The Perils of Pie

by paige on August 4, 2009

summerfest badgeMY INTENTIONS WERE pure, I swear. My mother is one of the two best pie makers I have ever known. Ruth Reichl is the other one, so Mom is in plenty fancy foodie company. (I’m not picking favorites here. That would be stupid, and probably reduce the amount of world’s-two-best-pies in my future.) Since Ruth was in Brazil, and therefore not available for stalking for pie tips (and I suspect she’s more likely to put them on her own site, anyway) I turned to Mom. “I have a great idea!” I began. She looked suspicious. My “great ideas” and “suggestions” can be as annoying to her as hers are to me. “I want to film you making pie, and put it up on The Sister Project this week!” Her face seemed to pale, and the corners of her mouth plummeted.

“You know, it won’t be a long video,” I stammered. “Just some shots of you making your crust, mostly, you know, edited together…” I trailed off. “You make the best pie of anyone I know.” (Well, one of the two best, anyhow.) “And you make it look so easy–you could help people conquer their fear of pie crust, because yours is always so perfect.”

My compliments were sincere; my enthusiasm genuine.

“What kind of pie do you want me to make?” The tone was less, say, exuberance, than maybe, oh, suspicion. Again.

“Whatever you want, but the theme is stone fruit, so I was thinking apricot.” Her entire face puckered. “Apricot?” This time, the tone was disbelief, with perhaps a soupçon of disgust.

“Well, yeah, but, uh, I can see you don’t like that idea, so…maybe blueberry? They’re in season…”

Not an improvement: “Blueberry pie is always too sweet.”

I still wasn’t dealing with reality. I know this, in retrospect, because my tone was still sunny. “Well, you could show people how to make it not-too-sweet.”

“I never make blueberry pie. I have to go to work. Let’s talk about this later.”


The next night, I came home from a night out with my husband; Mom had been babysitting the short people (thanks, Mom). As we came in from the garage, she flew down the stairs.

“We need to talk.”

My mind raced. What horrors could those nasty kids have unleashed on Grandma, even after being sternly warned that a bad report would eliminate the next morning’s cartoon privileges?

“It’s about the pie.” Oh, jeez. “I have to figure out what to do. I have to experiment. You know, they changed Crisco. I haven’t made a pie since. I have NO IDEA how to make the crust properly.”

“Of course you’ve made pie! What are you talking about? I ate it. The kids ate it.”

Never, EVER tell my mother she did something she said she didn’t.


“OK, I get it, you hate to be photographed, it’s about the video, I’m sorry, Forget it.”

“It is NOT about the video. I can’t make my crust anymore. It used to be half Crisco, half butter, but the new Crisco doesn’t work. I’ve been all over the internet tonight. Hundreds of pie bakers all over the country are in the same fix. NO ONE KNOWS WHAT TO DO. And now you’re mad at me.” Her voice was anxious, and maybe a touch shrill.

I had no idea we were in the midst of a nationwide pie crisis. But the fact that I was embroiled in a house-wide domestic crisis was becoming clear. Some louder words were exchanged, she stomped up to her room, I slammed out onto the front porch, and screamed a bit at the dog, since my actual target had removed herself from the buttery field of battle.

It’s true that when I was growing up, my mother made her pie crust with half cooking oil (she remembers Wesson, though I could have sworn it was Mazola) and half butter. Then, at some point, she switched out the oil (deemed unhealthy by Experts) for Crisco. Then the great transfat controversy unspooled, and somewhere around that time, even regular Crisco was reformulated. According to Mom, it just doesn’t work.

All this time, I’ve been making my pie crust with all butter, and though it’s not as good as Mom’s, or Ruth’s, it’s not bad. When I have it on hand, I use Plugra, the European-style butter with a higher fat content, which seems to improve my crust’s texture. I am lazy, and make mine in the food processor, instead of with a pastry blender. (My mom used the pastry blender or two knives my entire childhood, but now also sometimes uses the Cuisinart. I’VE SEEN HER, I SWEAR.) I put salt in my crust, but no sugar, because I always like a salty flavor playing off my sweets (the same reason I put sea salt in my chocolate cookies.)

