Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Humble Pie

A few days ago I noted that most of McArdle's columns are rehashes of old material. Friday's food post was no exception. McArdle has repeatedly told her audience that pie crust is too hard to make--which means that she can't make pie crust. Yet McArdle is also incapable of putting aside her pretense that she is a cooking and food expert. So McArdle tries to tell the little people all about pie without actually knowing how to make a decent pie.

For example, take this post from March:
Saturday is Pi Day -- 3.14.15. It's only going to occur once this century. So, naturally, you're going to want to celebrate by making some delicious, delicious pie. But how? I hear you ask. What if I am no good at making pie crust? I understand your worry. Pie crust is daunting if you've never made it before. And those refrigerator rolls of pie crust usually taste like you're chewing on a sheet of cardboard. But that needn't keep you from enjoying pie on Saturday. There are lots of ways to enjoy pie without giving yourself a crash course in pastry making. Here are five pies you can make without ever picking up a rolling pin.
Admitting ignorance is hard on the ego but is absolutely necessary. You should never imply knowledge when you have none because some smartass will come along and make you look stupid for doing it.

And I am that smartass.
A reader wrote to ask me for my best pie recipes. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I love pie. In fact, my favorite food in the whole world is purple raspberry pie, a delicacy that unfortunately is not available to most people because purple raspberries do not store well, so the only way to get them is to pick your own.
Always read the study. Or, in this case, google "purple raspberry." One on-line nursery states:
Our perfect purple raspberry! Plant is vigorous, hearty and resistant to insects. Yields large, sweet berries with great flavor. Fruit never fades, even when canned or frozen. Cold-hardy. Late-summer bearing. Ripens in August. Self-pollinating. A licensed variety of Cornell University.
However purple raspberries are difficult to find, making them suitable for an elite foodie such as McArdle. I can't recall seeing them at a grocery store and I spend half of my life at grocery stores.

Although there might be a reason that they are not as common as other raspberries.
A hybrid of the black and red raspberry is known as the purple raspberry, taking on the purple overtone, but having the same texture as the black or red and a mildly sweet flavor. It isn't considered to be as good as the others by many growers.
McArdle drones on:
My official position on pie is that the benighted fools who do not like it have never actually had good pie, which is to say, a pie homemade by someone who knows what they are doing.
That might be true; the author is not a food writer. It is still a silly claim. The "benighted fools" at Slate is one contrarian who thinks pie is a poor way to use berries.
At this point, though, "American"-style pie is something of a relic: Where the civilized world has moved past its awkward bread-casket age to head in more refined directions, pie stands still. Our modern pie of piled fruit stewing in a shell of fragile dough is not an innovation but a replica of something primitive—piled meat entombed in hard crust—nudged in the vague direction of dessert.
McArdle is very familiar with the ways of the contrarian, being one herself. It's a good way to sell an article without having to do a lot of work.

Writer: I have a great idea! I'll write an article about pie, claiming that it's neither easy nor as American as!

Editor: Great idea! It'll be clickbait! And then you can write another article about putting peas in guacamole!

Writer: What? Are you crazy? Peas in guacamole?

Editor: It's gold, Jerry! Gold!

That's because pie is one of the trickiest foodstuffs in the American culinary canon. Good pie is sublime. But good pie basically cannot be had from a commercial establishment.

Tell that to House of Pies, preferably after you have eaten one of their Black Bottom Pies. I too prefer homemade over commercial but McArdle's absolutes are very tiresome.
Making it well is too labor-intensive to be profitable, and its ephemeral crust does not benefit from storage. It is best eaten on the day it has been produced (though I do not hesitate to dip in on the second and third day, even knowing that the crust will be chewy).

