I spent an awful lot of time buying butter last summer. Me and butter got to know each other in a very intimate way, in fact. Last summer, I found myself in a brand new country, where I didn’t speak the language, where I could barely make out the letters on the street signs, and where I couldn’t fill up one hand’s worth of fingers counting the people I knew. As a result of having plenty of free time and needing an escape, I decided to take on pies.
Yes, perhaps someone with a more solid head on her shoulders might have taken another tack. Perhaps she would have studied the language with abandon, or gone to every expat gathering she could find, or spent all her time exploring her new home. I did those things to a degree, of course. I took the bus to and from work which, believe me, is something you should find very impressive. I can still summon the right words to buy a kilo of cherries as well as explain to the gentleman at the fruit stand what sort of foreigner I am, exactly. I hiked up a couple mountains, stuck my toes in the Black sea, drank a fair bit of home-brewed wine offered to me with pride by those who brewed it.
But–and I don’t much like admitting this, but it’s time to accept—I’m a bit of a shy person. Each day seemed to be an opportunity for me to embarrass myself in a new way; by not putting my nouns and verbs in the right order and the market , or not understanding the taxicab driver when he asked me where I was going. I needed a place to hide, a place that was comfortable and familiar and manageable. I needed a place to take on challenges that were not quite so… challenging.
And so, the kitchen. and so, pies.
Up until then, I’d found pie dough and its ilk too intimidating to attempt. I’d watched my mother curse it every thanksgiving, frustrated at the difficulty of getting it to look good and taste good. I figured I’d stick to cookies and cakes. But, desperate for an excuse to spend time in the kitchen, I thought I’d finally man up and give it a go. I loaded up on gorgeous 82% butter and went to town, starting with Martha Stewart’s Pate Brisee recipe (this, dears, is not a bad place to start). Keeping butter chilled in 95º heat is no easy feat, so I modified the recipe to include a few extra rounds of chilling: get butter home from the market, chill; cube the butter, chill; cut the butter into the flour with a fork, chill; finish combining the ingredients, chill; roll out the dough, chill; and so on. I didn’t mind.
When I had the first crust ready to go into the oven, I learned a quirky little fact: our oven had no thermostat. Well, then. I took a guess, and it turned out to be a good one.
Pulling that first flaky yet sturdy shell out of the oven, I was totally hooked. Up until then, baking seemed a bit like math: 2 cups of flour+ 1 teaspoon of baking powder+12 oz. chocolate chips = cookies. no thinking required, no grace. Now, baking seemed a bit more like magic or art or akin to coaxing a shy animal out from behind the couch. you can’t move too fast, or too slow. if I’m dexterous and sly enough, I can gently rub this butter into this flour, and if I’m clever enough, I’ll combine it just enough so that it holds together and there are feathery sheets of butter throughout the dough.
I couldn’t even guess at how many tarts I cranked out last summer, full of gorgeous local fruit and pastry cream. Now that I’ve got access to a full-size, more predictable American grocery store, and since there isn’t any of my favorite summer fruit in the grocery store just yet, I decided to play with the standard formula a bit, and use flavors I normally wouldn’t in a sweet dish.
I believe strongly in Deb. Deb does me right, almost without fail. After trying some others, I landed on Deb’s pie dough recipe as my go-to. I wanted a recipe for wine-soaked apples, and found a pie contest from three years ago on The Kitchn. And, I got my pastry cream recipe from The Kitchn, as well. Now, there are pastry creams with corn starch and ones with flour as thickeners. They both have their drawbacks, and I suppose I haven’t concluded which one I like more just yet, so I go back and forth. This time, I used flour.
Ok, enough yapping! Go make a tart! Go play with some butter! It’s totally unstoppable, and always makes me feel better. I bet it’ll make you feel better, too.
All butter, very flaky pie dough
From the wonderful Smitten Kitchen, but with my instructions
Makes enough dough for one double-, or two single-crust pies.