In the absence of a video dispelling all the mysteries of perfect pie, you’ll have to settle for the crust recipe I use, and the best stone-fruit dessert I make, the one that is not my mother’s pie. Maybe when the apples come in, I’ll convince Mom to revisit this discussion, because it’s true that there is nothing better than Mom’s apple pie. (Except maybe Ruth’s apricot pie.) Then again, maybe I’ll just have to pray my mother ever makes me a pie again, and continue to hone my own skills. Let’s just hope that what I won’t be singing, come fall, is that chilling children’s song, No More Pie.

Suzanne Goin’s Plum Tarte Tatin

(adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)

The original recipe calls for a sheet of puff pastry, and you could certainly use that instead of pie crust. I prerfer to make it with a regular pie crust, because it seems more rustic to me, and because I am too lazy to make my own puff pastry, and too cheap to pay $12 for it at the grocery store. I sometimes make my crust with whole wheat pastry flour (King Arthur brand) instead of all-purpose white flour, which gives a delicious nutty flavor that is divine against the sweet-tart plums.

3 lbs. plums, halved and pitted
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 stick unsalted butter
Crust for ten inch pie (see below), or 1 sheet of puff pastry

Toss the plums with 1/4 cup sugar and let macerate at room temperature, covered, for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make a caramel:  Put a 10 inch cast iron frying pan over medium heat for one minute. Add the butter, and when it foams, add the remaining 3/4 cup of sugar. Cook 6-8 minutes, swirling (but not stirring!) often until you have a deep brown caramel. Remove the pan from the heat and cool for 20 minutes.

Drain the plums. (The syrup makes a delicious cocktail–try it mixed with vodka and a bit of soda water, perhaps with a sprig of mint, on the rocks. That should take all your pie anxiety away.) Arrange the plums, cut side down, in concentric circles atop the caramel in the pan. Overlap them slightly if you can, and pack them in–you want them tight.

Return the pan to the stove over medium-low heat, and cook for twenty minutes until the fruit begins to soften. Cool the pan, preferably in the fridge, for two hours. If the fruit seems too syrupy after cooling, you can siphon off some of the juices with a turkey baster, but remember, this is a rustic dessert, so if juice runs when you serve it, that’s ok.

When you’re ready to bake the tart, preheat the oven to 375. Top the pan with the dough (rolled into a circle slightly larger than the diameter of your pan) or puff pastry (cut into a circle slightly larger than the diameter of your pan), turning the edges in so there’s a slightly thicker layer of pastry on the outer edge. Prick the crust in a few places with a fork, and brush gently with the beaten egg. Bake for 45-55 minutes, until the top is nicely browned. Cool in the pan on a rack for thirty minutes before unmolding: run a paring knife gently around the edge of the tarte, place a plate larger than the diameter of the pan on top of the pan, and (using potholders!) flip to unmold. Rearrange the fruit if any of it sticks to the pan (doesn’t usually happen, but sometimes can.) Serve plain, with a scoop of creme fraiche, or vanilla ice cream.


1-1/4 cups all purpose, unbleached flour
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, very cold, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup ice water

Combine flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Sprinkle the butter evenly over, and then process on and off until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs. With the machine running, add the ice water a tablespoon or so at a time. Stop the machine just as the dough comes together–you may not need all the water. Turn the dough out onto a large sheet of plastic wrap, and form into a ball, using the plastic sheet to enclose and shape the dough at the same time. If the dough seems too sticky, sprinkle on a spoonful or two of flour. When the ball is formed and wrapped, flatten it slightly so that you have a disc of dough about six inches in diameter, and an inch thick. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

When ready to make the tart, unwrap the dough and roll it out on floured wax paper. It helps to have a size guide, such as a traced circle drawn onto the waxed paper. Once the dough is rolled out, if you’re not using it immediately, chill the rolled-out circle again, between two sheets of was paper, on a baking sheet.


summerfest badgeThanks for attending Summer Fest, a four-week cross-blog celebration of fresh-from-the-garden food ideas, co-created (alphabetically listed) by A Way to Garden, Mattbites, Steamy Kitchen, and White on Rice Couple, with guest appearances from Gluten-Free Girl, Simmer Till Done and Paige of The Sister Project (hey, that’s me!). And from you—that’s critical. Your contributions are desired, and needed, whether growing tips or recipes or anything at all on topic.