House of Pies seems to bake pies every day. It is easy to tell if a pie is over one day old. Meringues weep, crust becomes soggy, fillings shrink from the crust. Their crusts might be a little more hardy than a homemade crust for obvious reasons but they are still very good. And every time I go there they are pushing a large rolling rack to the refrigerated case to unload freshly baked pies. Of course not all bakeries make good pies but they do exist.
Most people who think they do not like pie labor under this delusion because they have confused pie with the dreadful things that are available in bakeries. Of these, the only positive thing that can be said is that probably no children were killed in the production process. We will not even speak of those premade pie crusts that you can buy in the refrigerator section. Except to note that anything cooked in one of these would taste even better if you just stuck the filling in a pie plate and cooked it by itself.
Did you know that nobody can do anything ever?
Unfortunately, making pie well requires skill and the aforementioned labor.
Yes, that is why you will spend $12 for a pumpkin pie at House of Pies, instead of, what, three or four dollars for evaporated milk, canned pumpkin, a few eggs, and small amounts of spices. McArdle thinks that paying employees is an abomination before the Lord.
These are not the easy delights of the layer cake, which can be mastered by anyone capable of reading the instructions for operating a stand mixer, and usually put in the oven in less than 20 minutes.
Not so fast, cupcake. Cake can be difficult as well--for some people.
Pie is a riddle wrapped in a mystery enclosed inside a crust that will toughen to the consistency of a brown paper bag if you overhandle it the least little bit. Yet at the same time, getting flakiness and the appropriate shape requires that you spend a lot of time slapping the dough around on a pastry board. Achieving this delicate balance requires practice and a spouse or a canine companion who will happily chew through your mistakes because, unfortunately, the only way you will know that you have erred is when you take that first bite.
Slapping the pastry around will eliminate any flakiness. You get the appropriate shape by rolling it out properly. It does take practice but millions of housewives managed to develop the skill. You know, those perfect homemade pie bakers McArdle keeps mentioning?
So why bother? Because, as I said at the top, pie is delicious. Done right -- and most of you have probably never had it done right, which moves me beyond words -- you get a delicate, almost velvety crust that melts in your mouth as the filling spreads over your tongue. Pie is well worth all the effort it takes to make it, and it will leave you with the satisfied feeling of having mastered a dish that is rapidly becoming extinct in these days of takeout and Pillsbury pie crusts. I'm just saying, it's not for the faint of heart.
Says the person who never managed to make the effort.
Before we can even get to recipes, we need to discuss the principles of learning to make pie crust. These are not even the principles of making pie crust -- we'll get to those in a minute -- but how you should approach the project if you are trying to teach yourself. 1.If at all possible, find someone who knows how to make really good pie crust. You are not looking for someone to teach you how to make pie crust -- I mean, it's nice if they offer, but watching them will prove surprisingly little help. The way you are actually going to figure it out is by making a lot of pie crust and determining what doesn't work, which is almost everything you will try. What you are looking for is someone to bake you a pie. That way, you'll know what it's supposed to taste like.
I learned by watching my mother. I still had to practice, as McArdle notes, and it took a while to master the technique but I knew what to do from watching her. She made so many pies that I couldn't help but learn. McArdle's mother was a caterer. Couldn't she have learned by watching her mother? I guess not, since "watching them will provide surprisingly little help."

This is why people think McArdle is a putz. Does she really think that nobody but she has ever had a good pie? Her bloviating hyperbole is incredibly annoying.

This will be a tricky task because most people who think they know how to make good pie crust don't. A surefire sign of someone who doesn't is someone who tells you that it's not that hard to learn. They are making terrible, tough pie crust and will lead you to a bad end.

Thank you, pie expert who can't make pie!
2.Buy 10 pounds of good unsalted butter (I'm partial to Land O'Lakes) the minute it goes on sale. Pie crust uses a lot of butter. You're going to be making a lot of pie crust. Use whatever you have left over to make layer cakes, to remind yourself that you really do know how to bake.
I am not going to buy 10 pounds of butter because I would prefer not to become a widow. I made an all-butter pie crust once when I ran out of Crisco and I was not very happy with the results. Crisco is very unhealthy as well but since I try to refrain from making too many sweets it's not a big issue.

There is not just one way to make crust. I use the way I know, which is reliable and successful for me. Others use different methods and different ingredients which have proven to be successful for them. I break all the rules of pie making and most of my pies are good. My meringue pies need some work but that is just a matter of more practice.

This is not rocket science. The pie will not explode on reentry. It doesn't have to be perfect.

3.Make the biggest pie-crust recipe you can find, certainly bigger than your pan. I taught myself to make pie crust using a recipe for a 10-inch pie, even though I did not own a 10-inch pie pan. Why? Because the first few times you roll out a pie crust, the results are likely to look a lot less like the beautiful circles pictured in cookbooks and more like some sort of shape that appears only in theoretical n-dimensional universes from science-fiction novels. Having more than you need means that you will still have room to cut a circle out of it.

