Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Best (secret ingredients) Classic Blueberry Pie


Friends, let's talk about pie.

Growing up, we  had pie twice per year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Because we lived in interior Alaska and it was difficult for most people to travel home, we had big gatherings for the holidays.  My parents invited those friends and colleagues who couldn't make it to back to their families in the lower 48 into our home, together creating a kind of surrogate family that required multiple card tables unfolded and stacked onto the ends of our humble dining table to create enough space, the whole thing spread over with white tablecloths to create a cohesive unit.  We didn't have a large house or kitchen, but I don't remember either of my parents ever worrying about space.  My father's graduate students and colleagues, my parents friends and our neighbors would pile into our home on dark Alaskan winter holiday afternoons, stomping snow off their boots and piling parkas and other protective gear into mountains in our entryway before filling our home with that bubbling energy of the holidays.

And, of course, nobody came empty handed.

I was always most fascinated by the pies.  The wife of one of my father's colleagues always made the most perfect pies and each year it was taken for granted that she would bring them, always carried in her double decker woven grass pie basket that she probably found at one of the ubiquitous Native Alaskan craft fairs.

Can I say this?  Having somebody bring homemade pie into your home is such a loving gift.  Receiving any gift of food is special, but there's a very warm place in my heart specifically for a pie.  Maybe it's because it recalls those cherished Alaska holidays, our modest house filled with 25 people who became our family during the years we lived there.  Maybe it's the story that pie crust is prohibitively difficult to make, so putting in the effort to do it anyway indicates special intention and care.  Maybe it's that a pie can't really be eaten until there are others to share it with, unlike the more individual cookies or cupcakes.  Maybe I'm just neurotically attached for pie.

Regardless, let's talk about the specifics, okay?

My first several pies were...not great.  I remember once when I was about 8 or 9 buying a regular Halloween pumpkin and roasting it before pureeing it in our neighbor's 20 year old food processor that didn't work very well so I had to use a wooden spoon to push the puree down toward the blades, resulting in a little extra woody fiber being added to the mix.  The pumpkin pie recipe I used was from an ancient Joy of Cooking and called for cooking the filling on the stove top then transferring it to a pre-baked crust instead of the more common baked custard method.  Of course, the pie crust shrunk halfway down the pie plate while it was baking and the fibrous, lumpy filling didn't smooth out and looked quite a bit more like cinnamon tinged cat vomit than a proper pumpkin pie, but I walked the pie over to our neighbors' house anyway, as my friend's mother had requested I bake some pies for a dinner party they were hosting.  Unfortunately, since it was the dead of winter, I was wearing over sized mittens and the pie plate slipped off of my mittened hand while I was ringing the doorbell, the pumpkin pie flying out of the plate and landing face down in the snow.  It is a testament to the sturdiness of that pie that I was able to bend down and pick the entire pie up in one piece, placing it back into its plate, apparently unscathed, and dutifully delivered for their waiting guests.

Thankfully, I've figured a few things out since then.

Number one:  Food Processors Make Happy Pie Crusts

If you like to cook and you don't have a proper food processor, please get one.  I know they're not the cheapest kitchen appliances (I have this one) but it will quickly become the workhorse of your kitchen.  Pesto, nut butter, falafel, hummus, bread dough...you will use it more than you expect.  But the real doozy is its ability to practically make pie crust for you.  The key to a great pie crust is to use cold fats and to work them very quickly into the dry ingredients.  You can certainly do this by hand, but you risk the fat becoming too soft and integrating overmuch into the flour.  A food processor gets the whole process over in less than 30 seconds with very little guesswork on your part.

Number two: Use vodka for half of the water for a more tender, easy to work with crust

This is a Cooks Illustrated trick that I've been happily using for the past few years.  One of the more difficult components of pie crust making is adding enough water to make the dough workable without adding so much that the gluten starts to develop (overdeveloped gluten=tough pie crust).  I used to be so cautious about adding water that I'd end up with a hard to work, crumbly crust that was a royal pain in the ass to roll out.  However, gluten will not form in alcohol.  Using a high alcohol liquor like vodka creates a pliable, easy to work crust without sacrificing tenderness.  The alcohol is not at all discernible in the final crust.  Even if you don't use the recipe below, start using half and half water and vodka in your favorite pie crust recipe--it's a game changer.

Number three: Use both butter and shortening

Lots of pie bakers have strong opinions on using all butter or all shortening in their crusts.  Those who prefer shortening say it makes a flakier crust (which is true, but really one for the first day).  Those who prefer butter say it gives a better flavor (which is also true, but butter also has a higher water content which means it encourages gluten development and a tougher crust).  Why not just use both?  You get the best of both worlds.

