by Maggie Greenwald
Some of my fondest memories are of peering up to the old wood plank countertop in my parent’s kitchen to watch my mom make pie crust. She was seemingly fluid in the motions of measuring flour, adding butter and water. She never seemed to exert any effort in to blending the flour with the chilled butter. The dough would form into a nice ball without ever sticking to her fingers. I would wait, blond fluff ball hair sticking up all over, for my mom to roll the dough, then to fit it in to her favorite pie pan before collecting the scraps and making me a small treat. She would roll those few scraps in to a small circle, sprinkle it with brown sugar and cinnamon, then fold it in half and crimp the edges with a fork. How did she do it so effortlessly? I was always ready to eat my treat right then but had to wait the excruciatingly long 12 to 15 minutes for my little pastry to bake to a golden brown flaky perfection. What was put into the pie crust was never of much concern. Whether it be freshly picked, then painstakingly pitted wild cherries from the banks of the acequia or eggs whisked with half and half and just a pinch of nutmeg for quiche I could always be sure it would be delicious.
The first time I tried to make my own pie it was the height of peach season on one of those years that we all have so many peaches some of them even end up in the compost heap or tossed to the chickens. Those peach years as I fondly remember them only come about once every 7 years; sometimes less, sometimes more. So I sat at the kitchen table, like my mom did, and peeled and sliced the peaches. Only for me it took much longer than it did for her. I dutifully mixed the peaches with a sprinkling of sugar and flour and some lemon juice to set aside while I prepared the crust. The cold butter was not ready to be mixed with flour. So I set to breaking it apart with my fingers, squishing and kneading until I ended up with a sticky mess of smooth butter and flour. Why did my mom ever use water? I then sprinkled the old Mexican oilcloth tablecloth with some flour and set out to roll the dough. It would not roll. It squished about, sticking to everything in sight and showing no intention of ever becoming a contained, somewhat firm flat disk that my mom always managed to make. I finally resorted to hand pressing the dough in to the pie tin. I did not pre-bake the crust. I simply poured the peaches in to the melting crust and baked it. No top crust, no lattice, not even a crumble topping. Well, the peaches in the pie did taste good. The pastry, however was a gooey, doughy, undercooked mess. At that time I was a teenager and not willing to take advice from anyone, especially not my mom. Otherwise, she could have explained the finer points of pie pastry and saved me from many more failings in the pie making world. But I loved pie, especially the buttery, flaky crust that houses the filling. It must have something to do with my Scandinavian heritage. We always say “butter makes it better”. I did not give up.
It wasn’t until I took a pastry class at UNM that I really began to understand the science behind pie dough. The butter is standoffish and must not be handled too much. It is cold and prefers to be that way. Butter does not want to mix with flour. It wants to be lightly coated, suspended in soft layers of gluten webs. It wants to melt at its own pace and be bothered by nothing. The pastry dough takes on the butter in an all enveloping wet but not sticky understanding as the water and flour come together to create a space for the butter to melt. This is how flaky, buttery pie crust comes into being. It can be no other way, unless one uses lard. But these days lard has a pretty bad reputation. And it doesn’t taste good on toast.
So once the butter and flour with a little ice water reach their consensus of who belongs where, they need a rest. Once again butter prefers to rest in a cold place so into the refrigerator they go. This is the time to prepare the filling. After their rest the pastry dough shall be first flattened, then rolled. But not rolled in a back and forth motion. No, that would anger the gluten strands of the flour and make them act tough. The dough must be rolled as little as possible, always starting in the middle and moving in a firm decisive motion to the outside. Once the dough resembles a thin but not too thin disc, it must be folded gently into quarters and placed in its pan. Butter is not done telling us what to do. The crust must then be filled with pie weights or dry beans and baked so it won’t shrink down the sides of the pan in a lazy I-will- not-do-as-you-say kind of way. Then and only then may we fill the crust with the intended and somewhat unsuspecting filling. What kind of filling? Does it really matter? Not so much.
Now I can whip up a pie crust in no time. Just like my mom still does. I even make small pastry treats with the scraps of dough for my kids sometimes. Did I have to go to culinary school to learn this? Yes and no. It is as much a part of me as growing zinnias in the summertime and loving this small village in Northern New Mexico as it was to say “ No I can’t learn this from you, I have to learn it myself”. But I didn’t learn it myself–it was part of me all along. Other things I did learn in school like how to measure in the palm of my hand and why an egg is better cooked when it is brought to room temperature first. But that is a whole ‘nother story.
I work at the Dixon Market now. It is great to be a part of my own hometown’s social hub. The day-to-day demands of making sandwiches and soups, keeping accurate inventory and other associated tasks seems to have robbed me of my creative license. SO it is with great pleasure and excitement that I will make pies to be sold in the market for the holidays. For Thanksgiving I will create traditional pies that I associate with our beautiful fall season. Smooth, custard like pumpkin spice pie, Fresh apple pie and the ever not-too-sweet pecan pie all placed delicately and decisively in the sassy pastry pie crust that I have come to know and love so well.
Happy Holidays, Happy Fall and I hope to see you soon at the Dixon Market.