Cut a circle out of it? Do people do that? You roll out the pie crust. You fold it over twice and put it in the pan. (Or drape it over a rolling pin or slide it off the silicone rolling mat or whatever method works for you.) Then you trim it if necessary. I wait until I put top crust on the pie and between the two crust there is always enough crust. You can even match top overlap to a skimpy bottom to correct any mistakes. Then trim it, roll the two crusts under, and crimp. Again, not rocket science.
4.Keep the pie itself simple: No prebaked pie shells. This is the most basic form of pie, and it is the easiest to learn.
Does that even make sense?
5.Get a good silicone rolling pin. It's less sticky than a regular one, which means you run a lower risk of toughening your crust by adding flour.
That is true but you need to flour the silicone pin. Most foodies tell you to use as little flour as possible when rolling out the dough; I believe Alton Brown, among others, say this. To a certain extent I ignore this advice and use however much I need to use to prevent the crust from sticking. McArdle believes in elite expertise and therefore can't get her pie crust off the counter. Alton Brown's pies are probably better than mine but as McArdle always says one can't let perfect be the enemy of good.
6.Use either a food processor or a pastry cutter. Messing around with two forks is a challenge for the amateur who doesn't know what it's supposed to look like in the first place. And using your hands is a recipe for tough, tough crust.
Does anyone use two forks anymore? It would help if she told her readers that the fat in pie crust melts in the oven and the rising steam makes the crust flaky. That is why you do not mix pie crust with your warm hands and take care when you use the food processor. I prefer a pastry cutter over a food processor but many people make very good crusts with the latter.
7.Make a lot of pies. Assume the first ones will be bad. (The filling will still be very tasty!) My grandmother, a legendary pie maker, had to throw her first pie crust out over the bank behind the house. My mother, another legendary pie maker, spent a holiday evening assembling her first pie crust in the pan like a jigsaw puzzle. My first pie crust was tough, about an inch thick, and nonetheless leaked filling everywhere. Maybe you will be the exception, but don't go in expecting it to be so.
We will revisit her mother's legendary skills in a minute.
The easiest, not-quite-foolproof-but-close crust recipe is the Cook's Illustrated Vodka Crust. Water binds with gluten, which can make your crust tough; adding alcohol gives you more liquid but fewer troublesome protein bonds. And what do you put into the crust? Well, the possibilities are endless: savory or sweet, fruit or custard, baked or chilled. On pie, I'm basically a purist. I tend to prefer a single ingredient rather than "mixed berry" or "pumpkin chocolate," and I don't like flavors that are overpowering, such as peanut butter. Nor anything that's so sweet it sets my teeth on edge; I prefer pecan bars to ooey, gooey pecan pie. And I have a dark horror of evaporated or condensed milk, which I find disgusting to look at and unpleasant to eat. Yes, they make it easier to get a custard to set properly, but I can't stand them, so the exciting world of icebox pies is largely beyond my ken.

I'm not criticizing other folks who like their pies drenched in molasses or towering with strongly flavored mousse or filled with condensed milk; as I've said time and time again, what you like is what you like, not a reflection on your character. But my taste is for a simple, old-fashioned pie that lets one ingredient shine.

Ha! I do believe she read my post on her mother's pumpkin pie. Of course I said a lacing of molasses, not a drenching, but it's not McArdle unless she's lying/exaggerating/mincing to make herself look better when she screws up.
The last thing I'll note is that if you can't get absolutely fresh fruit -- which is to say it came out of a farmer's market, roadside stand or your garden -- then in most cases, the best thing to do is use frozen. This is not true of apples or pears. But most other fruit is actually better frozen than from the produce section because the stuff in the produce section was picked green and shipped, while the fruit in the freezer case was picked ripe and immediately flash-frozen. Now, freezing fruit, especially berries, means it will release more liquid when it cooks, which can make your pie runny. But you can compensate for this by adding a little more of your thickener. (The recipes below use flour or cornstarch, but there are any number of exciting options once you get the hang of the basics).
Flour gives pie filling a pasty taste. There are plenty of alternatives, as she says.
Oh, and I promised to tell you the principles of making pie crust, didn't I? They are simple: •Freeze your butter. •Don't overhandle it. Don't overhandle it. Don't overhandle it. Stop! I see you there, tempted to give it just a few more pats. Let it be. Social interaction makes it very grumpy. Do the absolute minimum of work needed to get the butter and the liquid incorporated into the flour, then form it up and put it in the fridge. Do not fold, fondle, spindle or mutilate. Yes, you in the back, there is a technique where you smooth out small bits of dough with the heel of your hand and then pat the result into a ball in order to increase flakiness, but I am not going to tell you about it because frankly I don't trust you. Mix it up and leave it alone.
You would think that she were a pastry chef instead of someone who can't make pie, the way she lectures her kindergartners audience.
•Use as little flour as possible when rolling it out. •Always work with it cold. Pie crust is like a polar bear: It's antisocial, and it gets very uncomfortable when it gets warm. If you are having trouble getting the knack, and the crust is starting to get soft, pop it back in the fridge and try again in 15 minutes when it has firmed up.
After you make the crust you should put it in the refrigerator for at least half an hour for the fat to cool and the flour to absorb water. I have found that when you are making hand pies it's necessary to put the finished unbaked pies in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes as well but it shouldn't be necessary for one quick pie.
Now, on to the recipes. Because the person who asked is not an experienced pie baker, I'm going to stick to simple things: all baked pies, which require a minimum of custard- or curd-making skills and which don't have second steps where you top with meringue or try to spread chocolate onto your custard without breaking it. To my great sadness, I have also excluded the many delicious pies that can be made with uncooked eggs. I'll lead off with my family's recipe for pumpkin pie, which is about the easiest filling you can make. It's a simple custard that you pour straight into an unbaked crust: two eggs, some milk and a can of pumpkin.
We've met Mom's Pumpkin Pie before. It was pretty darn funny. I explain the problem with her mother's perfect pie in that post and in the comments I note McArdle's recipe retconning via Twitter.

