Easy as Pie

Posted by Tracy Newel on Nov 23, 2011
Filed: Cooking Lessons
Tagged: pie thanksgiving

Maple Pumpkin Pie (recipe)

My husband's grandmother Mim is a chef of epic proportions. A housewife married in the 1960s to an ophthalmologist, she is a self-taught, Julia inspired, epicurean tour de force. She is, by far, one of the most intelligent women I know, using her quick wit and unflappable principals to create dishes that are always the gold standard.

Her Turkey Day feast starts a year in advance, when she creates stock from the turkey carcass that will be used for gravy the following year. Rolls are a three-day affair, and braised pearl onions take months of procurement at the grocery store to ensure that they are all uniform in size. The results are amazing. The twenty of us who are blessed to sit at her Thanksgiving table simply do not have the skills, patience, or unflinching commitment to make any one element of that meal. We are, however, allowed to bring a pie.

Keep in mind, that even a casual weekday dinner at Mim's is not the sort of affair to which you hastily bring a loaf of bread. ("Bread is NEVER served with a meal…only a cheese course.”) Or a bottle of wine; her husband Mike has an extensive wine cellar. And God forbid you offer to bring a paltry side dish to compete at her table. In fact, you are not to bring a thing to dinner--ever. Unless it's a pie, and it's on Thanksgiving.

It is under this auspice that I married into this family. I've always loved to cook and pie was in my repertoire. But, pie good enough for Mim? I think not. My training started one hot summer day when I was tricked as a young newlywed into making a blackberry pie. It went a little something like this:

[Scene: Vineyard Farmer's Market, Fresno]

Husband [looking adoringly at the berry stand]: “Oh, just look at those berries! Blackberries are my absolute favorite.”

Wife: “Really? I didn't know that!”

Husband: “Yeah, my Great Aunt Lynn always made amazing blackberry pies…”

Wife: “Really? I can make pie!”

Husband [patronizing]: “Oh, well, that's nice dear, but I am sure it would not be as good as Lynn's. [looks wistfully into the distance] Hers was simply the best.”

Wife [annoyed]: “Oh, really? Huh! We'll just have to see about THAT! [to the blackberry seller] I'll take a flat, please!

Okay, I confess, I had no idea what I was doing when I brought those berries home. I understood the basic concept of pie: fruit, sugar, thickener, and a little pie crust. How hard could it be? Just to hedge my bets, I did a little research and that's where the fun began.

Turns out, there are endless variations of fruit filling with flavorings (cinnamon, zest, vanilla, etc.), sugar content, and thickening agents (corn starch, flour, tapioca). But the little nerd in me persevered and after careful studying of my best sources--Martha Stewart, The Best Recipe, Epicurious--I formulated a magical amalgam of the three for my master blackberry pie recipe:


  • Pâte brisée pie dough (enough for a double crust)
  • 3/4 to 1 cups sugar (depending on tartness of berries)
  • 5 cups fresh or frozen blackberries
  • 3-4 Tbsps. tapioca
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice
  • 1/8 tsp. nutmeg
  • 2 Tbsps. lemon juice
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • 2 Tbsps. butter, cut into small chunks
  • 2 Tbsps. heavy cream
  • 1 small egg yolk
  • 2 Tbsps. Demerara sugar


Toss sugar, berries, allspice, vanilla, lemon, zest, and salt together in a large bowl. Set aside to allow juices of the berries to soften the sugar.

Reserve about 1 ½ cups of this mixture and add tapioca to the remainder.

In an oversized tart pan, form bottom pie crust, allowing 1 inch overhang. Add filling (it should be 1 to 2 berries deep). Tab butter on top of filling. Form lattice crust and crimp edges of pie together. Glaze crust with heavy cream and egg mixture, careful not to allow too much to spill into filling. Sprinkle crust with Demerara sugar.

Place a pan under the pie to catch any drippings and bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and put on crust shield if necessary (aka crust is getting too brown). Bake for approximately 40 more minutes, or until center of pie filling bubbles. Cool 2 hours before serving.

My berry pie success spurned me on into the realm of rhubarb, fresh berry, peach, apple crumble, s'more, French chocolate silk, and banana cream. Like a dutiful disciple of the art of pie, I became a complete martyr. The rhythm of cutting butter, dusting flour, dragging out my old marble rolling pin, the hum of my gas oven, the smell of fresh orange zest, the clink of my spoon off a glass bowl while tossing fruit with sugar--my kitchen was my alter. And after months of training, I was ready to meet my maker: Thanksgiving at Mim's.