Number four: Chill your crust

Many of the pies in my life have had their crusts fall off in the oven.  Chilling the dough gives you a bit more structure to work with, and (in my experience) helps the crust hold its shape while it's baking.  Chilling the dough also lets you get away with working the crust less and using less flour while you're rolling it out, resulting in less risk of a tough crust.

Number five: Add grated apple to blueberry pies 

My dad's very favorite pie in the whole world is blueberry and he has asked for a blueberry pie "birthday cake" most years I can remember, but my blueberry pies always turned out soupy.  Adding a grated apple that has had all of its liquid squeezed out and discarded provides the perfect amount of natural pectin to thicken up a blueberry pie.  Again, this is a Cook's Illustrated trick, and it works beautifully.  You can't detect the apple in the final product unless you're really looking for it.

Number six: Cook down your fruit before baking the pie

Fruit tends to cook down quite a bit, which often ends up in a pie with a gap between the fruit and the top crust.  Cooking some of the liquid out of the fruit ahead of time helps prevent this problem.

And finally...

The Best Classic Blueberry Pie

adapted from Cooks Illustrated

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Crust:

Into the food processor, place:
  • 1 1/2 c. unbleached all purpose flour
  • 2 T. sugar (optional)
  • 1 t. salt
Pulse a few times to distribute the sugar and salt into the flour.

Add:
  • 12 T. butter, cut into about 12 pieces
  • 8 T. shortening, cut into about 8 pieces (I like Spectrum)
Process this for about 15 seconds, until the mixture starts to form clumps and very little loose flour remains.

Add:
  • 1 c. unbleached all purpose flour
Give it about 5 2 second pulses.

Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.  Sprinkle over:
  • 3 T. ice water
  • 3 T. cold vodka (tip: If you're not a vodka drinker, keep a few mini bottles of vodka in your freezer for this purpose.  In my experience, even the cheapest vodka works just fine.)
Mix the liquid into the dough very quickly, making sure you're working the dough as little as possible.  If the dough takes on the texture of play-dough, you're good.  If it's still a bit dry, a bit more liquid until it reaches that play-dough consistency.

Chill the dough while you get the filling ready.

Place into a large sauce pan:
  • 15 oz. frozen wild blueberries
Turn the heat to medium high and cook the berries for 10-12 minutes, until they have reduced by half and most of the liquid is evaporated.

While the berries are cooking, grate:
  • 1 medium apple, peeled (I prefer Granny Smith or Braeburn)
Transfer the grated apple to a fine sieve and place it over a bowl, pressing the apple with your hand or a spoon to force the apple to release its juice.  When the apple is mostly dry, transfer it to a large mixing bowl.

To this bowl, add
  • 15 oz. frozen wild blueberries (yes, another bag)
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 2 T. tapioca flour or cornstarch
  • juice of one lemon
Mix this together to evenly distribute the ingredients.  Set aside.

Remove your pie crust from the refrigerator and squeeze off about 2/3 of the dough for the bottom crust.  Return the remaining third to the fridge.

Generously flour your (very clean) counter or a Silpat with about 1/4 c. of flour.  Coat the dough with a thin coat of flour and shape it into a disc, then begin to roll it out, always starting from the middle and moving outwards.  Continually rotate the dough to encourage it into a round (ish) shape.  You'll want to roll the dough until it is about 3 inches larger than your pie plate on all sides.  Periodically check that the dough is not sticking--if it is, lift it up and sprinkle more flour underneath.

To transfer the crust, fold the dough into quarters and quickly pick it up to place it in your nearby pie plate, unfolding the dough and arranging it evenly once it's placed.  Trim any overhang beyond 1 inch and return the crust to the refrigerator.

Your stovetop blueberries are likely ready, so remove them from the heat and add them to your frozen blueberry/apple mixture.

Remove the remaining 1/3 of pie dough from the refrigerator and roll it out to just slightly larger than your pie plate.  Remove the bottom crust from the refrigerator, quickly transfer your berry filling into the crust, gently mounting the berries in the center.  Fold your rolled out top crust into quarters, place it on top of the berries and unfold the crust before adjusting as necessary.  Trim any excess crust to about 1".

Fold the overhang of the crust underneath itself and crimp or pinch the crust as desired (I usually go with this method), making sure the crust is sealed well.  Cut 8 generous vent holes in the top crust, then sprinkle with a mixture of:
  • 2 T. sugar
  • 2 t. cinnamon
Bake the pie for 30 minutes at 400 degrees, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 25-30 minutes.  Your pie is ready when you can see the juices bubbling and the crust is golden.

Remove from the oven and allow the pie to cool uncovered for several hours or overnight.  Do not cover the pie or the crust will lose its flakiness.

Eat up, preferably with a dollop of cinnamon ice cream.

xo




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