Tired of cookie-cutter pies? Spice ’em up with our tips


I love baking pies. Unlike many of the Year of Baking projects we’ve tackled this year, pie is a dessert I bake often enough to know how to make the dough and fillings from scratch.

I buy those fluted Pyrex pie plates anytime I see them in a thrift store so I can bake pies to give away to friends or dinner party hosts. I have a pie crust shield to keep the edges from burning, a new pastry cloth and rolling pin cover so the dough doesn’t stick and an aluminum foil ball filled with beans that I reuse for blind baking, in which you partially bake the crust before adding filling. I have the confidence to show up to a foodie party with a homemade peach pie and store-bought whipped cream because I know what a soft spot most of us have for Cool Whip.

You know there will be Cool Whip at my Thanksgiving dinner later this month to go with the pecan, pumpkin and apple pies that my family loves so much. My cousin, Carlee, has taken the lead on baking them for our official dinner, but I love finding new pies to make for Friendsgiving or to take to work to brighten a Monday.

One easy way I’ve found to spruce up an otherwise everyday pie involves cookie cutters. A few years ago, I started seeing more and more pies with cut-out dough on top. Placing leaves, hearts, stars or even goofy shapes, such as a squirrel or a mustache, on top of a pie is a modern alternative to a traditional lattice or that top layer of dough with a few holes poked into it.

The smaller shapes will bake atop an open-faced pie, such as pumpkin or buttermilk, without any adjustment in time. For pies that take longer in the oven, you might consider placing the cutouts on top about 10-15 minutes after the pie has started baking. No matter if you’re using cutouts or a whole sheet of dough on top, brush it with an egg wash or a little milk to keep the dough shiny and golden as it bakes.

As good as homemade crust is, I like to keep sheets of rolled-up pie dough in the freezer just in case I get the hankering to make a sweet or savory pie and don’t want to break out the food processor, pastry cutter and rolling pin.

The rolled-up pie dough, which is sold in the refrigerated section but can be stored in the freezer and then thawed in the fridge, is much more versatile than the pie dough sold in aluminum pans in the freezer. You can still bake the pie in your own pie plate, which is nicer for serving and sturdier for transporting the pie in and out of the oven (or car).

A few other thoughts to keep in mind this pie-baking season:

  • Foil is your friend. As soon as you see the edges of the crust start to get brown, put a sheet of foil or one of those pie shields on top. It’s so easy to accidentally burn a pie crust, in part because recipes often call for lowering the heat at a certain time and cooks forget to do that, or because your oven burns a little hotter than you might realize.
  • Use a pizza cutter when slicing strips for a lattice, and don’t feel confined to the 1/2-inch strip. You could vary the widths of the pieces, make them all somewhat thick or crisscross them at less than 90 degrees. If you’ve never woven a lattice before, practice with strips of paper, just like you might have done in elementary school art class.
  • Rather than create the lattice directly on top of the pie, you can practice on a pastry cloth or piece of parchment paper and then gently lay the completed lattice on top of the pie.
  • If you’re worried that your fruit pie filling is too runny, pour off some of the liquid and combine it with a few tablespoons of cornstarch. Some bakers always toss their fruit with cornstarch alongside the sugar and spices before baking.
  • No need to toast nuts before adding them to your dessert. They’ll get that rich, roasted taste as they bake with the rest of the pie.
  • To transport the dough from your floured counter or pastry cloth, gently roll it up so that it folds over the rolling pin.
  • A pie will keep on a countertop for a day or so, but cover and refrigerate after that.

 

Pumpkin Pie

This base pumpkin pie recipe from Mark Bittman is a great place to start if you’ve never made a pie. The cookie crust is more forgiving than a flaky pie dough crust, and he offers more than half a dozen variations to keep it interesting year after year.

1 recipe Cookie Crumb Crust made with gingersnaps or graham crackers

3 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. ginger

1/8 tsp. nutmeg

1/8 tsp. allspice

1/4 tsp. salt

1 1/2 cups canned pumpkin purée

1 cup half-and-half, cream or milk

Bake the crumb crust as described in the recipe. Start the filling while the crust is in the oven. When the crust is done, turn the oven up to 375 degrees and cool the crust slightly on a rack.

Use an electric mixer or a whisk to beat the eggs with the sugar, then add the spices and salt. Mix in the pumpkin purée and then the half-and-half.

Put the pie plate with the crust on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour the pumpkin mixture into the crust all the way to the top (you might have some left over). Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until the mixture is firm along the edges but still a bit wobbly at the center. Cool on a rack until it no longer jiggles, then slice into wedges and serve, or refrigerate for a day or two.