So now it’s your turn: Have a recipe or tip for something wonderful with stone fruit? Leave it in the comments below, and then go visit my collaborators and do the same. The cross-blog event idea works best when you leave your recipe or favorite links (whether to your own blog or someone else’s) at all the host blogs. That way, they are likely to be seen by the widest audience. Everyone benefits.

If you wish, grab the juicy tomato badge (illustrated by Matt Armendariz of Matt Bites) and make a whole post on your blog on this week’s topic, to really jump into the sauce. Up to you: A whole post, a comment; badge, no badge—whatever you wish. (It’s meant to be fun, viral, fluid. No pressure, just delicious.)

And in case I forget, won’t somebody remind me on Twitter? Thanks. We’ll be talking it up there, too.

The Summer Fest 2009 schedule: Tuesday, July 28: HERBS. Any and all. Tuesday, August 4: FRUITS FROM TREES (also known as stone fruits, but we won’t scream if you toss in a berry or another fruit, promise). Tuesday, August 11: BEANS-AND-GREENS WEEK (either or both, your choice). Tuesday, August 18: TOMATO WEEK. How do you like them love apples? See you for the final two!

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

rosy August 4, 2009 at 6:59 am

Your post made me laugh so much – a tad embarassing whilst at my desk in the office! So pleased I spotted the Summer Fest as I’ve never read your blog before but will definitely be a fixture on my favorites list now. I adore tarte tatins and agree on the shortcrust pastry front. Makes a much more satisfying tart. Anyway, here’s my post for this week! Rosy x

Kristina August 4, 2009 at 8:54 am

My husband makes the best pie crust so I don’t bother with it. The reason he’s so good at it? Because his mom has never made good pie crust and he wanted to master something she never could. I make fun of him every time he makes a pie because of his motivation. Then I eat the pie. :-D

Here’s my entry for this week:

I made it last night and it was wonderful!

Charmian Christie August 4, 2009 at 9:26 am

Plums? An under appreciated fruit. I’m glad to see someone in Summer Fest covering this one.

Today, I’m all about the peaches. Ice cream and freezer jam. But now I’m thinking some plum preserves…

Danielle August 4, 2009 at 10:09 am

All this talk of pies makes me want to make my own…maybe soon.

Until then, I offer my post on fruits & failure (which was cheating a little bit, but also comes with a couple successful past recipes linked in the post):

Kelsey/The Naptime Chef August 4, 2009 at 10:12 am

Gosh, just reading this makes me want to stop typing and start baking a pie right now! Here is my Summer Fest entry for this week. I make this Simple Almond Cake with tree fruits all the time. In this case it is made with rhubarb (not a tree fruit), but I often make it with plums, peaches or apples. It never fails and is a cinch to prepare. Happy Summer!

Marilyn August 4, 2009 at 10:15 am

Paige: so many things here I’d like to have! I’d like the plum tarte tatin, I’d like Crisco the way it was, your sea salt cookies, and I’d like Ruth R. to make me an apricot pie. Thanks for another sweet (and funny) tale, sister.

Laura [What I Like] August 4, 2009 at 10:33 am

I love Suzanne Goin! Your poor mother seems to be going through the same withdrawal that my grandmother is experiencing at the moment with the new Crisco. I have to agree with her on the blueberry pie, but my mom makes a mean peach/nectarine and blueberry pie that is truly awesome…seems to avoid the sweetness trap somehow.

Chef Gwen August 4, 2009 at 11:01 am

It’s always so fun to read stories about mothers and daughters. Really makes me miss my mom. Thanks for sharing that wonderful story. Give your mom a BIG hug for me.

Oh, love the recipe, too.

Jen H August 4, 2009 at 11:21 am

What a great story with your Mom. I make my pie crust with all Crisco and it comes out beautifully flaky everytime.

