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Made by the book, this pie crust is perfect

(ran TP)

"Homemade pies of all flavors are on their way to becoming a lost art," writes Susan G. Purdy in The Perfect Pie.

In an attempt to avert such a national disaster, Purdy tries to show that piemaking can be fun and simple. In this revision of her 1985 out-of-print book, As Easy as Pie, Purdy offers more than 125 recipes that span the seasons and the pastry spectrum, from pies to crisps to tarts. With easy-to-read recipes and time-saving tips, Purdy strives to demystify pie crusts and prove that you can bake mouth-watering pies just like Grandma's.

Purdy has been teaching pastry and piemaking classes for the past 15 years. With exacting detail and helpful analogies, she shows readers how to make the perfect all-purpose flaky pastry. For example, she instructs the baker to cut the butter into the flour until "the mixture resembles dry rice," and to stop adding water when the dough feels "pliable like clay." She also provides helpful drawings that make it easy to execute tasks such as rolling the dough or fluting the edges.

Though Purdy's basic pie crust recipe is a keeper, the variations are hit and miss. The electric mixer method yielded a crust that cracked when baked. An orange crust had a flavor so subtle it was hardly worth the extra effort.

On the other hand, the addition of sharp cheddar cheese to the old-fashioned apple pie crust was a success. The shredded cheese melted into the dough to produce a puff-pastrylike crust that paired well with the tart, cinnamon-sweet apples.

Purdy's pie fillings, however, do not compare to Grandma's best.Of the four pies tested, only one, the classic apple pie, met expectations. The other pie flavors and fillings were off-balance, either in sweetness, tartness or sheer height.

Ruth Lawrence's blackberry pie was overly sweet, though the recipe did propose a clever tip for softening the seeds: cook the blackberries in a little cider vinegar. Green tomato pie was too acidic to pass for dessert and left a starchy aftertaste. And though the custard in Purdy's lemon meringue pie struck a nice balance between sweet and tart, the recommended addition of coconut in the cookie crust tipped the scales, making it too sweet.

With the exception of the apple pie, Purdy's pie fillings were minimal. Both the blackberry and green tomato pie baked flat. Similarly, although Purdy's lemon meringue topping reached phenomenal heights, there wasn't enough custard to give visual and textural balance to the pie.

Despite these flaws, Purdy's old-fashioned apple pie could rival any county fair's gold-medal winner. The best part of this pie was its height. Purdy instructs the piemaker to "carefully arrange the apple slices, building up a compact, neat dome." This method prevents the formation of air pockets that can cause the top crust to fall. Other helpful hints include brushing the bottom crust with an egg wash and sprinkling it with cornflake crumbs. Both are surefire tricks to preventing soggy crusts.

She also provides extensive research on freezing pies so you can have a homemade dessert any time.

The Perfect Pie, by Susan G. Purdy (Broadway Books; paperback; 374 pages; $17.95).

Old-Fashioned Apple Pie

with Cheddar Cheese Crust

The crust:

2{ cups all-purpose flour

} teaspoon salt

2-2{ tablespoons sugar (optional)

10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut up

3 tablespoons cold or frozen shortening (such as Crisco)

{ cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

1 egg yolk

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice or white distilled vinegar

3-4 tablespoons ice water or as needed

Egg glaze: 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water

\ cup plain cracker crumbs (optional)

The filling:

6-8 large Granny Smith, Greening or other flavorful apples (or a combination), peeled and sliced [ inch thick (6 to 8 cups of slices)

-{ cup brown sugar

Juice of 1 large lemon

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

{-1 teaspoon nutmeg

{-1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut up (optional)

Granulated sugar for topping

To make the crust: Combine the flour, salt and optional sugar in a large bowl and whisk to blend. Add the butter and shortening. Working quickly and lightly, pinch and slide lumps of dough between your fingertips until the mixture resembles dry rice.

Add the cheese, egg yolk, lemon juice and the minimum amount of ice water. Take care not to overwork the dough, lest you develop its elasticity. Lightly toss the dough until it just begins to cling together in clumps but has not begun to form a ball. Sprinkle on a tiny bit more water if the dough looks too dry. The dough should cling together and feel pliable like clay, but not be sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a sheet of wax paper. Lift the paper's opposite corners and press them together, squeezing the dough into a cohesive ball. Divide in half and flatten the dough into 2 six-inch disks. Wrap each disk in wax paper and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling, but the longer the better _ up to several hours or even overnight.

Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie plate. Roll out half of the dough to a 12-inch-diameter circle and place in the pie plate. Trim a {-inch pastry overhang. To moisture-proof the lower crust, brush with egg glaze and/or sprinkle with crumbs.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

To assemble the pie: Put the apples into a large bowl. Add the sugar, lemon juice, flour and spices; toss well. Carefully arrange the apples in the pastry-lined pan, building up a compact, neat dome. Compress the dome to be sure it is stable. Dot with the butter, if using. Brush egg glaze over the edge of the lower crust.

Roll out the top crust and fit it over the fruit. Trim a }-inch overhang. Fold the edge under the bottom crust and pinch them together to seal, making a raised rim all around. Flute the edge as desired. Cut vent holes in the top. Brush the top of the pie with egg glaze and sprinkle with the topping sugar.

Set the pie in the lower third of the preheated oven and bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees, raise the pie to the center of the oven and bake for an additional 40 to 45 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown and the fruit is tender when pierced with the tip of a knife. Check the pie halfway through the baking time and cover with a foil frame if necessary to prevent overbrowning. Cool the pie on a wire rack.

Serve warm, accompanied by slices of sharp cheddar cheese or vanilla ice cream, if desired. Serves 6-8.

Per serving: 445 calories, 7 gm protein, 53 gm carbohydrate, 24 gm fat (12 gm saturated), 99 mg cholesterol, 260 mg sodium, 3 gm fiber.