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Vintage Cookbooks: Flaky crust prized crown for fruit pies

Thursday, October 11, 2001

By Alice Demetrius, Stock, Post-Gazette Writer

One of the first things I did in 1965, as a new wife, was to join a cookbook club. One of the first cookbooks mailed to my door was "Farm Journal's Complete Pie Cookbook."

I was disappointed with the quality of the book-club binding, but not with the contents, which, as the subtitle noted, included "700 Best Dessert and Main-dish Pies in the Country" -- more than enough for a lifetime of experimentation.

Various surveys list the nation's favorite pies usually in this order: apple, cherry, pumpkin, lemon, chocolate, pecan and coconut.

The expression "as American as apple pie" has historical significance. Pie -- as we know it -- was developed here, though flaky pastry (phyllo) originated with the ancient Greeks. The Romans dispersed the recipe through their empire and it spread throughout Europe where, eventually, every country adapted flaky pastry to its food customs.

In Colonial American kitchens, where lard, flour and water were staples, flaky pastry covered or enclosed whatever foods were available, whether sweet or savory: meat, seafood, fruit or custards. Regions developed specialties -- mincemeat and pumpkin in New England; cream and fruit in the middle states; pecan in the South; chiffon out West.

Quoting the cookbook: "A triangle of pie is the best way to round out a square meal." But, no matter what the filling for a pie, it is the crust that makes it or breaks it. There are many kinds of pie foundations to choose from:

Cream Cheese Pastry: Cream 1/2 cup butter with 3 ounces cream cheese, beating until smooth. Combine 1 cup sifted flour and 1/8 teaspoon salt and add slowly to cheese mixture. Mix thoroughly. Chill wax paper-wrapped pastry until easy to handle and roll.

Baked Graham Cracker Crust: Combine 1 1/3 cups graham cracker crumbs (16-18) with 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup soft butter and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg or cinnamon (optional). Press crumbs evenly on bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie pan, forming a small rim. Bake at 375 degrees 8 minutes. Cool and fill as desired.

Unbaked Pretzel Crumb Crust: Combine 3/4 cup coarsely crushed, thin pretzel sticks, 1/4 cup soft butter and 3 tablespoons sugar. Press into bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie pan. Refrigerate until ready to fill.

Other pie crust variations are made with eggs, cookie wafers, cereals, nuts or chocolate, but for fruit pies, the best top and bottom crust is a traditional, flaky pastry.

TRADITIONAL FLAKY PASTRY

We don't recommend attempting a flaky pie crust on a rainy day since the flour is likely to absorb too much moisture. We use cold flour, cold fat and ice water. We cut the fat into the flour with a heavy, steel-blade pastry cutter and roll the pastry out quickly on a floured surface, using a floured, stockinette covering on a heavy rolling pin. We handle the pastry as little as possible since we don't want the heat of our hands to melt the fat particles, surrounded by flour. We want those particles to melt, quickly, when they hit the oven's high heat. That melting forms tiny air pockets in the pastry and that's the secret to tender, very flaky pie crust.

2 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup lard, cold (we use 1/3 cup lard, 1/3 cup cold butter)
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water

Combine flour and salt in a mixing bowl.

Cut in the fat until the mixture is the consistency of coarse cornmeal.

Sprinkle on the water and quickly toss the mixture with a stiff, outstretched hand until a ball of dough forms. Divide the dough evenly.

Roll each half, from center to edges, on a floured surface or between sheets of waxed paper, until it's an inch or so larger than the pie plate.

Lay the dough evenly, without stretching it, in the pie plate and pinch-flute the edges.

Prick the crust all over with a 4-tined fork, to prevent shrinking.

Bake in a preheated 450-degree oven, 10 to 15 minutes, until golden brown.

Makes enough to line two 8- or 9-inch pie plates.

"Farm Journal's Complete Pie Cookbook," Nell B. Nichols (ed.), 1965

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