My Summer Fest entry for this week is a mostly local Peach & Radish Salsa

Ravenouscouple August 4, 2009 at 2:43 pm

We made Peaches and Berries Flambe with rum and served it with vanilla bean ice cream! Thanks for a great idea to share these recipes!

Diana August 4, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Great post, your poor mom! I do remember hearing something about Crisco changing. I had a hard time picking a post for this summer fest, I use a lot of fruit. I was going to share cherry rhubarb skillet pie, but I think the hot weather we’re having calls for some sweet and tangy cherry limeade.
Loving SummerFest!

Stephanie August 4, 2009 at 4:16 pm

Ah, the perils of pie. I know them well.

Stephanie August 4, 2009 at 4:18 pm

Oh, almost forgot to mention my own Summer Fest news!
Christie’s Corner and Wasabimon are exchanging guest posts for stonefruit week. Check out Charmian’s post on homemade peach ice cream:

And my post on making peach freezer jam:

Actually, these two recipes would probably go very well together for a major peach overload!

Paige Orloff August 4, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Good heavens. What a day I picked to be away from my computer! Hello, hello, and hello to you all; I cannot wait to visit all your lovely posts and read your creations. Meanwhile, I notice that my mother has NOT yet left a comment. This bodes ill…luckily, I’m out of town for the night. I’ll let you all know what sort of response awaits me when I go back home tomorrow. (You all know that my mother lives with me, right? Just thought I should mention that.)

RobbingPeter August 4, 2009 at 10:57 pm

Being relatively new to the Blogiverse I am finding the best part of these “events” to be reading all of the fabulous blogs that are out there. I am kind of glad that I didn’t know of them all before I started, because I probably would have been too intimidated.

For my entry into SummerFest I recounted the PeachFest celebration my mother and I conducted with a day long canning extravaganza. You can read about it and see the results here:

Can’t wait for next month.

White On Rice Couple August 5, 2009 at 12:05 am

What a fun story & your mother is so darn cute!
I don’t know if you can get your hands on some lard, but that’s what we team up with the plugra butter to get the uber flaky crusts. Here in So Cal we can find it in the latino supermarkets and in the Stater Bros. super markets.
We love Suzanne as well. One of our close buds is lucky enough to be working for her right now. Good way to go when momma isn’t sharin’ the family secrets ;) Great recipe to share. Thanks again for the story and the tasty recipe!

Susan August 5, 2009 at 2:27 am

You want tips? Okay..Well..It’s only taken me 35 years, but I finally found a technique that has me whipping out the most flakey pie crusts, and in no time, yet! I can’t believe I scoffed this off a couple times before..but I did! The dough handling technique is called Fraisage. I made a cherry pie from Gourmet of June 2007, and the recipe instructed that this method be I did, and I am SOLD! That dough was so easy to roll; soft and round, no cracking edges, no amoeba shapes. And the flakes in the crust? You could almost peel back the layers, it shattered like thrown confetti when you took the side of your fork to that pie! Finally! Better late than never..

Other tip that I’ve discovered: Cherries and peaches both improve in flavor with the addition of a couple tsp of kirsch while they mascerate. That started with the same cherry pie..but it wasn’t in the recipe..I just did it because I’ve read so much about it in Clafoutis recipes and wanted to try it. I love it, it works!

Julie August 5, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Hilarious – I had no idea we were in the midst of a pie crisis either! I too tend to do all-butter crusts. My best pie of the past year was peach – with roasted peach ice cream – – although I’m sure it didn’t hold a candle to one of your mom’s or Ruth’s!

When I’m too lazy to take a stab at pie, another of my favourite recipes of all time is brilliant made with any number of stone fruits – Plum Browned Butter Bliss – – is fruit topped with a crusty, golden cakey topping that’s better than cobbler, easier than pie!