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 ounces, 16 tablespoons or 1 cup) unsalted butter, very cold, cut into small cubes
Sift together the flour, sugar and salt. Skip the sugar if you’re making a savory crust. If you’re like me, you still haven’t gotten around to buying a pastry cutter, and get frustrated with the cutting-in-with-butter-knives method, so wash those mitts and use the ol’ fingers to rub the butter and flour together. As Deb says, visible butter is your friend, and leads to wonderful flakiness in the final product. If you need to, add some ice-cold water–not more than 1/2 a cup, just enough so that the dough sticks together. This dough doesn’t have to be plaster-strong; it can be a little bit crumbly at this point, because it’ll come together more when you roll it out.
When the dough holds together, split it in half. You can now add a half a cup of finely shredded cheddar or gruyere to one of the halves and mix it in a little. I used sharp cheddar. Then, make discs out of the two halves and wrap them in saran wrap, and stick ’em in the freezer for at least a half an hour, but longer is good, too.
When you’re ready to go, preheat the oven to 350º and let your dough soften up on the counter for a bit. Again, I keep forgetting I need a rolling pin, so I use a wine bottle. I also roll out the dough between two layers of saran wrap. When it’s a bit bigger than the tart pan, take off the top layer of saran wrap, hang it over the wine bottle saran-side down, and flip it onto the tart pan dough-side down. Press it in, line it with foil, and fill it with beans or pie weights or barley or etc. Bake for about 20 minutes, and then remove the foil and weights, so that it has a chance to brown a bit (you can even give it a cream/egg white brushing at this point to get it prettier). Bake for, oh, five more minutes, maybe ten; just keep your eye on it. Allow to cool, and admire at your handiwork.
Spiced Poached Apple Pie Filling
Loosely adapted from Best Pie Bakeoff # 26, Pear Gruyere Pie
2 pounds apples (the firm sort–braeburn worked well)
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1/4 cup white sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp whiskey
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon clove
1 cinnamon stick (I used about a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, but I’d recommend the stick instead)
2 teaspoon cornstarch
Add sugar, wine, water, vanilla, cinnamon stick, nutmeg and clove into a large stock pot or dutch oven. Bring to a boil. Put an empty medium bowl into the freezer to chill.
Peel, core, and slice apples. Once liquid mixture has come to a boil add apples. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until the pears are tender.
Using a slotted spoon remove the apples from the poaching liquid and put them into the chilled bowl. Return the poaching liquid to a boil and reduce until you have about 1/4 cup of syrup. Add 2 teaspoons of sifted cornstarch to the syrup to thicken the syrup further. Pour the syrup into a measuring cup and chill.
Rosemary-infused Pastry Cream
Adapted from The Kitchn
1 1/2 cups whole milk or half-and-half (or some milk and heavy cream, like me)
1 1/2 Tbsp dry Rosemary
4 large egg yolks
1/3 – 1/2 cup sugar, to depending on how sweet you want it
1/4 cup flour (you can add more if you’d like it thicker, but it starts to get doughy with too much)
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Bring the milk or cream and rosemary to a boil, and allow to boil for a few minutes, while monitoring closely and stirring. Strain out the rosemary and pitch it. Allow the milk to cool to touchably warm. Whisk together the yolks and sugar until pale yellow, and then whisk in the flour and salt.
When the milk mix is touchable, pour it in a steady stream into the yolk mix, while whisking constantly. Pour back into the saucepan.
Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly with your spoon so the bottom doesn’t scorch. It will quickly start to thicken to the consistency of pudding. When large steamy bubbles start to pop through the liquid, the pastry cream is nearly done.
Continue stirring for 1-2 minutes longer. Set the strainer over a clean bowl and strain the pastry cream to get out any lumps. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the pastry cream and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it.
Pour the cooled pastry cream into the cooled tart shell. Arrange the apple slices as fancy pants as you like, or in a pile. It’ll still look pretty good. Pour the reduced poaching liquid over the top of the apples, and serve to happy guests.