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Baking pies can be meditative, and eating them can be transcendent

Pie-oh-my! by Erin Jeanne McDowell, The Washington Post | November 25, 2020 at 2:08 a.m.
From left: Roasted Cranberry with Meringue topping in Press in Cookie Crust; Apple Pie With an All-Butter Crust and Painted Cutout Topping; Fall-Spice Pudding Pie With Whipped Cream and a Nut Crust.(Mark Weinberg for The Washington Post)

This year, at Thanksgiving tables all over the country, we'll see smaller casseroles and fewer diners. But the sweetest part doesn't have to change.

It's time to heat the oven, throw some flour around the kitchen and bake something special. It's time to make pie. I pound the pavement on behalf of pie all year long, as I truly believe it deserves a spot on dessert tables, whatever the season. But Thanksgiving is to pie what cake is to birthdays, and this year I could pass on the turkey altogether: but I'll still be baking. Yes, I want to indulge and tuck into the fruits of my labor, but as many who have ventured into the kitchen this year have found, baking is so much more than the end result. It's part project, part creative, meditative for some, and always with a dash of science sprinkled in. It makes your home (and you) smell good — and feel good, too. As we close a year where not much has been certain, eating some pie during the third week of November seems like an achievable, celebratory and delicious necessity we all deserve.

At its core, pie is a filling tucked inside a crust. What's beautiful about breaking it down this simply is that it suddenly becomes clear just how natural and easy it is to mix and match them. Choose a crust, choose a filling, and if you're feeling fancy (and even for a socially distant feast, why shouldn't you?) choose a topping to dress it up even more. Whatever your level of pie-baking comfort, we have a recipe (or a few) for you.

No matter what else is different about the foods coming out of your kitchen this year — or even if you're skipping the feast all together — you should still bake a pie. Bake your favorite flavor for yourself, or bake someone else's and leave it on their front porch. Make a pie, bake a pie, eat some pie: not because it's tradition, but simply because it's just about the sweetest thing you can do.

Meringue topping shouldn't be reserved for lemon curd fillings. Any tart filling, such as this brightly sour roasted cranberry mixture, pairs beautifully with pillowy, sweet meringue. If you worry that two components feel ambitious, take comfort in this particularly easy, press-in crust, which requires no rolling or chilling. The combination of the three — sour, jammy berries; fluffy meringue topping and crumbly, crisp cookie crust — provides a beautiful textural contrast.

Storage Notes: The cranberry filling can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Once baked into a pie, it will keep at room temperature, loosely covered, for up to 2 days.

Roasted Cranberry Pie With Meringue and a Press-In Cookie Crust

  • For the crust:
  • 8 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
  • 1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • For the filling:
  • 2 ¾ pounds cranberries, thawed and drained if frozen
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • Finely grated zest of 1 orange
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¾ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/3 cup fresh orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • For the topping:
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (optional)
  • ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Large pinch fine sea salt

Make the crust: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar on medium-low speed until smooth. Increase mixer speed to medium, add the egg yolk and vanilla, if using, and mix to combine. Stop the mixer and scrape the bowl down thoroughly. Add the flour and salt and mix on low speed until fully incorporated. Add the water and mix just until the dough is smooth.

Turn out the dough and use your fingers to press it into a deep-dish, 9-inch pie plate, working up the sides. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to overnight.

Make the filling: Position a baking rack in the center of the oven and heat to 375 degrees.

Spread the cranberries over a large, rimmed baking sheet in an even layer. In a small bowl, use your fingers to rub the sugars and orange zest together. Stir in the cinnamon, ginger, salt and cloves.

Sprinkle the sugar-spice mixture over the cranberries and toss to combine. Transfer to the oven and roast for about 10 minutes, or until the berries begin to soften. Stir the cranberries well to help distribute the sugar. Return to the oven and roast for 10 minutes more.

Remove from the oven and, using a potato masher or large fork, coarsely mash the cranberries. Add the orange juice and stir to combine. Return to the oven for 5 minutes more to thicken the mixture slightly.

Remove from the oven, stir in the cream and vanilla and let cool completely.

Lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Pour the cooled fruit filling into the unbaked, assembled pie crust and bake for about 35 minutes, or until the filling appears a bit matte on the surface. If needed, cover the crust edges with foil to prevent over-browning. Let cool completely on a wire rack.

Make the topping: Shortly before you're ready to serve the pie, bring a medium pot with about 2 inches of water to a simmer over medium-low heat. Place a medium bowl on top of the pot, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water, and add the egg whites, sugar, vanilla, if using, cream of tartar and salt and whisk to combine.

Continue to heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture reaches 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. You can use an electric hand mixer to whip the mixture while it's heating (to save time), or you can transfer the heated mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.

Whip the mixture on medium-high speed until glossy, firm peaks form that curl down slightly at the ends, up to 5 minutes.

Pile the meringue on top of the cooled pie and spread it to the edges, keeping it piled a bit higher in the middle. If desired, toast the meringue with a kitchen torch.

Slice the pie and serve.

Makes 1 pie.

■ ■ ■

The luscious filling for this pie is easy to make and bakes to a perfect sliceable consistency. Skip the typical top crust and try this method for decorative pie crust cutouts instead. Cut the dough into any shape -- such as circles or leaves. You can even paint them with food coloring for added interest. Baking the cutouts separately allows them to bake evenly. After baking, place on top of the pie while the filling is still warm; they will adhere better for easy slicing.

The filling can be prepared and refrigerated for up to 2 days before use.

Leftover pie can be lightly covered and refrigerated for 3 days.

Apple Pie With an All-Butter Crust and Painted Cutout Topping

  • For the crust and cutouts:
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 16 tablespoons cold butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • ½ cup ice water, plus more as needed
  • Gel food coloring, as needed (gel color will be stronger than liquid, which may need less vodka or it can become diluted)
  • Vodka, as needed
  • For the filling:
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 pounds apples (about 10 medium), such as Honeycrisp, peeled and sliced ¼-inch thick
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ½ tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour

Make the crust and cutouts: In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add the butter, tossing the cubes through the flour until each individual piece is well coated. Work the butter into the flour by pressing the pieces between your fingers, flattening the cubes into big shards. As you work, continue to toss the butter through the flour, recoating the shingled pieces. Continue to work the butter into the flour just until the pieces of butter are about the size of walnut halves.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture. Add the ice water to the well and, using a tossing motion with your hands, start to mix the two together. As the flour begins to become hydrated, you can start to use more of a kneading motion — but don't overdo it, as this will make the dough tough. Add more water as needed, about 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is properly hydrated. The dough should be uniformly combined and hold together easily, but it won't look totally smooth. (Pie dough that is too dry may have sort of a "dusty" appearance or pockets of un-hydrated flour. It will not hold together and will appear crumbly. Pie dough that is too wet will feel sticky or tacky to the touch, and is often smoother and/or lighter in color.)

Divide the dough in half and form both halves into even disks. Wrap each disk tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 days.

Roll out the crust: Lightly dust a work surface with flour, and lightly dust a rolling pin, if desired. Roll out the dough to about ¼-inch thickness, about 12 inches in diameter, rotating it as you work to prevent it from sticking. To transfer the dough to the pan, gently roll it up around the pin, then unfurl it into a 9-inch pie plate.

Using scissors, trim away the excess dough, leaving about a ½-inch overhang around the outside edge of the pie plate. Tuck the overhang under, pressing gently to make it flush with the edge of the pie plate and crimp as you like.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 425 degrees.

Using a fork, dock the crimped crust and chill well, at least 30 minutes. Cut a square of parchment paper slightly larger than the diameter of the pie plate and press it into the base of the crust. Fill with pie weights to the top inner rim of the pie plate. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, or until the edges begin to lightly brown. Remove the parchment paper and pie weights and bake for 2 to 3 minutes more, or until the bottom of the crust appears dry and set. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely before filling.

Lower the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

Make the cutouts: Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly flour a work surface and roll out the remaining dough disk to about ¼-inch thick. Using a small cookie cutter or pie stamp, cut as many cutouts out of the dough as you can. Transfer the cutouts to the prepared baking sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 to 30 minutes. (You can use the scraps to reroll up to 2 additional times to get more cutouts.)

