Archive for November, 2011


Making a pie from scratch: a virgin’s tale

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, I came across this fascinating pie crust recipe in The Washington Post. The secret ingredient to a perfect crust, according to the pastry-chef author, is a high-fat butter (82-83% “European style” butter; most butters are around 80%), enough salt, and vodka.

Why vodka? Because the high alcohol content (typically 40%/80 proof) helps the dough get the moisture it needs—yet the alcohol evaporates off leaving no flavor, just tender crust. This intel was corroborated by this Smitten Kitchen post. I was sold on the vodka crust idea. And on making an apple pie for the first time the night before Thanksgiving.

No Lucky Charms were baked into this pie.

Foolish, foolish me. Below, a debrief of what I learned, how I did it, and whether I would do it again.

FYI, I only made 1 pie and ingredient-wise, followed the Cooks Illustrated crust recipe from Smitten Kitchen to a T. I did, however, follow the Post recipe for the filling, pie decorations, and time/temp guidelines on baking the bottom crust.

Epiphany #1: The butter you need might be in the “gourmet” cheese case, not the dairy section where you usually find butter and milk.

There’s a liquor-lottery store across from my office, which had plenty of cheap vodka options. Easy enough. Onto securing the high-fat butter. The Post recipe recommended the Plugra brand, a Euro-style butter that’s made in the U.S.

After having no luck scouring/calling a number of Whole Foods, Giants, and Harris Teeters, I made a  last-ditch attempt by going to Whole Foods again, where an employee enlightened me: European-style butters are in the gourmet cheese case where they sell the olives, not with the “domestic” butters over by the milk. Ohhhhhhh. (Other Whole Foods employees I’d talked to over the phone didn’t realize this, either.)

I cut the butter into finer chunks than this, but got exhausted before it became the "grains of sand" texture most recipes call for. The crust still came out fine.

Well, it was Thanksgiving Eve, so of course they were sold out of the unsalted Plugra. Overhearing my conversation with the helpful Whole Foods guy, a customer at the cheese case told me to get the President butter instead. “Trust me, it’s the same,” she said. I protested: “Let me just check and make sure it’s the—” She cut me off. “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.” As I obediently put the President into my cart, I was hoping that she’d follow that up with “I’m a pastry chef,” but apparently she just makes a lot of pies. According to her, the secret is vinegar and lard. Seems like everyone’s got their own formula.

Epiphany #2: A blender isn’t a substitute for a food processor.

So I trotted home with my overpriced Eurobutter, intent on making a pie Agent Dale Cooper (and in-laws) would approve of. The first step was cutting the butter into tiny pieces. Maybe my butter wasn’t cold enough, but it wouldn’t cleanly cut into pea-sized bits. I did the best I could, then stuck the pieces back in the fridge to cool down again. (You need very cold butter for a flaky crust.)

The next step is incorporating the butter into the dry ingredients for your dough. I don’t own a food processor, but I figured the blender has a “pulse” button on it—same thing right?

Sometimes we have to learn our lessons the hard way. My Jack LaLanne blender did little else but turn the butter back into an amorphous wad, which was stubbornly unwilling to mix with the flour. I end up taking the whole mess out, then incorporating the butter into the flour mixture with 2 butter knives. If you don’t have a pastry cutter, you know why this activity counts as cardio.

Thanks, Alton, for the Ziploc idea.

Epiphany #3: Alton Brown knows things.

Food Network was showing nothing but Thanksgiving specials the week prior. I happened to catch the episode where Alton Brown makes a pie. One tip stuck with me: when you refrigerate the dough disks, put them in large Ziploc bags. Once they’re done resting in the fridge, cut the Ziploc open so it doubles in size and provides a decently sized surface to roll out your dough on. This mitigates the post-pie cleanup. What Alton didn’t say is that you’ll need someone to hold down the Ziploc so it doesn’t move while you roll out the dough.

Epiphany #4: Glass doesn’t conduct heat as well as metal.

I used a deep-dish pie pan made of Pyrex. I’m pretty sure that’s why my baking times were a lot longer than the Post recipe specified. If you’re watching your crust bake, don’t panic when you see pools of butter. Somehow those fatty pools get incorporated into the crust once it’s done baking. You want to get the crusts light brown.

Who cares if it looks perfect--no one's gonna see this part, anyway.

Epiphany #5: Your bottom crust can be as ugly as this.