LOVE your plum tarte tatin idea – it is going to the top of my must-make list!!

marionroach August 6, 2009 at 11:29 am

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. A Crisis of Pie. Marvelous. Wonderful. Ha ha ha. I love this. My favorite is peach and ginger pie. Fresh peaches, grated ginger,a tiny touch of brown sugar, and the butter/two-knife thing. Voila!

monika August 6, 2009 at 2:47 pm

A crisis of pie??!

Have to admit that in our house, we always make an all-butter crust. Okay, I am using the royal “we” — Pierre makes all the pie crusts (and strudels) in our house… When we were first dating, he challenged me to a battle of white sauces — what can I say? He’s a french man…

But I would think that lard would make a beautiful pie crust, at least as flaky as Crisco, and without that unpleasant roof-of-the-mouth coating trans fats give you. Have to admit that I am happy old Crisco is gone — have always disliked the texture.

I have 2 stone fruit recipes for you; both are in regular summer rotation in our house (much requested).

We have a cherry tree, and so I had to find easy cherry recipes. Our hands-down favourite is clafoutis, and this is THE.Best.Clafoutis.Recipe. Well, it should be — it is the one they use at Guy Savoy in Paris…

I’ve tried many, and this really is the best — the trick is to use as little flour as possible.

The next is a peach cobbler recipe. After many years — I have stopped searching — this is “the one”. The only change I make is to double the topping dough (and I make sure to use muscovado sugar, a mix of light and dark, instead of regular brown sugar).

monika August 6, 2009 at 3:04 pm

I have to pipe up and say that blueberry is my favourite pie (next to buttermilk), and mine has never been too sweet. I use the recipe from Martha Stewart’s pie book — it has 3 pints of blueberries to 1 cup of sugar (and some butter). Maybe it is because I use wild blueberries, which have a more pronounced flavour than the cultivated variety?

Stephanie August 6, 2009 at 5:10 pm

Hey I just posted a new peach recipe for Summer Fest! Peach Elderberry Jam:

Amy August 6, 2009 at 9:51 pm

Who needs drugs for a pick me up when we have you? Too, too funny. Although, I might fight you on who’s mom makes the best pie (see below)

Yes, I sort of cheated since my pie has rhubarb, which is a vegetable…and I’m linking an older post because I found out about this fabulous gathering too late. But…but… if I’m not allowed to play anymore, I’ll understand.

Great post.

Suzanne (Crunchy green Mom) August 7, 2009 at 10:47 am

Pie Crisis? I still haven’t made my first pie by hand!

NO Crisis! I need every ounce of help I can get. ~pouts~

Oh… here is my summer fest contribution: It’s a simple trifle… less scary… Ok, I was scared, it was my first attempt!

Suzanne (Crunchy green Mom) August 7, 2009 at 10:48 am

Uhhhh… here is my link.

~sighs~ It’s Friday… that is my mantra

My Persian Kitchen August 7, 2009 at 9:22 pm

Here is my contribution, a nice and refreshing cocktail:
Persian Lime Drops

Janice August 8, 2009 at 1:12 pm

One of the perils of pie, is that once you start, you can’t stop! both making AND eating! I had to make 17 pies for a wedding about a week and a half ago, and now I can’t stop! I found myself making quiche for dinner! AND when thinking about what to make for Summer Fest, I found myself thinking tarts (basically tiny pies!!) Here’s the link for Rainier Cherry Tarts

Rona Maynard August 10, 2009 at 10:23 am

Paige, this post brings back many fragrant memories. I too am the daughter of a woman renowned for her pies. On my birthday she never baked me anything so predictable as a cake–only pie would do, the flavor of my choice (I always hankered for rhubarb, but apples are the birth fruit of October babies like me). She swore by Crisco, which in those days produced a wonderfully flakey crust, given just a hint of crunch by a surface brushing of milk and a sprinkle of sugar. I never mastered pie crust, despite her dogged efforts to pass on the secret. I once thought I feared competing with my mother, but the truth is more complex. Twenty years after her death, I see my self-imposed klutziness at the pastry bowl as the empty chair I keep for my mother at the table of my life. Delighted as I am by the pies other people bake for me (I’m fantasizing as I write this by Marion’s peach and ginger combo), my mother remains the Queen of Crust.

