Top Tips to Make the Perfect Pie + Recipe

Top Tips to Make the Perfect Pie + Recipe

Columnist Moreton Neal shares a piece of her piecrust know-how.

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IMG_0007_smallI have a love-hate relationship with pie. Long ago, during my brief career as a pastry chef, flaky-crusted pies were my specialty. One day, I made piecrust exactly as I always did, but that evening, something shocking happened. Our customers’ dessert plates returned from the dining room with only one bite missing. When I tasted my usually irresistible French silk pie, alas, the crust was tough as shoe leather. I discovered, too late, that the kitchen manager had changed to a less expensive brand of flour whose gluten was unsuitable for pastry.

Scarred for life, I swore off making piecrust when we opened our own restaurant. There’s not a rolling pin in my kitchen to this day.

Fortunately for pie lovers in the family, I can find perfectly good piecrusts at local groceries. Pillsbury, still made with real lard, is as reliable as ever; Mrs. Smith’s, even flakier. Trader Joe’s piecrust, the least costly, is outstanding.  TJ’s are packaged in rolls, requiring transfer to your own pie pan. The downside is a tendency to break apart, so be prepared to spend some time patching it back together. Weaver Street Market’s crust used to be my favorite, but like those confusing cans of tomatoes, it now offers choices – palm oil or butter. The palm oil crust isn’t flaky, but “short,” like many European pies, yet pleasingly tender. The queen of store-bought piecrusts is Whole Foods’  Wholly Wholesome Traditional pie shells. Unless they have changed the recipe recently to make it vegan-friendly, it tastes like homemade grandma crust to me, maybe because the crimping almost looks like it was done by an actual human.

Pie making may be easy for the experienced, but it’s also easy to screw up. If your piecrust comes in an aluminum pan, recrimp the edges with your thumb and fingers. This not only makes the pie look like you made it yourself, but thickens the edge so it’s less likely to cook too fast. Whether crust is homemade or comes in a sheet, the material of your pie pan (glass, metal or ceramic) will affect the cooking time. If you pre-bake it without a filling, no problem, but there’s a trick to filled pies: the filling and crust need to finish cooking at exactly the same time. To keep the bottom of the crust from undercooking, I bake filled pies at high heat (450 degrees) for 10 or 15 minutes or until you can see the crust’s edge begin to change color, then lower the heat to 325 for as long as it takes for the filling to set in the middle. In other words, don’t ever trust a recipe for cooking time: Keep your eye on the pie.

The recipes here is a family favorite. For loads of other delectable pie recipes, I highly recommend From a Southern Oven by Jean Anderson and Southern Pies by Nancie McDermott. Both of these noted authors live in Chapel Hill.

Vidalia Onion Pie

1 nine-inch raw pie crust
1/2 cup butter
3 medium Vidalia onions (or other sweet onion), halved and thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup sour cream
3 large eggs, beaten
¼ teaspoon dry mustard
pinch of cayenne or dash of Tabasco sauce
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated sharp cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Melt butter over medium heat. Add onions, add salt and pepper, and sauté until limp. Allow to cool slightly. In a bowl, combine sour cream, eggs, mustard, cayenne and a dash more salt and pepper. Add and ½ cup cheese. Pour filling into pie crust and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. For a heartier pie, I sometimes add crumbled cooked bacon.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 325°F and continue to bake for 20-30 minutes (more if needed) until set in the middle.  Serve warm or at room temperature.