Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Peach Pie Phobia

I don’t know why pie crust is such an intimidating thing to bake, but it gives me cold sweats. My mom makes an awesome pie crust: buttery and flaky, firm enough to hold gooey fruit fillings, but never brittle… You know, that perfect-mom-made-pie-crust thing… Living up to that is daunting, to say the least.

Pies have a reputation as something terribly tricky to make from scratch, and yet our mothers and grandmothers make it look so effortless. I had virtually no counter-space for a long time, so I had the ideal excuse to avoid attempting to bake a pie, but now that I have a giant granite-top kitchen island, that alibi no longer works... It's peach season, they are gloriously delicious and I wanted to make a gorgeous dessert with those wonderful fruits. Any kind of home-made pie just screams comfort, safety and homeliness; exactly what I was in the mood for! But I had to gather my courage and make crust…

It took a bit of cajoling, but my mother ultimately surrendered her pie crust recipe. It makes enough dough for 3 double-crusted, 9-inch pies, and can be frozen and thawed (at room temperature) for later use. It’s great for quiches and other savory pies (like the fall and winter classic chicken pot pie), so I suggest you go ahead and make a whole recipe and save your leftovers preciously.

I had flagged the recipe for the filling in “Vegan Pie in the Sky”, both because I passionately love peaches, and because I was really intrigued by the idea of adding some of my beloved basil in a pie! Basil is not just a sweet aromatic herb one can use in savory dishes: it tastes amazing with fruits! Some bars offer trendy cocktails made of strawberry or raspberry purée with basil and freshly cracked black pepper. And it is so freaking good!! I figured it would go just as well with the delicate sweetness of fresh summer peaches. If you don't enjoy the taste of basil and fruits together, you can omit it, and brighten the taste of this recipe's filling by using 3 tablespoons of finely chopped candied ginger and 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, another spice combo often used along with peaches.

Peeling fresh peaches is not that complicated, but it requires an extra bit of effort if you don’t want to butcher the delicate fruits. Score the peaches by carving an X at the bottom of the fruits.

Bring a very large pot of water to a boil, and while it heats up, prepare a big bowl of ice water (cold water and lots of ice cubes). When the water is boiling, put the peaches in for a minute, then transfer them to the bowl of ice water with a slotted spoon (that process is called blanching, by the way). 

When they have cooled enough to be easily handled, simply peel off their fuzzy skin using the cuts you’ve made as a starting point (a vegetable peeler works great for this). The boiling will have made the skin very easy to remove. You can now cut your peaches into thin slices (about ¼ inch thick). Watch your fingers, because peeled peaches are slippery bitches!

If you are using frozen peaches because you got a massive craving for this pie in the middle of February, let the peach slices thaw in a sieve placed over a big bowl until they are no longer frozen-solid, but don’t let them get too warm and mushy. Frozen peaches are usually sliced pretty thick, so you need to slice them even thinner, and if they get too soft, it will get messy! Check them regularly, and when they are partially thawed, just soft enough to cut through, slice them thinly.

6 cups non-bleached all-purpose flour (5 ½ cups for the dough, and ½ cup for surfaces)
2 tablespoons baking powder
½ teapoon salt
2 cups high-quality vegetable shortening, cut into small pieces
1 large egg, beaten
¼ cup white vinegar
1 2/3 cup whole milk, and extra for brushing

6 cups sliced peaches (about 8 peaches)
3/4 cup organic cane sugar
1/4 cup non-bleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
8 average-sized basil leaves, snipped into small pieces
1/8 teaspoon salt

Sift 5 ½ cups of flour, the baking powder and the salt together in a large bowl. In a 2-cups measuring cup, mix the egg and vinegar, and add milk until you have 2 cups of liquid. Add the shortening to the dry ingredients, breaking it up with the fingertips or pastry cutter and rubbing it into the dry ingredients until it is crumbly and mixed in.

In 3 additions, add the wet ingredients to the dry, blending well with the hands between each addition: spread your fingers to scrape the bowl well while mixing. Blend until all the liquid ingredients are just incorporated, being careful not to over-mix. The dough should be moist and homogenous.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight.

