Jackie Garvin is moving the pie dough around like a pro. She rolls it calmly, quickly, assertively. When it sticks, she lets it know who's boss and peels back a corner to shuffle a bit more flour underneath. And then she continues, her grandmother's spirit embodied in her old rolling pin, which Garvin uses faithfully.
Before long — well before the specks of butter can melt — she's got the dough fitted into a 9-inch pie pan. A bowl of sweetened peach filling is at the ready, and so is another ball of dough that will form the top crust. It all comes together and goes back into the fridge to chill before baking.
"Don't let a recipe dictate to you how the dough should feel," she says.
That's just one of many tidbits of advice that Garvin tosses out during a recent afternoon baking session in her home kitchen. That simple edict tossed off-hand in her soft Alabama drawl says a lot. A cook who knows more than the recipe must have experience. And that means someone who makes pie dough from scratch sporadically will likely have a rockier time of it.
When it comes to pie dough, and many other things culinary, practice does move us closer to perfect. Garvin's mother didn't much like to cook, so she started making family meals when she was 12.
I made the trek to Garvin's nouveau country home because of her reputation as a fine cook and because it's stone fruit season, which puts me in the mood to make pies. Peach pie, specifically. I've had my share of problems with pie crusts and I had hoped Garvin could give me some pointers.
Garvin, 59, is the founder of the Southern food blog, Syrup & Biscuits (syrupandbiscuits.com), on which she posts original recipes paired with her own photography and stories about cooking and culture. Her recipe and photo for Blueberry Slab Pie were recently published in Parade magazine and her first cookbook, Biscuits — Southern Recipes for All-American Kitchens, will be published by Skyhorse Publishing next spring. Skyhorse, based in New York, approached her last year about the cookbook after discovering her blog.
"Biscuits are very trendy in the Northeast," Garvin says, a note of "what took them so long" in her voice. And for a woman who grew up in Mobile, Ala., they are second nature. She was a natural to develop the 70 recipes that will be published in the book. In May, she took second place in the sweet division at the International Biscuit Festival in Knoxville, Tenn., for her Chocolate Chip Biscuits with Strawberry Cream Cheese Filling and Chocolate Glaze. (Recipes for the winning biscuits and the slab pie are on her blog.)
But today, we are talking pie crusts. No doubt there are many theories about making pie crust, but Garvin has had so much success I trust her way.
Belle the basset hound sniffs the kitchen floor for any lucky scraps before retiring to the deck outside. Peaches and tomatoes are resting in the sink, their excess juices rolling down the drain. Both are destined for pies, one traditional and the other a rustic savory pie, more like a French galette. Garvin, a retired nurse and former owner of a home health care and staffing business, wears an apron and moves with lightning speed. She can talk and cook in equal measures.
Garvin's kitchen is the sort of place that us home cooks covet. There's a good-size island in the middle and lots of natural light flooding in. She's got plenty of places to store cookbooks; big glass canisters of flour and sugar line the counters along with pots of utensils. (And by the way, she uses White Lily flour because she says its soft winter wheat makes tender baked goods.)
"If your kitchen isn't dirty, you aren't cooking or you aren't cooking right," she says. But her kitchen is hardly dirty, just abundantly well-loved and well-used.
As she worked and I watched, I realized some of the things I've been doing wrong. There was a time when I blamed my rolling pin and bought one of those very long, thin French numbers. I brought it with me and Garvin didn't exactly dismiss it but there was no oohing and aahing over my continental accoutrement.
"People get hung up on technique and equipment," she says. "But our grandmothers were doing this long before there were cooking schools."
So here's what I learned, my pie-crust aha! moments if you will:
• Garvin rolls out her dough on a Silpat silicone baking mat, which makes it easier to transfer the dough to the pie pan, but she also uses the mat as a measurement guide. She knows she wants the dough to be 11 inches around for a 9-inch pie and the Silpat is 12 inches wide.
My mistake: I like to use my cute deep-dish ceramic pie plates but I don't increase the amount of dough. That means there's not enough to fill the pan and I end up rolling it too thin to make it fit.
• Work the dough quickly and don't overmix. You want small chunks of butter in the dough. When the pastry bakes, the butter melts and creates pockets. This is what creates flaky pastry.
My mistake: I tend to overwork the dough so that the butter melts into the mixture before it goes into the pan.
• When rolling the crust, use a light touch. Continually stop and lift it to make sure it's not sticking. If it does, toss a bit more flour underneath. And don't panic if one side gets thin or ragged. Simply fold it over an inch or so and reroll.
My mistake: I push too hard when I roll the dough, which presses it into the counter surface. (I must buy a Silpat.) Then when it comes to pulling it off the counter and transferring it to the pan, I am sunk. It's almost turned into shortbread dough because I've fussed with it too much.
• After Garvin rolls the dough the desired size, she gently folds it in quarters and then lays the point in the exact middle of the pan (or over the filling) and unfolds it. This way, it's perfectly positioned.
My mistake: I eyeball the placement and am always off. Once the dough goes down, it can be difficult to move without tearing.
• Garvin is a rustic crimper. She says she doesn't have the patience for all those pie-edge flourishes, adding that homemade pies, should look homemade. She uses her index fingers and presses down and pushes the dough together simultaneously. The technique makes a large well. She also brushes the entire top with half-and-half (you can use melted butter, too) rather than just the center. This facilitates even browning.
My mistake: I work to hard to make my edges look like works of art, and they end up looking messy. Relax, Garvin tells me. Relax.
Lastly, Garvin learned from her maternal grandmother that the business of goodness is found in feeding people. That's more important than perfection. She's not averse, she says, to using a frozen pie dough when time is an issue.
Hours later, and back in my own humble kitchen I tuck into the peach pie that Garvin graciously sent home with me. Each bite bursts of summer fruit, buttery flakes and expertise.
Contact Janet K. Keeler at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586. Follow @roadeats.