In a small bowl, combine a few drops of the food coloring (if you're using gel, you only need about 1/8 teaspoon) and 1 to 2 teaspoons of vodka and, using a small craft paintbrush, mix to combine. Repeat as desired if you're making multiple colors.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and uncover. Using the brush, apply the "paint" to the surface of the pie dough.

Bake for 10 to 20 minutes, or until the dough appears golden brown on the base (use a small offset spatula to gently lift the dough to check the bottom); the timing will depend on the size of your cutouts. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Make the filling: In a Dutch oven or large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Continue to cook the butter, stirring occasionally, until its solids begin to brown and the mixture smells nutty, 4 to 5 minutes.

Add the apples, brown sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon, vanilla, salt and nutmeg and toss until combined. Cook, stirring frequently, until a smooth, glossy sauce forms and thickly coats the apples, 4 to 5 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk the granulated sugar and flour until combined. Sprinkle this mixture over the apples in the pot and stir well to combine. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens, resembling a caramel sauce. Transfer to a large bowl, cover and cool completely.

Transfer the cooled pie filling to the par-baked crust and place in the oven. Bake for about 35 minutes, or until the filling appears a bit matte on the surface. If needed, cover the crust edges with foil to prevent over-browning.

Transfer the pie pan to a wire rack and let cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Decorate the warm pie with the cooled cutouts — they tend to "stick" to the filling a bit better, which can allow for easier slicing.

Makes 1 pie.

■ ■ ■

This creamy pudding-style filling can be spiced just right for a fall pie that's perfect for Thanksgiving. It pairs especially well with this nut crust, which can be made with any kind of nut (so it is gluten-free). The crust bakes up deliciously crisp and toasty, a delicious contrast to the smooth, sweet filling. Top it with whipped cream for the ultimate decadent experience.

The pudding needs to be covered and refrigerated for at least 2 hours and up to overnight before it's added to a pie.

The fall spice pudding can be loosely covered and refrigerated for up 3 days.

Fall-Spice Pudding Pie With Whipped Cream and a Nut Crust

  • For the crust:
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted (may substitute oil), plus more for greasing the pie plate
  • 2 ½ cups finely chopped nuts
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 egg white, lightly whisked
  • For the filling:
  • 1 ¾ cups whole milk
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup light brown sugar
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • For the topping:
  • 1 cup cold heavy cream
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a pie plate with butter.

In a medium bowl, stir the nuts, sugar and salt until combined. Add the 4 tablespoons of melted butter and the egg white, and stir the mixture until uniformly combined.

Press the crust evenly into the base and up the sides of the prepared pie plate.

Bake the crust for 17 to 20 minutes, or until it is rich brown and smells toasty. Let cool completely on a wire rack before adding the filling to the crust.

Make the filling: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the milk and cream until the mixture comes to a simmer. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the sugars, cornstarch, cinnamon, ginger, salt and nutmeg.

When the dairy mixture comes to a simmer, whisk the egg yolks into the sugar mixture until well combined. Carefully, in a slow, steady stream, add about a quarter of the warm dairy mixture into the yolk-sugar mixture and whisk well to combine.

Pour the yolk-sugar mixture in the pot with the remaining dairy mixture and whisk until fully incorporated. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken, 2 to 3 minutes.

Switch to a silicone spatula and continue to stir until the mixture comes to a boil — ideally, look for fat bubbles breaking the surface near the center of the saucepan.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla until fully incorporated.

Strain the warm pudding into the cooled crust and spread into an even layer. Cover the filling directly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 2 hours and up to overnight.

Make the topping: When ready to serve, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or using a large bowl and a hand mixer), whip the cream on medium speed until it begins to thicken, 1 to 2 minutes.

With the mixer running, add the sugar in a slow, steady stream, then continue to whip until medium-soft peaks form that still curl down slightly at the ends, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the vanilla, if using, reduce the mixer speed to low and mix to combine.

Spread the whipped cream in a generous layer all over the pie filling, making decorative, billowy swirls. Slice the pie and serve.

Makes 1 pie.

Crust recipes adapted from "The Book on Pie" by Erin Jeanne McDowell (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020)

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