From Scratch

For a larger-than-life, soul-exercising experience, make a pie, complete with fresh dough

The other day, I was talking to one of my fave people in the world--the mother of my second ex. We sat around her table, catching up on family and stuff, but it wasn't long before we got around to the subject of food. It's a subject about which she knows a lot--in addition to the ex, she raised a passel of his brothers and sisters, and has cooked more meals than I will ever eat. She has great tips and great recipes, and someday I may share Linda Eggers' Hot Mustard and Martha's Molten Chocolate Cakes--but not now.

What I really wanted was her recipe for pie dough. Her pies have been some of the best I've eaten. The reason for this special curiosity is that I've been--for some inexplicable reason--making lots of pies these past few months. It's not quite the Richard Dreyfus thing in Close Encounters about molding the Devil's Tower, but still, a slightly weird focus for someone who has made few pies in his half-century.

Our mom made pies. Well, she made one excellent pie: pecan. It and sugar-cream were favorites in pre-diabetic years. And our summers on the farm were full of berry pies: raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries--all of which still grow with abandon along the fences.

My recent focus has been broad: banana cream and strawberry, peach and apple, pecan and walnut. They've all "looked" good, but only two have been spectacular. My friends and family, however, have been polite, and my pies have disappeared, slice by slice. Some of my motivation has resulted from undisciplined reaction to the fruit displayed at my local Bashas'. Since I couldn't really eat all 15 peaches I bought one weekend, I decided to make a pie.

Peach pie, by the way, is the best of the best for me. In the past 20 years, I have worked to re-create the orchard my great-grandfather had. While I haven't sampled them yet, my relatives swear by the peaches from one of the trees I planted. They were on my mind as I shopped Bashas' that day.

Another time, an online friend mentioned that he was off to buy strawberries--which whetted my appetite and resulted in a case of ripe, red, gigantic berries. One afternoon, I had too many bananas; another time, I wanted Mother's pecan pie, but had only walnuts. On and on ... and it all comes down to the same thing: I've found that making a pie is good exercise for the soul.

The constant throughout is the issue of pie dough, for shell and crust. In a pinch, a Sara Lee deep-dish pie shell and--if a crust topping is needed--pre-made pie dough will work. But that's only for lonely people who listen to Ravel, talk to their dogs and eat pie by themselves. These pies are about a larger life.

My favorite pie dough comes from Aunt Ila Mae (from life with the first ex). Read and wonder:

  • 4 cups flour
  • 3 large tablespoons Crisco
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 tablespoon vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
Mix the flour and Crisco in a bowl. Add the rest and work--but not too much. Keep rolling out on a floured surface and use as directed.

The second recipe--from my father's mother--is also a gem:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup of Crisco
  • Dash of salt
The following two with enough water to make 1/2 cup:
  • 1 egg
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon
Again, cut the flour with the Crisco and add the rest of the ingredients without overworking them.

Finally, Martha's simple, elegant, perfect recipe:

  • 1 cup flour with a touch of salt
  • 1/3 cup frozen margarine
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons cold water
Put the first two ingredients in a food processor, cut it up quickly and then add the water, but don't overwork it!

Three great recipes, and I'd love to get more.

Earlier, I mentioned two successes. One was the pecan pie, based on the Searchlight cookbook used by mother and her mother. I made it after an unfortunate experience with a slice of pecan pie at the Mountain Oyster Club. I used my grandmother's pie dough recipe and sent it home--one piece missing--with my brother. My second success gives me the confidence to continue my excursion into pie-baking.

With the above-mentioned case of strawberries, a recipe from the Joy of Cooking (the old version) and Aunt Ila Mae's recipe for dough, I made a glazed strawberry pie. There were a lot of strawberries and a lot of glaze, and it looked, honestly, a mess. But I was having dinner with Debbie and Matt and their sons, and they are accepting of me to a fault.

After dinner, sitting around the table, Matt handed me the plates as I divided up the pie, again apologizing for its appearance. Noah, 3-years-old and to my right, nudged me energetically with his elbow as he finished an ambitious first bite, his mouth smeared with glaze.

"John ... you are the best!" he said.

Now, that was a great pie!

From the mailbag:

To James M: Many of the very best times in my life have been around the table with you. Thanks!

To Dave & Judy S: Dinner with the two of you is one of my fondest memories. Again?

To Charlie: Whatever happened to La Angelita in the kitchen?

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