— From “How to Bake Everything: Simple Recipes for the Best Baking” by Mark Bittman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35)

Cookie Crumb Crust

A fun, flavorful and easy alternative to the traditional pie crust is to make one from cookies, pretzels or crackers. Reduce them to crumbs (blitz them in a food processor, or put in a plastic bag and go at them with the smooth side of a meat mallet or a rolling pin) and combine with a little sugar and melted butter; prebaking is essential.

1 1/2 cups cookie crumbs (graham cracker, wafer — any cookie you like)

3 Tbsp. sugar

6 Tbsp. (3/4 stick) butter, melted

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the cookie crumbs in a large bowl and toss with the sugar. Add the melted butter and mix to combine.

Pour the mixture into a pie plate and use your fingers to spread and press the mixture evenly into the dish and up the sides.

Bake the crust for 8 to 10 minutes, until slightly browned and fragrant. Let cool before filling.

— From “How to Bake Everything: Simple Recipes for the Best Baking” by Mark Bittman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35)

Pear-and-Sour Cherry Pie Filling

Sweet pears balance tart cherries for a lovely all-season pie filling.

3 cups sugar

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

3 3/4 lbs. ripe Bosc pears, peeled, cored and sliced

2 1/2 lbs. fresh tart red cherries, pitted

3 Tbsp. bottled lemon juice

Whisk together sugar and cinnamon in a 6-quart stainless steel or enameled Dutch oven until blended. Add pear slices and cherries, and sprinkle with lemon juice. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring gently; cover and cook 10 minutes or until fruit releases its juices, stirring occasionally.

Ladle hot fruit mixture into a hot jar, leaving 1-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rim. Center lid on jar. Apply band and adjust to fingertip-tight. Place jar in boiling-water canner. Repeat until all jars are filled.

Process jars 30 minutes, adjusting for altitude. Turn off heat; remove lid from canner and let jars stand 5 minutes. Remove jars and cool. Makes about 3 (1-quart) jars.

To make a Pear-and-Sour Cherry Pie: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Roll out a pie crust and fit into a 9-inch pie plate. Drain 1/3 cup syrup from one 1-quart jar of pie filling into a medium bowl. Whisk in 2 Tbsp. cornstarch until smooth. Add remaining pie filling, gently stirring to blend into cornstarch mixture. Pour into pie shell and set pie plate on a baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees; bake 25 more minutes or until golden brown.

Apple-Pear-Cranberry Pie Filling

Make pie filling a snap! This tri-fruit filling is great for crisps and turnovers too.

4 cups water

3/4 cup bottled lemon juice, divided

5 cups thinly sliced peeled apples (about 2 lbs.)

5 cups thinly sliced peeled pears (about 2 lbs.)

2 cups cranberries, fresh or frozen, thawed

2 1/2 cups sugar

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg

Combine water and 1/4 cup lemon juice in a large bowl. Submerge apple and pear slices in lemon water; drain.

Combine fruit slices, cranberries, next 3 ingredients and remaining 1/2 cup lemon juice in a 6-quart (6-L) stainless steel or enameled Dutch oven. Bring to a simmer over medium heat; cover and cook 10 minutes or until fruit releases its juices, stirring occasionally.

Ladle hot fruit mixture into a hot jar, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rim. Center lid on jar. Apply band, and adjust to fingertip-tight. Place jar in boiling-water canner. Repeat until all jars are filled.

Process jars 30 minutes, adjusting for altitude. Turn off heat; remove lid from canner and let jars stand 5 minutes. Remove jars and cool. Makes about 3 (1-quart) jars.

To make an Apple-Pear-Cranberry Pie: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Roll out a pie crust and fit into a 9-inch pie plate. Drain 1/3 cup syrup from one 1-quart jar of pie filling into a medium bowl. Whisk in 2 Tbsp. cornstarch until smooth. Add remaining pie filling, gently stirring to blend into cornstarch mixture. Pour into unbaked pie shell and set pie plate on a baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees; bake 25 more minutes or until golden brown.

— From “The All New Ball Book Of Canning And Preserving: Over 350 of the Best Canned, Jammed, Pickled and Preserved Recipes” from the editors at Jarden Home Brands (Oxmoor House, $22.95)

Flaky Pie Crust

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 cup cold unsalted butter

1/2 cup cold shortening

1/3 cup cold water

Combine the flour, salt, butter and shortening with a pastry blender (or a few pulses in a food processor) until crumbly. Sprinkle cold water, 1 Tbsp. at a time, over the surface of the mixture. Stir with a fork just until dry ingredients are moistened. Shape dough into a ball. Divide dough in half. Shape each half into a disk, and wrap in plastic wrap; place in a large zip-top plastic freezer bag. Seal and freeze up to 3 months. Thaw and roll out when ready to use. Each disk makes one crust.

— From “The All New Ball Book Of Canning And Preserving: Over 350 of the Best Canned, Jammed, Pickled and Preserved Recipes” from the editors at Jarden Home Brands (Oxmoor House, $22.95)



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