Like I said, this post is largely a rehash of old material. You can skeddle over to her post if you want the additional recipes she offers.

Ah, but how do you roll out a pie crust? I hear you cry. That is what YouTube videos are for. There is no written description I can give you that will beat watching someone else do it. But watching will only get you so far. You're going to need to start rolling yourself as soon as possible.

But...but...didn't she just say you can't learn by watching? Ah, well. Those who can, do. Those who can't tell you to watch a video.


Downpuppy said...

Getty images stock photo of commercial pumpkin pies - Yummm!

We're not much into baking at the pound, but we still have at leeast 4 different crusts, or phyllo, for different occasions.

Susan of Texas said...

I buy those pre-made cookie crusts and boxed pudding for chocolate cream pie although I whip the cream myself. Whatever works for you, you know. But nobody's paying me to pretend to be a foodie. Cast off the shackles of perfection!

Anonymous said...

Pie crust isn't hard at all, although some people are intimidated by it. We learned how to make it in 8th grade home ec.


Susan of Texas said...

I just saw you comment. Ha!

Susan of Texas said...

Emily, yes. So much drama over piecrust.

Susan of Texas said...

"your" not you.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I will supply the youtuber.

Anonymous said...

Can I tell you one more pie story? One year for our wedding anniversary, I made a strawberry pie and that's all we ate for dinner. Just a half pie each. It was great.


Yastreblyansky said...

Wonderful. I live in Manhattan and go to a farmers' market once a week or so and I've never seen a purple raspberry, so I'm naturally wondering why, and boom! the payoff. It's because the farmers are smart.

Also, an all-butter crust just isn't American pie at all, it's a non-flaky pâte brisée tart crust (I couldn't make pie crust either, until my mom explained that her secret was margarine, and I said screw that and decided to specialize in tarts for the five or six times a decade I might want to go there). It's exactly the wrong way, in that it's the right way to make something quite different, delicious in its own way (use it for a double-crust pie and you won't be able to taste the fruit, but I guess purple-raspberry Megan doesn't like the taste of fruit much).

Yastreblyansky said...

Thunder, something terrible happened to your pie, it got all shredded. Still tastes good though.

bulbul said...

"Where the civilized world has moved past its awkward bread-casket age to head in more refined directions, pie stands still."
So not only is Our Lady of the Crappy Thermomix pretend she knows all about pie, she also pretends to know about all the rest of us. Like no one makes tartes, strudels or pite anymore.

Katy Williams said...

Just follow the cookbook recipe. Cripes!

My first piecrust used a Good Housekeeping cookbook recipe. It didn't fuss about temperatures of shortening & water, or type of rolling pin, or amount of flour on breadboard! And the pie crust came out just fine! It was a beef stew pie, made to make the portions seem larger to our family of 8, and they gobbled it down. Or up? Plus allyoucaneat lettuce salad.

Megan buys into the "pie crust is HARD!" (or cooking is hard!) doctrine that Williams & Sonoma and various sellers-of-cooking-gadgets push, because 1. It shows off she's kinda rich & spoiled and 2. She can't cook.

Katy Williams said...

PS: Showed my daughter how to make dumplings, using Campbells mushroom soup. She was delighted with how easy it was. And fast, and no need to turn oven on to 400+ degrees. Cooool!

I just ordered a single-size induction unit from Amazon, plus a couple of induction pans. I'm looking forward to trying it out. Getting an entire new stove WAY to expensive!

fish said...

I am just taken aback by the constant insistence that no one has ever had a good pie (but her I assume).

I think everyone but a Slate-writing contrarian can remember eating a pie at some time in his or her life that made the eyes roll back into their head. Often at a diner with a bottomless cup of coffee.

Um, I'll be right back...

Susan of Texas said...

Katy, I have a single induction unit and I like it very much although I have only used it a few times. I use it at holidays when I need an extra burner but I should use it to fry chicken fingers; it's tricky to keep the heat constant as you know.