Monday, February 21, 2011

Meatless Monday: Talking Pie

Pie is the new cupcake according to the New Haven Advocate, my local weekly paper. The month of February has been declared Great American Pie Month. And today, Presidents’ Day, is often observed by eating a slice of cherry pie (after a return from shopping the plethora of sales) in honor of our first president. Why? Well, George Washington, according to a tale made popular by Mason Locke Weems in 1809, chopped down a cherry tree as a lad, and when confronted by his father, confessed to the deed, saying, “Pa, you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” And we have been eating cherry pie on this day ever since.

What better post topic for this special day than pie?

According to an article called “History of Pie,” the original purpose of a pastry shell was to serve as a baking dish, storage container, and serving vessel, not always meant to be eaten. This same site includes an historical timeline for pies which lists the earliest ancestor of the modern pie appearing among the Neolithic Egyptians sometime around 9500 BC. It also describes “animated pies,” a form of banquet entertainment in which small birds, animals, or even people would emerge from a pie when it was cut open and then provide entertainment. [Sound familiar?]

It is unlikely that what we know as pie was part of the first Thanksgiving feast, but filled fruit pies have been popular in America since the 1700s. The Shakers, a communal sect which flourished in New England, Ohio and Kentucky in the 1800s, were renowned for pies of seasonal fruits such as their Shaker Lemon Pie, in their communities and in the outside world. Their pie crusts were made of butter or shortening, in large amounts. Keep in mind that what they called “shortening” was actually rendered beef fat. 

Betty Crocker's Pie & Pastry CookbookIn the 1926 pamphlet What to Cook and How to Cook It (compliments of the Springvale National Bank in Springvale, ME), one recipe for pie crust appears. It called for 3 cups of flour to 1 heaping cup lard. In the 1972 edition of the Betty Crocker Pie and Pastry Cookbook, the Standard Crust recipe called for vegetable shortening (or lard), and an oil crust was a variation. By the 1990s, most recipes called for shortening, which by now was a strictly vegetable-based product, such as Crisco.

I learned the art of pie making with Crisco, and when I used it, I was a master of the perfect pie crust. The crust was always flaky, and light, and rolled out so well. And then Crisco got a bad reputation. When it was first introduced in 1911, Crisco was the first shortening to be made entirely of vegetable oil and was considered a healthy alternative to lard. We now know, however, that the partially hydrogenated vegetable oil from which Crisco is made is a trans fat, which raises bad cholesterol, lowers healthy cholesterol, and increases the risk of heart disease. Butter has turned out to be a better choice than Crisco, and oil (such as canola) an even better alternative.

Non-Animated Healthier Shaker Cranberry Pie
Here comes the challenge. I have been working hard at perfecting an oil crust. I am getting better at it, but my oil crust has never come out quite as flaky as my Crisco ones. And yesterday I made a big mistake. I made the crust ahead and formed it into two balls which I put in the fridge. Later, when I went to roll them out (cold, the mistake), they disintegrated into crumbs. I gathered the crumbs up, added a little water and made two new balls. I had trouble rolling the dough out to full size, but I managed to put together a pie. 

For years my tradition was to make a cherry pie on this date, using canned cherries from Washington state. This year I decided to go more seasonal and local. My filling was a slight reworking of a recipe I had for Shaker Cranberry Pie. Its base was 1 cup of Cape Cod cranberries (from the freezer) and 1 cup organic Thompson raisins. I mixed a heaping 1/2 cup [reduced from 3/4] sugar with 1 tablespoon flour, and 1 teaspoon vanilla, and then sprinkled it over the fruit. I mixed everything well and turned into the pastry. I baked it at 425° for 35 minutes, using pie shields on the edge for the first 20 minutes of cooking. The pie came out oh so tasty, but as the pie had baked, it diminished in size, and the crust was, well, not flaky. It had more of a container quality to it, and was more like a poptart. 

My pie was certainly healthier than the earlier Shaker version. It’s half gone already. And I’ll do better next time. Once I achieve the perfect oil crust recipe, I’ll be certain to post it. Recipes welcome.

Happy Presidents’ Day!

I try to blog on food or food issues each Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

1 comment:

  1. I'll be looking forward to the fruits of your experiments. I have encountered similar problems with oil-based pie dough so tend to use the traditional shortenings: butter or lard. I tend to favor the latter, having taken into account the fact that my diet (through personal preference rather than any conscious culling of alternatives) is very healthy & devoid of "bad" fats. So a little lard or Crisco in a crust now & then won't be causing my daily fat intake to register "Tilt". Still, out of a preference to minimize animal-based foodstuffs as much as possible, I would be glad to find an alternative which yields the classic flakey crust you mentioned. Maybe you should contact our renowned novelist & pie-making classmate for her thoughts on the subject?