In my low tech practice of the culinary arts, mastering a lattice pie crust ranks pretty close to an apex of achievement for me. So, I am mightly proud of this autumn fruit pie that I assembled with an assortment of market produce: nectarines and plums, apples and strawberries, cherries and the last stalks of my garden rhubarb. Smelling divine and looking pretty stellar, this pie caps off a vegetable-centric dinner of pasta with homemade fresh tomato sauce, sauteed garlic-scented Swiss chard from my garden and a golden, crisp oven-roasted cauliflower spiked with grated parmesan cheese. But it is the pie that drew gasps of appreciation, the buttery crust topped with crunchy crystals of raw sugar and the filling holding itself together with thick fruit. I enjoy the casual creativity that spawns a pie like this, searching my fridge drawers for stray apples, strawberries and stone fruit, using what I have, turning a mis-matched collection into a cohesive dessert.
Now that I have witnessed the marvel of a multi-fruit pie, I realize that it is precisely the hodge-podge that accounts for this success. Sometimes an all-apple pie comes out too dry, the sliced apples never really melding into a soft, dense filling, the loose pieces falling hither and thither as you cut your slices. I don't know about you, but I like my pies to retain a wedge-like cohesiveness when cut. No loose juice for me, spilling all over the crisp crust and allowing sogginess to prevail. This is the other main pitfall of pie making, a filling that is too wet and doesn't hold together. Those juicy peaches just leeched too much liquid, or you didn't assess the amount of starchy binder correctly. We have all been there and don't really want to see the re-run. In truth, a recipe will not rescue you. No one other than you, in the moment, can assess how juicy your fruit is, how sweet it tastes and whether the binder you are using is adequate. My advise is this: if you want your fruit pie to hold together, use your senses and follow these guidelines:
- Use a mixture of fruit to allow for some juice, some texture, some softness, some sweetness, some tartness, lots of colour and contrast. Some of the fruit will soften into a paste, perfect for binding the fruit mixture together. Some morsels will remain whole and distinct, a good thing in a pie where mush is not quite the look you are going for, where distinct morsels of fruit suspended in some softness are a better goal.
- Add sugar to taste. Recipes are mere suggestions. There is such a wide spectrum of sweetness in fruits. Only you, with your particular fruit, can know how much sugar to add. Sometimes it is hard to know what a mixture will taste like once it breaks down and cooks in your oven. The allure of pies lies in this mystery. Taste the unbaked fruit mixture, guess and wait and see! This doesn't sound like much of a tip, but it's the truth. There is always an element of sweet surprise when you cut into a pie.
- How much binder do you need? I use flour in my fruit pie fillings, so this is what I will speak about. You will think this odd, but I keep adding flour until I feel that the fruit has an almost gluey feel to it. I know this sounds strange, but it really works. I do not measure, but if I did, I wouldn't be surprised if I used almost a cup of flour in my fillings. Mind you, I make gigantic 10-inch pies piled high with fruit, at least 8 cups worth of chopped apples, peaches, plums, berries, pears, etc. Remember that the more flour you use, the more sugar you may need to add to counterbalance it. Stir in the flour so that it disappears and taste the fruit to see if it is still sweet enough, after your flour is in. As you stir in your flour you will start to see the starch thickening the juices in your bowl. I cannot give you a more precise instruction than this. I distrust pie recipes for this reason. You must use your senses to adjust the sugar and flour in your filling. Don't be afraid to keep adding flour if the fruit is really wet and not starting to feel dense. I have never read about this method anywhere, but my pie successes are undeniable. The fruit holds together as if in a magic suspension, solid yet not sludgey, no gluey, sticky stuff to speak of, just a nice, clean wedge of fragrant, moist fruit when you cut the pie.
- Start with a double crust pie, and graduate to a lattice design once you are comfortable with the whole pie-making idea.
I WILL give you a recipe for my butter/cream cheese crust, delicious enough to win fans on its own merits, plus it bakes up golden, crisp and flakey. Make the crust first so that it can chill and rest while you prepare your pie filling.
Cream Cheese Crust:
1/2 pound unsalted butter, cut into pieces; 1/2 pound light cream cheese, cut into pieces, 2 cups all-purpose flour; 2 tbsp. sugar.
In a food processor, pulse butter, cream cheese, flour and sugar until you have small pea-sized pieces of butter. Continue to process just until the dough clumps around the blades or holds together when pinched with your fingers. Carefully remove the dough from the processor bowl, form it into two balls, one slightly larger than the other, and wrap them well in plastic wrap. Refrigerate while you prepare the fruit for the filling. Makes enough for a large double-crusted 10-inch pie.
Fruit filling for a 10-inch pie:
2 tbsp. plain, fine breadcrumbs, to sprinkle over the dough; 8 cups of mixed fruit, cut into bite sized morsels; 3/4 cup granulated sugar or more if needed; 1/2 cup flour or more if needed; grated zest of 1 lemon; 1 tsp. ground cinnamon. Combine fruit, sugar, flour, zest and cinnamon. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar if necessary. If the mixture starts to look weepy and wet, add in flour by the spoonful. You should have a mass of chopped fruit that feels a little bit "gluey", but not too much so.
To assemble your pie:
The larger disc of dough is for the bottom crust. Unwrap it. On a floured surface, roll your dough into a 12" circle, about 1/8" thick. Fold it in half and then fold again into quarters. Gently lift this folded crust into a buttered 10-inch pie pan, placing the point of dough directly in the centre. Unfold your dough and gently fit it into the pan. Leave the dough hanging over the edge. Prick the dough all over with the tines of a fork and sprinkle the breadcrumbs over it to help absorb some of the liquid from the fruit.
Arrange your fruit mixture evenly in the pie plate, mounding the centre a bit higher. Compact the mixture by tapping on the fruit with the back of a spoon. On a floured surface, roll out the other disc of dough for your top crust, roughly 11" in diameter and 1/8" thick. Fold it in half and then in quarters and lay it over the fruit, with the point in the centre. Unfold the dough and trim the edges of the top and bottom crusts if needed so that they are matched up, overhanging the edges of the pan slightly. Pinch the top and bottom crusts together and fold them upwards to seal. You may press them together with the tines of a fork or pinch into a crimped design. Cut two or three slits in the top crust. Brush with milk or cream and sprinkle with raw sugar to create a sparkly, crunchy crackle effect on the top of your crust.
To Bake Your Pie:
Bake the pie in the lower part of a 375 F oven for about 50 minutes or until the crust is deeply golden and the filling can be seen bubbling through the slits. Let cool to room temperature before serving. If you must cut into the pie before then, the filling may be a little bit loose.
Don't be shy about making pie! It's a bit of a project, admittedly, but well worth it. If sweet, fresh fruit and a crisp, buttery crust are pleasure points for you, you will be amply rewarded.