you’re a seasoned pie hand or a beginner with more enthusiasm than experience, you’ll find these recipes refreshing, because they advocate confidence and flexibility over the chemistry like precision of typical pastry cookbooks.
McDermott’s pie-making philosophy is so zen, in fact, that devotees call her the “pie-chiatrist.” Among the most important advice in her debut cookbook, “Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Homemade Crusts, Fillings, and Life” (Countryman Press, $35, 352 pages): Keep everything chilled. Respect the boundaries. Remember to vent.
“I’m a big fan of common sense,” says McDermott, who has been teaching pie-making since 2008. “Don’t overwork your dough. If a piece of fat looks big, break it down. And just remember, if (the crust) doesn’t turn out right, break it up and you’ve got the best crumble.”
Perhaps that pioneer spirit is the reason why thousands flock to her pie camps in Port Angeles,
Washington, including former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, who called baking with McDermott “a liberating experience.”
Perfection? Give that one up, McDermott insists.
“Just make a pie with your heart and your hands and look at every crack and tear as part of your beautiful life,” McDermott says.
The secret to her gorgeous, herringbone-crust pecan pie is to buy the freshest nuts you can find. Reserve the prettiest unbroken halves for garnish. And watch to make sure the pecans don’t brown too much during baking.
“I think that making pie dough is a lot simpler than people think,” she says. “It gets a bad rap. Just try. You’ll find that making pie is really satisfying.”
Mark Bittman is just as passionate about bringing back the joy in baking. In his encyclopedic “How to Bake Everything: Simple Recipes for the Best Baking” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35, 703 pages), the former New York Times food writer illustrates — in 2,000 straightforward, easy-to-follow recipes and step-by-step illustrations — that the experimentation and improvisation used when cooking should be applied to baking, as well.
“This false division between cooking and baking — that one is art and the other is science — needs to stop,” Bittman says. “Sure, you have to measure. You have to watch the clock. But we need to take the fear and mystification out of baking. Just relax.”
Don’t care to pinch butter and flour between your fingers? Use a food processor, like Bittman does, to achieve an evenly blended and tender dough. Refrigerate for at least one hour to make sure the dough is firm enough to roll. Finally, roll it out between two sheets of parchment paper to prevent sticking and make clean-up a cinch.
His maple pie, sweetened only with maple syrup, is a simple yet unexpected stand-in, he says, for pecan, apple or even pumpkin pie during the holidays. And, like all of Bittman’s pies, it can be personalized for any lifestyle. Pressed for time? Forget the pastry dough and simply crush your favorite cookies into a crust.
If you’re gluten-free or simply looking to broaden your baking chops, look no further than Alanna TaylorTobin’s “Alternative Baker: Reinventing Dessert with Gluten-Free Grains and Flours” (Page Street, $25, 271 pages). Taylor-Tobin is a classically trained pastry
chef (formerly of Quince, Farallon, and Destino) and founder of the popular recipe website, The Bojon Gourmet.
Her beautifully photographed (yes, she’s also a photographer and former New York Times food stylist) debut is dedicated to grain-based alternative flours that are packed with flavor and nutrients. In the right combination — specifically, a blend of sweet white rice flour, oat flour and ground white chia seeds — they produce beautiful pie dough.
Her absolute favorite pie — and the showstopper at her Thanksgiving table — is pumpkin encased in a dark, almost charcoal-hued buckwheat crust, which produces a super flaky crust that stays crisp longer than you’d guess, Taylor-Tobin says.
“Buckwheat has this lovely flavor that is earthy and reminds me of toasted hazelnuts and chocolate,” she says. “It’s a great complement to sweet pumpkin.”
While the recipe is one of the more advanced in the cookbook — she prefers toasting her buckwheat groats and roasting her own butternut squash — there are ways to save time. You can use canned pumpkin puree, for instance. Just give it a brief cook on the stove with the spices and sweeteners to evaporate excess moisture
and meld the flavors.
Plus side? It is impossible to overwork glutenfree dough the way you can with wheat dough, so don’t be afraid to manhandle it a bit. “When it breaks or tears, just squish it back together and keep going,” she says.
Note to readers: Below is Kate McDermott’s Pecan Pie recipe. For Mark Bittman’s Maple Pie recipe and Alanna Taylor-Tobin’s Pumpkin Pie With a Gluten-Free Buckwheat Crust, please go to www.dailylocal.com.
Makes one 9-inch shallow pie
Note: Buy the freshest nuts you can find. Reserve some of the nicest-looking unbroken halves for garnish. Watch to make sure the pecans don’t overly brown during the bake.
1 recipe single-crust pie dough 3 large eggs 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
½ cup dark corn syrup or pure maple syrup, or a combination of both ¼ teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 4 tablespoons Kentucky bourbon or dark rum, or 1 tablespoon rum flavoring
¼ cup salted butter, melted
At least 2 cups shelled pecans,
broken or chopped into pieces, plus pecan halves to garnish
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Roll out a pie shell and place it in a pie pan. Trim excess dough from the edges and crimp.
3. Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl until they are light-colored and fluffy. Add the brown sugar, syrup, salt, vanilla and bourbon. Stir with big wooden spoon until the sugar is dissolved and the ingredients are thoroughly mixed.
4. Stir in the melted butter and pecans.
5. Pour the mixture into the pie shell and garnish with pecan halves. Bake on a middle oven rack for 45 to 50 minutes; there should be a slight jiggle in the center of the pie. Cool the pie on a wire rack.
6. Serve slices with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream flavored with Kentucky bourbon or dark rum or a scoop of French vanilla ice cream. KATE MCDERMOTT, “ART OF THE PIE” (COUNTRYMAN PRESS, 2016)
Left: Pecan pie is classic Thanksgiving fare, but in the hands of Kate McDermott, author of “Art of the Pie,” the traditional treat gets a little new wave flair.
Mark Bittman’s Maple Pie recalls fall flavors but adds a new dimension to the Thanksgiving dinner table.