Rolling Out the Pies

November and December are serious pie months. Some feel that rolling out pie pastry is like rolling out the red carpet for a dignitary. Either an expert is hired or the job is outsourced to the red carpet specialists. In pie terms, that would be Marie Callender or Pillsbury Refrigerated pie crusts.

Another way of looking at the job of pie pastry is to compare it to a simple carpentry project. You need tools, but not too many — hammer, measuring tape, saw. You need ingredients — wood, nails or screws and perhaps some glue.

The pie pastry or dough is the basis for your project. Your tools: rolling pin, fork or pastry blender, pie plate. Your ingredients: flour, shortening, salt, water and something to go in the pie.

Getting to be comfortable with your tools is a must. A carpenter knows how much force to put behind his hammer. He knows how much pressure to put on the saw. That knowledge only comes with continued use. Same with pie tools. After some time at pie baking, one knows how much pressure to use on the pin, how much force to use for the fork or blender to cut the shortening in just enough.

A good example of this is found in the Perrysburg Journal, Ohio, of 1915. Reported from Joplin, Missouri, is a pie story of huge magnitude. Seems Annie Dean, then 63 years old, laid claim to the title of champion pie baker of the southwest.

At the time of the writing, Annie had been baking pies for forty-two years. That means she started using pie tools at age 21 back in 1873. Claiming to have not missed a work-day of pie baking in those 42 years, she baked about forty pies a day. That means 280 pies a week, or 1120 pies a month or 13,440 a year. So, for the forty-two years, she totaled more than half a million pies.

A well-known music instructor, eating in the restaurant where Annie worked, was quoted as saying, “I’ve been around the world three times and I have failed to find anywhere a pie that can compare to the quality and excellency of Annie’s.” He was said to have uttered those words after finishing a second piece of pie and just before ordering a third.

Around the year 1944, young women wanted more than a word of advice in the kitchen though. They wanted instructions, photos of how-to. Marjorie Griffin took four pages and nine photos to explain rolling pie pastry in her book, “How To Cook”. That was short compared to a University of Chicago book, “Hows and Whys of Cooking”, which took five pages and two photos plus lists of possible ingredients. And so began the signs of the times — today’s Pinterest and YouTube are meccas for masses of how-to anything.

But the only way to learn this pie pastry challenge is to get the flour in the bowl, the shortening in the flour and the pastry blender in there. Rolling pin at the ready, pie pan at the ready and some chopped up fruit or berries or a can of pumpkin and you’re off and rolling.

I have six rolling pins. Mom gave me a heavy, green marble pin that has that stone coldness good for rolling butter pastries. My wedding gift pin has seen forty-two years of pie pastry and cookie dough. A hairline crack appeared down its side a while back so it’s sidelined for now.

I use a green-handled pin my mother-in-law gave me. It has a name burned into the end of it but no one seems to know what that means. Then there is her own rolling pin and her mother’s. They’re wrapped in kitchen towels in the drawer with all the pie tools.

The sixth one is my son’s from when he started to take an interest in baking many years ago. Like all children, he wanted to help bake and have his own tools. He’s now a better baker than I am.

My mother used “Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook” for help and as a guide for my own pie education. I still use it and refer my son to it when a question comes up. While pie pastry may seem to be the challenge, don’t fret. Get a rolling pin. Gather a few more simple tools. Chop some apples, stir some sugar into a bowl of berries, or just make a box of instant pudding and pie filling. Make today the beginning of your pie adventures.

Here is a basic recipe adapted from my mother’s 1965 copy of Farm Journal’s Pie Cookbook. Gather your pie tools, practice, pass on a pie to a friend. You’ll soon surpass the “experts” in the refrigerated case at the store.

Pie Pastry

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup solid shortening such as Crisco OR 2/3 cup solid lard
4-6 tablespoons ice cold water

Put the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl and blend together. Plop the shortening into the flour. Using a fork or pastry blender, cut the shortening into the flour. This means chopping the shortening with the fork and at the same time pressing it into the flour. Chop, press, stir. Soon the mixture will take on a lumpy look. Keep working a few more minutes until the lumps are the smaller size of peas.

Sprinkle the cold water into the mixture by tablespoons. Toss and gently mix with fork each time some water goes in. Soon the whole mixture will stick together in a shaggy mass. Press it to the sides of the bowl, when it holds together pretty well, gather half of it up and press lightly together into a ball. Place ball of dough on lightly floured wax paper. It is ready to roll out for a pie or wrap it up in the wax paper and refrigerate for use later.

To use immediately, flatten dough on the floured wax paper. Sprinkle a bit of flour on top and top with another piece of wax paper. Place the rolling pin in the middle of the dough and gently roll out to the edge of the wax paper. Turn the papers and put rolling pin in the middle and roll out to edge. Continue to roll this way until pastry is as large as you need. For a 9-inch pie pan that means a sheet of pastry about 12 inches in diameter. Remove the top wax paper and roll the disc onto the rolling pin. Lift gently and separate from bottom wax paper. Adjust the pastry into the pan by rolling it off the pin. Press out air bubbles. Repeat for top crust. Add filling to pie pan, adjust top crust. Crimp edges of both crusts together to seal pie edges. Trim away any excess pastry. Cut steam vents in top crust and bake according to recipe directions.

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  • Published on Nov 23, 2015
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