Say hi to American pie

There's no pastry like our pastry, born and bred in the USA. It's a slice of history, handed down through generations. But "easy as pie"? Hardly.

By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published June 6, 2007

Andy Griffith takes a bite, savors it, and says, "It could solve all the problems of the world, that pie."

That's how seriously his character in the film Waitress takes pie.

It's appropriate that the original resident of Mayberry, Mr. American As Apple Pie himself, should champion this most patriotic of desserts. The rest of the world produces pastry aplenty, but the deep-dish, fruit-filled, double-crust dessert pie is strictly the purview of the American home baker. We invented it.

France has its tarts, England has its meat pies - but the American pie is something else entirely, part art, part science and part attitude. The crux of the matter is crust: flour, some kind of fat and water, combined cold and quickly, then allowed to rest. Fillings vary, but the archetypal pie is filled with fruit, the riper the better, sugar and maybe a flavoring or two.

Jenna, the main character in Waitress, played by Keri Russell, is obsessed. Her life's ambition is pie.

She's not alone. Pie Pie Pie, by John Phillip Carroll Chronicle Books, 2005, and Pie by Ken Haedrich (Harvard Common Press, 2004) are just two of dozens of books on the subject. The latter is 639 pages long. One food writer at the New York Times last year devoted an entire 2, 759-word column strictly to determining which fat yielded the best pie crust: butter, rendered lard, shortening or a combination. (The answer: part butter, part lard, rendered herself.)

The reasons people have so much to say about pie are twofold. One, there's no single answer to what makes the perfect pie. And two, even an imperfect pie is a pretty good thing.

Some cooks swear pastry flour makes the flakiest crust. A fair number of bakers add an egg so crusts are easier to work with, and some include a bit of baking powder for loft. Most bakers caution against overworking the dough and insist that dough needs to "rest" before filling, otherwise it is elastic and prone to shrinkage.

Pie bakers all have their tricks.

"I like to use vinegar in the crust, " says Valarie Enters of Sanford. "What vinegar does is it prevents the glutens from developing as much. Kneading causes glutens to develop, which gives you a tough crust."

Listen to Enters, she's a champ.

Upper crust

Enters was among top bakers from around the country who convened in April for the annual American Pie Council/Crisco National Pie Championships in Lake Buena Vista.

They subjected themselves and their pies to the scrutiny of judges. Take, for instance, the comments of Wayne Cormier, John Zehnder, Robert Pelaia and Robert Ray, one of two teams judging the apple pie category. One pie, its crust giving way to a soupy interior, received a withering 0 out of 4 for appearance. As the team tasted its way through 24 apple pies, one wondered where the expression "easy as pie" ever came from.

"The crimp work is outstanding."

"The top looks dry."

"Flaky, though."

They leaned into a pie wedge, brows knit, evaluating on appearance, taste and overall impression.

In the next room, Enters wasn't even thinking about those judges. She just needed an egg. Another baker unearthed one from her own stash, and Enters gratefully cracked it into a measuring cup, whisking.

"With a double-crust pie like this, you've got to be sure to really seal it. I brush the rim generously with 100 percent egg wash, no water."

The pie in question was her "retro" strawberry rhubarb, one of six pies she entered in this competition. As the "best in show" winner of last year's amateur division competition (for her Morello cherry pie), she had the honor, or challenge, of competing this year in the professional division.

In a banquet room at the Sheraton Safari Hotel and Resort, she stood in a makeshift kitchen behind a folding table, gently rolling out a top crust to position atop the jumble of strawberries, rhubarb, beads of tapioca and dots of butter. Next to her stood a small, framed photo of an elderly woman. She lifted it reverently, getting floury fingerprints on its edge.

A slice of history

"This is my husband's grandmother, Marge Dean. She's 95. She taught me how to use rhubarb. I'm making this one to honor her."

Enters' strawberry rhubarb doesn't win, but this generation-to-generation sharing is a recurrent theme among pie champs.

Jordan Arcuri, 17, of Orlando won this year's junior chef title with her Funky Monkey pie (a wild concoction of bananas, chocolate, peanut butter, vanilla pudding and Cool Whip in a vanilla wafer crust, topped with peanuts and chocolate shavings). She started baking pie years ago, tinkering with family apple pie recipes.

Linda Hoskins, executive director of the American Pie Council, describes why Americans are besotted by pie. "Savory pies came over with our ancestors. It was a staple of their diet, but as time went on it took on the role of a dessert. Pie holds a special place in our hearts because the recipes are often passed down from generation to generation. It gives us warm feelings about good memories."

In Waitress, Jenna sings a song to her baby daughter, a song her mother once sang to her. The refrain is, "Gonna make a pie with a heart in the middle."

Maybe every pie has a little heart in the middle.

Laura Reiley can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or lreiley@sptimes.com.


Pie champs tell all

Here are some tips from winning bakers at the recent National Pie Championships in Lake Buena Vista:

Making dough

- "Make sure that all your ingredients are very cold. You want that fat to stay cold. That's what causes the flakiness, the little pockets of fat." - Linda Hoskins, executive director of the American Pie Council

- "It's also good to have cold hands when working with your ingredients." - Andrea Spring of Bradenton, best in show champion in professional division 2007

- "I use butter extract in the crust to give it a buttery flavor. I use Crisco for the flakiness but put butter extract in with the water and egg." - Susan Boyle of DeBary in Volusia County, two first-place wins in professional division 2007

Rolling dough

- "As far as rolling out, it's really helpful to have a pastry cloth. It's like a thick, cotton duck cloth that has a weave that absorbs flour rubbed into it. You don't want pastry to absorb too much extra flour from your rolling surface." - Andrea Spring

- "For pies, the wooden rolling pins with ball bearings and handles at both ends are best. French pins that are tapered at both ends are for heavier doughs. Start rolling from the center, but then roll out from the edges. If you keep rolling from the middle, the edges get cracked." - Andrea Spring

Forming the crust

- "If you have a crust that you don't trust, take off excess by pressing with tines of a fork to make a thinner edge. If you think that edge is going to be tough, don't make a big, thick edge." - Andrea Spring

- "Vent a double-crust pie with a pie bird to release the steam." - Valarie Enters of Sanford, best in show champion in amateur division 2006

- "If it's a lattice top, you don't need to vent. For a lattice, use a fluted cutter to give a nice edge. I don't do the woven style: just lay some one way and some the other and use a fork to press down edges." - Andrea Spring

Baking a pie

- "Use a clear Pyrex dish so you can evaluate the doneness of the crust as it cooks." - Valarie Enters

- "Place a cookie sheet on the oven rack under your pie to catch any drips that might burn on the bottom of the oven, and line that with foil so it's not a mess to clean up." - Valarie Enters

The Big Picture

- "Take recipes that were passed down through the family, but be creative and use things that you normally eat or that your family likes." - Jordan Arcuri, junior chef champion 2007

- "My secret weapon with pies? I educate myself. I never stop learning." - Valarie Enters