On a day like this. When the snow is lowering the sky, lining the limbs of the skeletal trees, erasing the line between earth and air? When you want to say I Am Here and show that somethings do add up. 2 sticks of butter, 2 scant cups of flour, a pinch of salt, a whisper of vinegar, a tablespoon of iced water, nimble fingers, a resolute palm, the heat of the oven.
Ellen Gray, the author of the forthcoming Little BIG Book, Why Pie learned to make pastry at the elbow of a farm wife in Pennsylvania Dutch country. For all the conformity that a perfect crust demands, she learned, pie allows for improvisation in between the crusts, in the middle.
Midwesterners, who turn to pie before cake, may experience the dessert as a metaphor. For their own geographical spot, the social order that has long defined it, the hidden, although sometime dramatic deviation that keep forks digging and mouths opening.
These variations on the Thanksgiving theme are great examples. They are baking as I type at the kitchen table. The Weather Channel is predicting the end of days in upstate New York. I am unfazed. When there is pie there is certainty.
Ellen Gray’s All Butter Pie Crust
This crust works every time – and for just about any filling. The recipe is written for using a food processor, but purists needn’t be alarmed. Fingers, forks and pastry cutters will do the job of cutting flour into butter to make a flakey pastry from this formula, too.
2 and 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teas. salt
1 teas. sugar
16 Tablespoons (2 sticks) cold butter, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup cold water
1. Combine flour, salt and sugar in bowl of food processor fitted with metal blade. Pulse once or twice to combine. Add butter to flour and pulse just until the butter resembles coarse meal. With machine running, add cold water gradually through feed tube just until it holds together.
2.Turn mixture out of processor bowl onto plastic wrap, form dough into a disc, wrap and refrigerate for about an hour.
3.On a lightly floured board, roll the dough to about 1/8″ thick, dusting with minimal flour to prevent sticking. Line a 9 and 1/2,” pie plate with dough and crimp the edges. Chill crust until ready to fill and bake. Makes one double-crusted pie or two tarts
Ellen Gray’s Wild Nut Pie
8 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 and 1/3 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 eggs, room temperature
1 cup dark corn syrup
1 Tablespoon good quality vanilla extract
2 and 1/2 cups total, assorted nuts (I use pecans, cashews, macadamia, and walnuts)
- Prepare and chill a piecrust using the recipe above and preheat the oven to 300 degrees. In the top of a simmering double boiler, combine butter, brown sugar, salt and corn syrup. Stir over heat until butter is incorporated into sugar and corn syrup.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs. Remove the sugar mixture from the double boiler and gradually whisk the warm mixture into the eggs, adding the warm mixture a little at a time to avoid scrambling the eggs.
- Return the mixture to the top of the double boiler, stir in vanilla extract and continue gently stirring the filling until it is quite warm to the touch or about 130 degrees on a spot check thermometer.
- Place the pie crust in the oven for about 15 minutes to partially bake it, remove and spread the nuts in an even layer in the shell. Pour the sugar and egg mixture over the nuts and bake for one hour and 15 minutes or until a spot check thermometer reads 204 degrees.
- For ease in slicing, the pie must rest for several hours before serving. The wait is torturous, but well worth it.
Ellen Gray’s Nutty Pumpkin Caramel Pie
The filling for this pie is cooked entirely on the stove top so the pie shell needs to be thoroughly baked and cooled beforehand. Ellen Gray’s All Butter Crust(see above), rolled into a pie pan, edges crimped and well-chilled can be used for this recipe.
¾ cup pumpkin puree, canned or fresh
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
½ cup heavy cream
1½ cups sugar
¼ cup water
¼ cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon good quality vanilla
5 ounces walnuts
5 ounces pecans
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and prepare the Pumpkin Cream: In a medium bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, the salt and the spices. Stir in the melted butter, then add the heavy cream. When well combined, set aside.
- When the oven has reached temperature, slide the pie crust in and bake for 20-30 minutes until golden and cooked through. Remove from the oven to a pie rack and cool.
- Meanwhile, make the caramelized sugar. In a heavy bottomed saucepan, place the sugar, water and corn syrup. Cook over medium heat and do not stir. Instead, carefully swirl the pan occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture caramelizes. (Without a Pantone book to guide you, I would say you are looking for the color of honey, or copper or medium amber. The pumpkin deepens the color and the flavor, so shy on the side of a touch lighter than darker. Over medium heat on my gas stovetop, this takes about 10 minutes, but stay close at hand. Sugar loves to turn from caramel to burnt sugar to burned sugar at the moment you turn your back.)
- Slowly add the pumpkin cream mixture to the caramelized sugar. Stand back, the caramel will sputter. Continue to cook over medium-low heat until a candy thermometer registers 238 degrees. It takes patience, Do not be tempted to blast the heat up to high or you risk scorching the bottom of your pan and burning the pumpkin. Some caramel recipes instruct you to cook until 244 degrees, but after many versions, I have found a touch below yields a nice, sliceable, chewable caramel. Don your favorite oven mitts and carefully (this is hot stuff!) remove from the heat and immediately pour the caramel into a Pyrex measuring cup.
- Add the vanilla, give it a stir and let it cool down a bit; do not be tempted to test a bit on your finger or tongue. Give it a good 20 minutes to cool; you want the caramel to be pourable. Scatter the walnuts and pecans over the pre-baked pie shell, then pour the caramel over the nuts. Smooth with an offset spatula and let it cool completely.
Serve with vanilla ice cream and slices of apple; I think Honeycrisp pairs beautifully.