Keep in mind that, despite being a first-time pie baker at this event, I knew judgment would be swift. There was the unfortunate time that Spencer Newel brought an almond and pear tart. A tart! Whatever was he thinking? And then there was the time that Jonathan, the new beau of Aunt Melissa, brought a lemon pie. Made with homegrown Meyer lemons, it was tart and tasty--and the crust was nice--but somehow different from the standard butter pâte brisée recipe that all us Newels dutifully followed. Inquiries about the suspect crust scurried about the table. “Did you use all butter, Jonathan?” I asked. “Was this pastry flour perhaps?” another chimed in. Jonathan, like a slippery politician, dodged questions, weaved in rhetoric and managed to evade the subject altogether. Eventually, though, we had him cornered. He couldn't keep the secret any longer: “The crust…was…purchased,” he stammered. He meekly piped up that he had fluted the edges by hand, not knowing that he was only embarrassing himself. What a shame.

Jonathan has not brought another pie to the Thanksgiving meal.

So, in I walk that cold November evening with my lattice-topped berry pie, looking a little grimy on the edges where the syrup had bubbled over. Basted in yellow egg wash and sprinkled with Demerara sugar, it stood out like a neon sign on the Vegas strip, flashing, “New pie! New pie!” And, of course, before the turkey was served, there was buzz… “She's brought a berry pie! I have not had a decent berry pie since Aunt Lynn stopped making hers…” And, “Oh, that's one of my favorites! I hope the crust is good.”

Oh my. What was I in for?

After a gorgeous turkey dinner that my nerves could barely stomach, pie was served. This was it. Mim had pie on her plate. I sat across the table, trying not to stare, but oh-so dying to see the look on her face when she took a bite. Conversation rattled around me. Didn't these people know what was at stake? Would they please pipe down for Mim to make her remarks?!

And then, Mim commanded firmly, “Tracy, this is excellent pie. I dare say better than Aunt Lynn's.” Holy shit. I had done it! It was passable. Better than passable! I unclenched, and sat back to enjoy what remained of my dessert.

Ah, Thanksgiving. Could there be a better holiday?

Tracy’s Principals for Pie:

Be a pie martyr
No jarred fillings. No store-bought crust. No cheap tins. Ever. Commit to a solid three hours in the kitchen and make an undeniably amazing dessert. Join the freaky-deaky pie-makers-of-America cult. You’ll love us…I promise. I will allow those who must (I do not) to use a food processor for the crust. And I am okay with frozen fruit; sometimes you just need an out of season fruit (like berries in November). Canned pumpkin gets a pass too.

Butter, people!

Use an all-butter crust. Yes, there is debate about tenderness, ease, flakiness, and browning, but the results are in: butter is better! If you are careful about your crust, you should have no trouble whipping up a stunning all-butter blanket for your sweet, sweet filling. And another thing: butter should always be dotted on the top of fruit pies before baking. Always.

Embrace your inner Simon Cowell
You have a God-given right to eat top quality pie. Yes, you should judge a pie that leaves a smear of shortening on the roof of your mouth! I thumb my nose at fruit pies that slip out of the pan like a Jell-O jiggler, and I scoff at a slice that leaves a watery pool in its wake. Every one of us is an exceptional critic and can always sleuth out ways to improve such a seemingly simple dessert. Find out what went wrong, and get to the bottom of it.

The devil is in the details
Okay, so tapioca works GREAT for berry pie with a top crust, but if you decide to do a lattice crust (which I do) they harden like little Tic-Tacs. Think about the whole animal before you commit to any recipe: If you are making a half pie (go get some mini tins from Fresno Ag!) you may have a crust ratio that's off, and might need to skip the top crust all together. Lemon should not be substituted for orange or cinnamon for nutmeg. When baking, stick to the rules.

Beg, borrow and steal
What’s the best way to ensure your pie recipe is solid? Eat it! If you have amazing pie at someone’s house, get their secret. Use your freshly honed pie skills to ask questions that will crack the code. For example, if someone just says to me, “This is tasty! Can I have the recipe?” I am skeptical that they have the determination to make a real pie. But if they ask me, “Is this thickened with cornstarch? And what type of apples are these?” I am much more likely to give it up.

Pie is love
I realize I may be scaring the daylights out of some of you, but really, pie is an elementary, simple food that signals prosperity. When your kitchen overflows with a harvest of apples or when you have the luxury of spending a lazy Sunday afternoon turning out a chocolaty delight, you can relish in your abundance. Pie is meant to be shared, to be divvied up among a dinner party or squirreled away for a leftover family breakfast. If you have patience and skills in the kitchen, spread the love. Bake a pie.

Get to baking!

Newel Family French Chocolate Silk Pie

Maple Pumpkin Pie