While the dough chills, score, blanch and slice the peaches. Mix all the filling ingredients together in a bowl just before you are ready to fill the lower pie crust.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Sprinkle flour on the working surface and on a rolling pin. Take a fist-sized piece of the dough and form it into a ball (1 fist-sized piece should equal 1 crust, so in theory, you should have 6 fist-sized balls of dough: I suggest you separate and freeze the dough you won’t use right away at this point). Place the ball of dough on the working surface and flatten it with the rolling pin. Work the dough in a roughly circular shape by rolling outwards. The dough should be about 1/4 inch thick, maybe a wee bit thicker for the bottom crust.

Once the dough is rolled out to the desired size, fold it in half, place it in the pie plate, and unfold. Gently press the dough into the plate and smooth it out. Brush the edges with a pastry-brush dipped in milk. Roll out the top crust portion of dough.

Fill the bottom crust with the filling. Fold the top crust in half, create slits or cut outs to let steam escape, then delicately lift it, place it on top of the filling and unfold. Using the fingertips, the back of a spoon or a fork, pinch the dough around the edges to join the two crusts firmly and trim off the excess dough with a butter knife.

Lightly brush the top crust with milk. Bake for 25 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 degrees and slip on a pie crust shield. Bake for an additional 20 minutes. The filling should be bubbling and the crust should be golden. Place the pie on a cooling rack and cool for at least an hour before serving.

I am way too lazy to do lattice crusts, but I still wanted to decorate the top crust with something prettier than boring old slits to let the steam escape (by the way, you absolutely need to have holes of some kind in the top crust, because if steam from the baking fruits cannot escape, your pie will explode; so unless you want your creation to look like the Vesuvius, post-eruption, make sure your pie can breathe!).

So I used cookie cutters once my top layer of dough was rolled out, cut a few stars out, put the top layer on, then laid my cut-out shapes on top, as decoration, and sprinkled the whole thing with a pinch of cane sugar. Pretty thrifty, huh? It would have been a bit more precious with mini-cookie cutters, made especially for pie decorating, but I didn’t have enough time to hunt any of those down. If the cookie-cutters stick to the dough, just dip them in a bit of flour and carry on. Remember to work quickly because as the dough warms up between your fingers, it can distort the shapes.

For a first-time pie-baker, I think it ended up looking pretty bitching!

If you already have a pie-crust shield, congrats: you are a domestic nerd! Personally, I had never heard of such a contraption before I thumbed my way through “Vegan Pie in the Sky”, but I have been known to be out of the loop. If pie-making is something you can see turning into a passion, go ahead and buy one, but if you are broke or feeling DIY, you can make one out of tin foil! Simply follow these instructions, and you are all set: http://noemptychairs.me/recipes/how-to/how-to-make-your-own-pie-crust-shield/ The shield is basically there to make sure the edges of the pie don’t overcook and become brittle and dry, but I know many cooks who have baked without one for ages and still make delicious pies. Try baking one pie with and one pie without: if it makes a significant difference, keep using it.

Here is another thrifty trick if you don’t have a rolling pin (not everyone does: don’t judge!): use a standard bottle of wine, full, with the label removed. Flour it well, and roll on! The trick is to flatten dough with even pressure, so a cylindrical bottle weighted down with water (or wine, if you bottle is brand new!), works just as well as the rolling pin.

How did my peach pie taste, you ask? Well, if you must know... it was delicious!! The peaches got very soft (but not liquid), almost like a compote. I couldn't really taste the basil, but I suppose its taste infused the peaches with yumminess, because that is what fresh basil tends to do. As for the crust, there is a reason my mom swears by that recipe. The texture is rich, buttery and flaky, and it was strong enough to hold the deliciously syrupy peach filling. In other words, a great success, for a first-timer! I am very, very proud of Pie #1. She's so prettyyyyyy!

And my boyfriend tried to steal the leftovers and I had to chase him around our apartment to get the pie plate back. I am not even joking.

Sure, pie-making is time-consuming work, and it can be messy. But it is nowhere near as hard as I had imagined, and it is very rewarding when you watch this gorgeous piece of pastry cool on the kitchen counter. Its even more rewarding when you wolf down a big piece! My first pie was definitely not perfect, but it was awesome and it gave me quite a boost of confidence in my cooking abilities! If you are looking for a baking challenge, conquer the art of pie-making, and nothing will get in your way again!

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