Friday, March 21, 2014

"Easy" as pie

I have often wondered who in the world thought that pie was "easy" to make. The different crusts, the various fillings, when to pre-bake the crusts, which of the many types of pie dishes to use—I sometimes find it quite confusing. An instructive trip to Wikipedia cleared up the first mystery. It explains that "as easy as pie" is a “popular expression used to describe a task or experience as pleasurable and simple. The idiom does not refer to the making of a pie, but rather to the act of consuming a pie (‘as easy as eating a pie’).  The phrase is often interchanged with ‘a piece of cake,’ which shares the same connotation.” Ah, yes, eating pie is very easy indeed. But let's try to clear some of those other questions.

First it is important to recognize that, historically, pies of one sort or another exist in almost all cultures, with varying differences in definitions, forms and recipes creating confusion and overlaps. In today's international culinary world, the following distinctions are generally used:

Both pies and tarts can be sweet or savory. Pies are deep, and tarts are shallow. They both have a crust and a filling. A pie may have just one crust on the bottom or also a second one on top. A tart has only a bottom crust.

A very major difference is in the baking dish.
The pie pan is round with a sloped side and a flat or fluted rim to hold the edge of a pie crust. Often the pie pan is made of Pyrex glass. The pie is served in the baking dish, and most cooks struggle to cut out a presentable first piece to serve. 
Tarts are baked in a pan with a removable bottom. A tart pan has straight sides (some fluted, some not) that turn out neat, more "professional"-looking pastries than the slope-sided pie pans. Most tart pans are made of metal, and the best have a removable bottom, allowing you to slip off the outer ring without marring the beautiful crust. Unlike pie pans, tart pans may be round or rectangular,
Traditionally pie crust has a higher dry ingredient (flour) to fat (butter and/or shortening) ratio than tart dough, giving it a flaky texture. Pies are often filled with sweetened fruit that releases a quite a bit of juice when cooking, so the drier dough and use of a second crust helps to absorb some of that moisture without becoming soggy. The flakiness makes it easier to get a fork through the double layers without a knife. The dough for tarts tends to be sweeter than that of a pie, and it is usually rolled a bit thicker. Tarts are generally filled with a custard, pastry cream or lemon curd that sits directly on the crust. These custard bases are quite heavy, and a thick, solid foundation is needed as structural support. The extra sugar that is often present in tart-dough recipes balances the bite of a lemon curd and cuts the richness of pastry cream, while the eggs (usually yolks alone) bind the dough for extra durability. The goal is a firm and crumbly rather than flaky crust.
I sometimes make my own dough—for very special occasions. But I often use Pillsbury refrigerated pie dough. It was my great secret until some of our chef friends came up for a weekend and, as they were busy cooking, one of them asked me to make a tart. It was too late to make my own dough and be ready in time, so I proposed the Pillsbury shortcut. They all approved and told me that they sometimes used it, too. It is a good compromise between the flaky and the crumbly crust and can be used in sweet or savory recipes. I have it in the refrigerator at all times. (Watch the expiration date). For best results I roll it out onto the proper baking pan or dish and fit it well into the form. Then, with a fork, I prick it five or six times (to avoid air bubbles) and put it into the freezer for at least 15 minutes. Afterward I follow the recipe.

Ever since my chefs sanctioned the use of the store-bought dough, to the delight of my friends and family,  I have been making more pies, tarts and quiches than ever before. Not having to make the dough makes baking pies—"a piece of cake!"

No comments:

Post a Comment