Well, last weekend my son turned thirty, and if you multiply that number by two, times several other major occasions, you’ll have the approximate number of pies I’ve cranked out A.C.—that is, After Children. Now that I think about it, this may actually be the most difficult recipe in my cookbook, since it requires stepping into the intimidating waters of making piecrust. However, beginners should please remember that even the most primitive attempts will probably still taste pretty good; while in this day and age, people are unlikely to reject a homemade pie just because it has a dent in the crust. More likely, they’ll put a dent in you trying to get at it….
Of course you can do it!
Like bread, until recently, plenty of people did it as matter of routine. For instance, family legend has it that my Aunt Phoebe routinely cranked out several hundred pies every morning at the crack of dawn for a herd of hungry farmhands.
Two things are essential to remember when making pie pastry: you must measure accurately, and you must cultivate a light touch, as over-handling develops the gluten—just like when you knead bread—and correspondingly toughens the pastry.
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup shortening
- 4 tablespoons ice cold water
Not having access to hydrogenated shortening out there on the farm, Aunt Phoebe actually chose to use lard because it made her crust so flaky; while those wary of shortening might instead agree with the spirit of Julia Child, who’d probably be quick to argue that starting with a properly chilled slab of premium butter is really the only way….
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Combine the flour and the salt with a sifter or a fork, and then cut in the shortening with a pastry cutter or two knives—rubbing their surfaces together to blend the ingredients, just until your mixture resembles coarse meal. The tiny bits of shortening that remain contribute to the flakiness—to the point where some say that a food processor can really blend the dough too well for this type of pastry.
Sprinkle the water over the mixture one tablespoon at a time, mixing rapidly with a fork until the dough forms a ball. Lightly shape and smooth the ball with your hands until it feels truly cohesive, and then pat it into a smooth, flat round.
Roll the pastry on a well-floured surface into a circle that’s 2 inches larger than the diameter of your 8 or 9-inch pie pan—starting from the center of the pastry, and lifting the pin slightly upon reaching the edge. Turn it over at least once during the process, being sure to keep the surface well-floured. Even-up the edges as you go, but don't worry if it's not perfectly round, because you’ll be able to redistribute the pastry a little bit after it's in the pan.
Fold the rolled crust gently in half. Lift it carefully into the pie pan and unfold. Press it firmly, without stretching, into the pan—from the center out—to get rid of air pockets. If you stretch it, it's going to buckle when you bake it.
Even-up the pastry around the rim, and then press all around with the flat side of the fork to make a decorative pattern and seal it to the pan. You can shape this edge into any attractive pattern that you like, but be sure it adheres to the outer edge of the pan to keep the crust from shrinking.
Prick the crust carefully and generously with the fork to get rid of still more tiny air pockets that can expand when they hit the heat. After it's been in the oven for a couple of minutes, if it's puffing up anywhere, prick it again quickly—trying not to let any more heat escape from the oven than necessary.
Bake about 10 minutes, until it just begins to brown, and then remove it to cool on a rack while you prepare the filling.
Chocolate Cream Filling
Now this recipe was born from my attempt to cross Grandma’s delicious depression-era chocolate pudding with my Betty Crocker beginnings—leading after all these years to a hybrid that pleases those at my particular table. Grandma’s lacks eggs; but I put some in there anyway, because I feel she probably did it too when they were available. Then I changed her flour into cornstarch, because that’s what Betty did; and I upped the chocolate and vanilla because my family seems to like it that way….
- 1 ½ squares = 1 ½ oz. unsweetened chocolate
- 1 cup sugar
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- 3/8 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups milk
- 3 egg yolks, lightly beaten with a fork
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
Melt the chocolate in a small non-stick saucepan over the lowest of heat. Stir it occasionally with a heat-proof rubber spatula, and only heat it until it’s soft, because chocolate burns very easily.
Combine the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a roomy saucepan; and then add the milk—whisking until smooth. You can do all this with an eggbeater or a wooden spoon like Grandma did, but I imagine if she’d had a whisk she would’ve used it.
Place this mixture over medium heat, alternately whisking almost constantly or scrapping the bottom and sides of the pan with the heat-proof spatula, until it begins to bubble. At this point it’s very easy for it to stick to the bottom and burn, so start with a good quality non-stick saucepan if possible—one that also has plenty of room in it, because by the time everything comes to a boil it will have also expanded.
Turn the heat down to low, and add the chocolate.
Pour the egg yolks into the mixture slowly—in a thin, steady stream—whisking constantly. Boil, whisk, and scrape for 1 minute.
Remove your tasty cream from the heat, whisk in the vanilla, and pour it into the pastry shell—letting it cool down on the countertop until it’s no longer hot to the touch.
Refrigerate at least 2 hours before topping with Whipped Cream.
Now for the very best of results, you’ll find it helpful to put your beaters and a large mixer bowl into the freezer for about ½ hour ahead of time, so that everything stays nice and cold….
- 2 cups = 1 pint heavy whipping cream
- approximately ½ cup confectioner’s sugar, to your taste
Pour the cream into the bowl and beat on medium speed at first so that the cream doesn't spatter. As it starts to thicken, turn the mixer up to high.
Once it begins to hold its shape, add the sugar gradually on medium speed, and then turn the mixer back up to finish it off.
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