October 1, 2014
It may be only three letters long, but in the pastry world, pie is king. While cake dominates the birthday circuit and warm cookies with a glass of cold milk always hit the spot, pie is much more than the sum of its humble parts.
“Pies tell a story. They represent a simpler time we all long for,” says Stephanie Lock of Rustic Tart (rustictart.net), a pop-up specializing in handcrafted free-form tarts and pies. “A cupcake or a doughnut will never be that powerful, require that much attention or transport you to your grandmother’s kitchen.”
Megan Miller of Logan Square’s Bang Bang Pie Shop (2051 N. California) agrees. “When you make a pie for someone, it’s this special thing,” she says. “People get excited about pie in a way that’s more than with cake or cookies. It’s such an involved process and the more time you spend the better it is.”
It’s that “involved” part though that often intimidates home cooks when it comes to making their own from-scratch pies, especially during the extra-busy holidays. But, say the local experts we spoke with, it shouldn’t.
When Paula Haney of Hoosier Mama Pie Company (1618½ W. Chicago) was doing research for her recently released cookbook, “The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie,” she quickly realized it’s the crust that makes people the most nervous and decided to dedicate a whole chapter to it. “They seem to think there’s something magical or voodoo about making the perfect crust,” says Haney.
Not so, she says, rather it’s a matter of giving yourself enough time with the crust. Ideally it should be made the day before it’s filled so it can rest overnight in the refrigerator, which prevents shrinkage and ugly-pie syndrome. And, she adds, don’t be afraid to taste the raw dough. “Better to catch any mistakes in that stage rather than when it’s finished.”
While Chelsea Kalberloh Jackson of Pleasant House Bakery (964 W. 31st) is reluctant to divulge too many of her secrets, “Patience and a little TLC go a long way with pie,” she says, adding that people often overmix the dough, which can create too much gluten and make the crust tough.
At the Bridgeport bakery, Jackson, along with her husband, Art, have earned plenty of praise for their savory English-style pies with super-flaky crusts. Look for last year’s Thanksgiving special, which included all of the traditional ingredients in one lovely pie, to make a repeat appearance.
To get a great crust, Miller is a big fan of using leaf lard, the white fat surrounding a pig’s stomach (for availability, check with your butcher). “It adds another dimension to your pastry, and it’s also healthier than vegetable hydrogenated shortening,” she says.
Working cold is another must when it comes to great crust, says Lock. “With pastry, it’s all about cold ingredients. If the dough starts to get too warm, put it back in the fridge.”
To get that elusive crispy bottom crust, Haney recommends popping the assembled pie in the freezer the day before. “That way the fruit filling is frozen and the bottom crust has a chance to cook a bit and form a barrier against moisture.”
When it comes to the filling, as with the crust, using the best ingredients is key. For fruit-filled pies, Miller likes to let the fruit sit in sugar overnight so it macerates and releases liquid. The liquid is then cooked down into a syrup and added back to the mixture, which gives the filling a more concentrated flavor.
For pumpkin pies, the experts we spoke with say using canned pumpkin is just fine. You can always make it a bit fancier by topping it with pumpkin seed brittle like Miller does at Bang Bang.
For apple pies, be sure to use harder apples, says Haney, recommending Granny Smiths for their firmness and tartness. “You put a lot of sugar in there and you need that contrast.”
At Shaw’s Crab House (21 E. Hubbard; 1900 E. Higgins, Schaumburg), pastry chef Manuel Nicolas uses a mix of four apples. “You have to use different kinds for good flavor,” he says. Shaw’s sources its apples from Michigan’s Mick Klug Farm. And pie-baking newbies take note: Even after six years of making pies for Shaw’s, Nicolas still asks questions. “I’m always trying to learn more things about pie making,” he says.
Still not ready to make your own pie? Lock recommends gathering up a few friends and having an assembly line-style pie party. And even if your pies don’t come out perfect, don’t fret. “You can always make some whipped cream,” says Haney. “It’s such a luxurious thing and can cover up a lot of mistakes.”