BiteClub, Techniques

Thanksgiving Favorites: Pie for Breakfast

First, the come-clean: This picture is of the pie that I ate, but is not my pie. I don't really do sweets and, with the notable exception of pizza and its close derivatives, I rarely bake - suffice it to say that we may all have a place in the kitchen, but mine is most assuredly not at the pastry station. But when Thanksgiving - my favorite official holiday bar none, and the only US holiday implicitly engineered for the home cook - comes knocking, I start to anticipate pie like, well, like a crack-head anticipates crack.

Mixed berry pie
A little slice of pie perfection

First, the come-clean: This picture is of the pie that I ate, but is not my pie. I don’t really do sweets and, with the notable exception of pizza and its close derivatives, I rarely bake – suffice it to say that we may all have a place in the kitchen, but mine is most assuredly not at the pastry station. But when Thanksgiving – my favorite official holiday bar none, and the only US holiday implicitly engineered for the home cook – comes knocking, I start to anticipate pie like, well, like a crack-head anticipates crack.
But as much as I love to book-end the feast with a slice (or three) of pie, as much as I love the Day itself, it is the Day After that provides one of the greatest guilty pleasures: Pie, for breakfast. Because there is nothing, but nothing, on the whole of this great green earth of whichever god you happen to count in your corner, that is finer than a breakfast of fresh, hot coffee and a slice of last night’s pumpkin pie.
How exceedingly fortunate that, unbeknown to me at the time, I married a woman who can bake her butt off, because just saying the word “pie” makes me happy. Seriously, until you’ve had one of my wife’s pies, your gastronomic bucket list will remain at least partially incomplete. She has no weak suit of which I’m aware. My birthday happily coincides with our own lemon crop, so Lemon Meringue has always been a personal favorite, but they are all exceptional: Chocolate Pudding (filled with a rich, velvety dark chocolate custard), Apple (filled with a mixture of Autumn’s blushing apples and adorned by a delicate lattice of crust), and – one of the Himalayan peaks of the pie-baking landscape – Mixed Berry, defined by whatever local berries are currently at their peak, and which I was lucky enough to have for breakfast more than once this summer.
What makes a great pie? The trivially obvious to recognize, and the maddeningly difficult to obtain: A great crust (a great and mighty structure built on the three pedestrian pillars of flour, fat and salt), and a great filling (ranging from delicately cooked custards to barely-touched fresh fruits). It is this very simplicity which belies the difficulty in achieving pie-greatness:

  • Consisting of almost nothing while demanding great attention to small technical details, a great crust offers the cook boundless opportunity to screw things up; the crust must remain structurally sound in the oven, it must cook evenly, and it must not only be flaky – both light and rich, crunchy and soft – but it should exhibit the same flakiness on the bottom as it does on the top. When it comes to crusts, technique is everything. I’ve even heard that you can genetically profile great pastry chefs, because they all have poor circulation and, therefore, cooler than normal hands with which to work the dough.
  • Fillings are similarly unforgiving, if for different reasons: When it comes to filling a pie, there is nowhere to hide. No amount of sugar, lemon juice, and stove-top wizardry will impart flavor to bland berries, texture to mealy apples, or the sunny fragrance and perfectly balanced of sweetness and tang of our own ripe Meyers to bitter, metallic lemons. Nowhere is the imperative to start with good, fresh, flavorful fruit more in evidence than in the filling of a fruit pie, the resting place to which all great fruits aspire, the very apotheosis of fruit itself.
  • Mixed berry pie, filled before baking
    A perfect crust, filled with perfect Middleton Farms berries

    My advice, as a non-participant in the pie kitchen, is this: First, buy the best fruit you possibly can. Almost any fruit can make a great pie, but no great pie can be made from fruit of poor quality. (Please don’t list for me the virtues of instant pudding mixes. They have their place, but not in homemade pie. If you are going to roll out your own crust, then by all means, cook your own custard.) Second, read up on pie crusts, paying particularly close attention to the technicalities of temperature and speed (see McGee or Corriher, for instance – and sorry for the inadvertent AMZN plug, I’m uncompensated and don’t care where you buy it, the link is just to get you to the titles).
    And last, but most certainly not least, always save a slice for breakfast.

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