15 May 2010

The illusive search for pie…

I was on tour in northwestern Wyoming a few years back (I’m still trying to sort out the logic in this move, which yielded audiences of 30 at best), and travel always leads to the search for some special meal for me. I think this is true for a lot of us—exotic places often lead to memorable exotic meals. Only I was not in an exotic place, really; I was in a place that reminded me of Grandma’s house, all small towns and cowboy hats and friendly but puzzled smiles (puzzled because I was the first unfamiliar face anyone had seen in at least six months). And so this homeyness somehow redirected my food thoughts towards comfort food, and I started looking for the perfect piece of pie.

I love pie. It is my favorite dessert. I do not prefer pecan pie or lemon meringue pie, or anything in which sugar is the main ingredient for the filling. I just like fruit pies. Juicy, slightly tart fruit pies—cherry, blueberry, rhubarb, peach—you name it, if it grew from a tree or bush, it makes a terrific pie filling. There is such a beautiful simplicity to it—roll out a buttery, flakey crust (not too much mixing, please!), pour in a filling of fruit with some sugar and flour, and top it with another aforementioned crust. Simple ingredients, so delicious when you pull it out of the oven—what could be more perfect?

Ah, but when something which should be perfect is a disaster, it is the most bitter disappointment of all. I experienced disappointment many times on this tour. In the first town, the pie filling was obviously poured from a can, and the crust was so overmixed it was like a piece of shoe leather. In Jackson Hole, I went to a cafe reviewed favorably for its baked goods in several national magazines. They were obviously bribed.

I was feeling destitute by the time we reached the last town, a town where the only motel had hourly rates and olive green shag carpeting in the rooms. Across the highway (the one paved street in town), was a log cabin diner with a breakfast that started at 6am and a special sign advertising their homemade pies. This was it! My unwilling companions agreed to join me as soon as they opened at 6am, and so off we stumbled, in the February pre-dawn light, across the highway to get our seats at the diner which would surely serve my the pie of my dreams.

As it turns out, two kinds of people go to the diner at 6am to have breakfast: single local men over the age of 50, generally missing a tooth or two, and idiots from out of town looking for an authentic experience. Well, I should clarify: my friends are not idiots, just overly compliant. The waitress had not changed her hairstyle (nor had her boss changed the uniform) since 1967, and all three customers stared at us with extreme suspicion in their eyes. We ordered all the things one might be curious about in a place like this: biscuits and gravy, griddle cakes and sausage, scrambled eggs and bacon, and everyone flipped over their coffee cups, the universal sign for “fill me with anything caffeinated, I can’t tell at this point.” And I ordered pie.

That earned stares from everyone in the room (had I really shouted in all my excitement, or was everyone just very, very quiet while I was ordering?), and the waitress was clearly rolling her eyes when she asked me which kind. She was rolling her eyes because she knew what was coming next: “what kind do you have?” I asked. She gave me a good long stare with pursed lips before rattling off the name of every fruit which had ever been grown. I was numbed by the list. Which should I choose? And what if I chose incorrectly? What if there was a really excellent pie and I bypassed it for some mediocre kind that every local knew not to get? Logically, I chose to ask our chipper waitress, who clearly knew everything and never left the building. She suggested cherry. A classic. Of course.

After what seemed like an excruciating wait, our food came (the coffee was terrible, of course. Cracker Jack City). The biscuits and gravy looked like lumpy glue over amputated stumps, the eggs were beige, and I’m pretty sure I saw Elvis in the grease congealing atop my friend’s sausage patty. But what did I care? I ordered the PIE. And it was gorgeous—golden, flakey, and bursting with brilliant red cherry filling. And what’s more, I could identify many cherries in this filling, with just enough goop to hold it together. This was going to be good. This was going to be the highlight of my week.

I gingerly stabbed at the end of the pie, and crust flew everywhere—a good sign. I slowly lifted my fork to my mouth—this was it!—and clamped down on the dessert I had been searching for all week. At 6:15am. The crust was good, the filing had a nice flavor to it, but. . . what the hell was so lumpy in my mouth? Had I burned my tongue on so much bad coffee during the week that I had lacerations? It was like a mouthful of tiny little bumps, like miniscule beads of some sort. I took another bite. Still that weird sensation, which was starting to distract from the decent (though not amazing) flavor. Had someone dumped caviar into my pie? I did not like it. I pulled the top crust off and started inspecting the pie filling.

By now my friends, who knew very well that we were only there at this hour for my slice of cherry pie, leaned forward to see what the problem was. It looked just like it felt in my mouth—a bunch of tiny little pearls evenly distributed through my otherwise respectable cherry pie filling. “oh,” my sausage-eating friend said causally, “they used tapioca instead of flour to thicken the filling. Really?!?! Is that legal??? My friends, this is not right. Don’t do this to your pie—fruit was not meant to feel like gravel in your mouth.

Grandma Riner’s Cherry Pie

2 cups plus 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) butter
6 to 7 tablespoons cold water
4 cups pitted sour cherries
1/3 cup sugar
5 drops almond extract
1/4 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In a bowl, combine the 2 cups of flour and the salt. With a pastry blender or two forks, cut in the butter until the pieces are the size of peas.
Sprinkle the water over the flour mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time. Mix lightly with a fork. Continue adding water until the mixture forms a dough. Gather the dough into a ball, cover, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
In a small bowl, combine the cherries, the 4 tablespoons flour, the sugar, and the almond extract. Set aside.

Divide the dough in half and roll it into two 10-inch circles. Line the bottom of a 9-inch pie or tart pan with 1 circle of the dough. Turn the cherry mixture into the pie pan. Cover the pie with the second circle of dough. Tuck the edges of the top crust under the edges of the bottom crust. Crimp to seal. Cut 6 to 8 vents in the top crust.
Brush the top crust with a light coating of milk. Bake the pie on the middle rack of the oven for 30 to 35 minutes until the crust is light brown.

**In a pinch, Safeway frozen pie crusts really aren’t bad (see, I’m not impossible to please). Just be sure to prebake the bottom crust for 10 minutes to ensure that is stays crisp after you add the filling; invert the second crust (two are packaged together) on top and form over the pie filling.