The edges don’t have to be perfectly fluted or anything, because all that is gonna get covered up once you put the filling in and attach the top crust. However, if the crust cracked while baking that might not be good, since your filling is going to seep in. So be sure to weigh it down as it bakes. Note: I patched that hole at 12 o’clock with some top crust dough.

5 hours later (that includes all prep, refrigeration, baking, and cooling time), I had a passable, if slightly wonky looking pie. My relatives thought it tasted pretty good, though you can never tell if they’re just saying that out of politeness. Mr. X-sXe, who usually levels with me when it comes to my cooking, said the crust tasted like a croissant. I took that as a compliment.

The final spread of Thanksgiving pies. Clockwise from top: my homemade pie, Whole Foods pumpkin pie, and a peach-blueberry pie from the Amish market.

 Pros of baking your own pie

  • It’ll likely taste better than store-bought.
  • You can customize it with cookie-cutter shapes on top.
  • Everyone who eats it will know how much  frustration love is baked right in.


  • If this is your first time out, say goodbye to 5 hours of your life (of course, a lot of that is downtime where you’re a slave to the timer).
  • It’ll probably look somewhat lopsided.
  • You’re not saving any money if you go with the Eurobutter. (Last I checked, Plugra was $4.99 at Giant for 8 oz. You’ll need about 1.5 of those for a typical top-and-bottom crust pie, unless you combine it with lard or shortening.
  • If you’re me, your kitchen will look like an explosion at the flour factory.

So the big question: would I do it again? Maybe when this experience becomes a distant memory. In the meantime, I’ll leave the pie-making to Ms. Pie.


Last day for Food & Friends buy a pie > feed a DC neighbor

Today’s the last day to order your Thanksgiving pie through Food & Friends. (PS: If you’re on Team Cake, they also have chocolate-covered cheesecake.)

Why it’s a great idea:

1)      Every pie you buy will provide a full day’s worth of meals for a kid or adult in DC, MD, or VA with a life-altering illness.

2)      You need to buy Thanksgiving desserts anyway, and Whole Paycheck/Safeway/Giant doesn’t need any more of your money.

3)      Their pies come from a family-owned bakery. They have no preservatives or any other ingredients you wouldn’t feed a pregnant woman.

You can order online, then pick up your pies at a bunch of convenient CVS locations on Tuesday, November 22. Food & Friends needs to sell another 1,500-2,000 pies by midnight tonight. Do it!


Pumpkin things I’ve tasted, including a 1-year-old pie

One of the many great perks about this season is the proliferation of pumpkin sweets everywhere you turn:

  • Pies, traditional and whoopee (the latter being more cake-like, but that’s a debate for another time)
  • Cakes/cheesecakes/cupcakes
  • Cookies
  • Pumpkin bread, which borders on health food
  • Seasonal coffee drinks

This time of year must be a bane for pumpkin-haters. Personally, I’m in heaven. It’s not so much the flavor of pumpkin itself–which on its own doesn’t really taste like much–but more about the spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice (which sounds like something you’d find in a 1970s cupboard, next to the box of lard).

Below, a rundown of a few pumpkin sweets that have crossed my plate lately:

1)      Trader Joe’s pumpkin cheesecake (pictured above w/creme fraiche, also from Trader Joe’s): At $6.99, that’s less than the price of one slice at the Cheesecake Factory. I had high hopes, but they should’ve called this “pumpkin-ish cheesecake.” The flavors are pretty muted, while the all-important crust lies in a purgatory between pastry and graham cracker. Half of this cheesecake is still in the freezer. I’m not anticipating defrosting it anytime soon.

2)      Mrs. Smith’s classic pumpkin pie: Speaking of not defrosting things soon, I got this pie for $2 from Giant during the 2010 holiday season. It’s been taking up precious real estate in the freezer ever since. Given that it’s nearly a year old, I wasn’t sure whether to bake it or toss it. Upon inspection, it had just a tiny layer of freezer burn that scraped off easily. So into the oven it went. The pie actually came out perfectly—the crust even stayed crusty. Not sure what kind of industrial chemicals that takes, but someone who eats a year-old pie probably shouldn’t be quibbling.

3)       Red Velvet pumpkin-sage cupcake (above, right): This is one of the November flavors-of-the-month at Rabbit, a Clarendon salad/grill place that serves Red Velvet cupcakes (same owners). I liked the sugared sage leaf, but the strong sage taste in the frosting threw me off. My brain couldn’t help thinking I was eating stuffing. The cupcake part was decently moist–overall, it’s a good cupcake. I was probably just too full after my amazing meal there to fully appreciate this.