Paige Orloff August 11, 2009 at 12:29 am

Good heavens, people! I don’t know where to start.

Rona–Welcome back. Though I admire your willingness to let your mother’s legacy go unmolested, I don’t share it. I told my mother again tonight, as she was discussing pie secrets, that I am determined to get the process on film. I am not going to go through my later years pie-less, damn it!

Janice–I am exhausted just reading your comment. SEVENTEEN pies?? That must have been some wedding. I LOVE cherries meanwhile, and can’t wait to try those tarts. Thank you!

My Persian Kitchen–Perfect. After all this pie, I definitely need a cocktail!

Suzanne–By Friday, I was barely verbal, so forgetting a link=no big deal. But that recipe looks delish–I love trifle and don’t make it often. Thanks for the inspiration.

Amy–anyone who tells me I’m funny can always play. Seriously–rhubarb counts, cause it makes damn good pie.

Stephanie–That looks delicious. Elderflower is on my list of things I’ve never tried but need to, so maybe this will be the impetus.

Monika–Not fair. Your husband makes pie and strudel? I’m not sure I should even trust YOUR recipes since you’ve got Pierre in the kitchen. (Teasing, as you know already.) I love clafoutis, as does Margaret–I have to compare and contrast your two recipes, which I guess means I have to eat a bunch of clafoutis–poor me!

Marion–I’ll be right over. Save me a piece.

Julie–Aren’t plums the best? They’re so underappreciated. Thanks for the great-sounding recipe.

Susan–I’m praying that’s one of the issues I’ve saved. I’ve read about that technique before; maybe it’s the reason Ruth’s pies are so good–I’ve never forced her to let me watch her make crust, though I’m definitely not above it.

White on Rice–I know folks swear by lard. It kind of scares me, but maybe I need to take the leap!

Robbing Peter–I’m hoping to get some canning done this summer, too. My favorite is a Plum Conserve (there I go with plums again) from a 1947 Kerr Canning pamphlet. My mother (there I go with my mother again) made it when I was a kid, and I love it–it’s sour sweet and has yellow raisins and walnuts in it: divine.

Stephanie–I am one of those people who thinks there’s no such thing as peach overload. Bring it on.

Diana–My kids, major limeade fans, thank you for this. I’m adding vodka, so I thank you too.

Ravenous Couple–I love that you flambéed! So retro, so cool.

Jen H–I love homemade salsas, and this combo is new to me. Can’t wait to try it.

Chef Gwen–Thanks for the kind words. My mom makes me nuts, but she’s still the greatest.

Laura–Peach blueberry? Genius.

Marilyn–maybe we need to swap care packages.

Kelsey–I am obsessed with almond everything so I am dying to make this. Thank you!

Danielle–As they’re always telling my kid at school, failure is just how you get better at things. And my trick for lemon vinaigrette is to use a few drops of lemon oil (I use Boyajian brand.) It gives an intense lemon flavor that is really amazing.

Charmian–As I said to Stephanie, as far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as overload when it comes to peaches. Love your blog swap!

Kristina–Enough of you women with baking husbands. I love my husband, but baking, he Oh well–he’s got other qualities (just not so much in the kitchen!) and P.S.–that cake looks delish.

Rosy–Glad I made you laugh, and hope you regained your composure. That relish looks divine, and I agree with you and Chef Gwen that it seems like it would be incredible with cheese. Can’t wait to try it, though rhubarb season is sadly long gone, here. Next spring, though. And I hope you’ll keep trying on pork belly–very curious to know how you make out.

Christine August 11, 2009 at 11:56 am

Oh geez — wasn’t aware of the Crisco switcheroo. Now I’m sure my pies (made with Crisco crust since everyone decided lard was a no-no 30+ years ago) have been just awful and no one’s had the heart to mention it. But I wonder, have the store brands of shortening been changed as well? Would they perform like the “old” Crisco?

paige August 12, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Christine–I’m pretty sure you’d know if your pies were awful. Any leftovers? No? All good :-)

BTW, everyone should check out this fabulous pie blog from wonderful L.A. chef Evan Kleiman.

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