What would the holidays be without pie?
With Thanksgiving and Christmas on the horizon, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and gather some recipes.
We talked to professional pie bakers about making holiday pies. While these specialists always include pumpkin and pecan on their festive Thanksgiving tables, they make sure to add a twist. They also suggested some dreamy pies to surprise family and friends for December’s celebrations. But, first things first, which means tips about the crust.
Keep it cold
Nearly all of the bakers insisted on one thing: temperature.
“Cold, cold, cold,” said Jackie Conway, co-owner of Jill’s Kitchen and an award-winning pie-baking expert. “Cold ingredients make for lighter, flakier pastry.”
Conway chills butter and shortening for about 30 minutes in the freezer before cutting it into the flour and uses ice water for mixing the dough. After making the pastry, she puts it in the fridge to chill again before adding fillings.
Even the marble boards that the pastry is rolled out on are cold. If she’s making several pies, she will switch out marble boards to keep everything chilly.
“When you’re ready to make the crust, work fast so the dough doesn’t warm up and the butter starts to soften,” Conway advises.
Cortney Smith, co-owner of Gather Food Studio with David Cook, teaches a pie-making class. And she also has a strong option about temperature.
“My best tip (for pie crust) is to make sure everything is cold. Really cold!” she said in an email. “I place my flour in a stainless-steel bowl, then put it into the freezer. I also place a small cup of water in the freezer and my lard in the freezer so all of the ingredients, my bowl and tools are extra cold. This keeps the lard (or butter) from breaking down.”
Heather Briggs, owner of Gold Star Pies, recommends refrigerating the dough for at least four hours. “Make sure it stays cold while working with it,” she said.
Mari Younkin, owner of Cuisine Contemporaine, follows the chilled ingredients rule and uses unsalted butter and at times chilled vodka instead of ice water.
Donna Poelstra, who owns Taste of Life Natural Market and Prepared Meals in Monument, is one expert who isn’t a proponent of cold ingredients.
“Making pies is really easy and fun,” she said. “It takes literally five minutes to make a pie crust from scratch. I don’t know why anyone would ever buy ready-made ones.”
Her secret? Vegetable oil. And it’s not chilled.
“This is the pie crust recipe my mother taught me,” Poelstra said. “I rate a pie by its crust. If it’s thick and tough, it’s not worth the calories. I like a crust that is flaky and lightly browned.” Her recipe calls for four ingredients mixed together, shaped into a flattened round and chilled for 15 minutes. Then the dough is rolled into a circle and fitted into the pie dish.
Other key steps
“As far as tips for making traditional pies, stop buying canned pumpkin,” Smith said. “You can roast your own sugar pumpkin by cutting it in half, putting it on a baking sheet and roasting it at 375 degrees until it’s soft. Then throw the cooked pumpkin meat in the food processor and use that instead of the canned. It makes a huge difference in flavor.
Pecan pies can be a challenge to bake successfully at high altitude. Smith makes two adjustments. “I add an additional egg to help with structure, and I cook it until the center is 200 degrees,” she said. “This way, I go by temperature to make sure it sets rather than just guessing. And since our boiling point is lower, this step sometimes takes longer than we think it will.”
Try something different
If you’re suffering from pumpkin-spice everything, skip the traditional pumpkin pie. Younkin reaches for recipes such as sweet potato pie, rum raisin pie, cran-apple crumb pie, deep dish cherry bourbon pie and tri-berry pie.
“During the holidays, I also prepare slab pies and cobblers to accommodate larger gatherings,” she said.
Smith offered pie suggestions that veered far from traditional.
“We have a recipe for a cranberry orange crostada with candied oranges. Blood oranges if available,” Smith said. “It has all of that holiday pie flavor in a free-form crust. It might be my all-time favorite pie.”
For December’s holiday pies, she has two to recommend.
“The most popular pie I teach is the New Mexico style apple pie that features roasted chiles and pinon nuts,” she said. “It’s great for the holidays because it has the comfort of apple pie with a little something extra and some heat to warm you up. The other is 5-spice cream pie. Many people have Chinese 5-spice in their cabinets, and this is a fun and inventive way to use it. It has all of the classic holiday spices that makes it unexpectedly delicious.”
Smith has one final, unique tip: garnish your pie creation with smoked whipped cream.
“If you have the ability to cold smoke whipped cream with a cooking smoking gun or a cold smoker, I would suggest giving that a try,” she said. “Smoke the cream while cold and unwhipped, then rechill and whip. It’s smoky, decadent and delicious.”
Cooking smoking guns can be found online. The gadget has a wood chamber on top and a tube coming out of the barrel. To use, drop wood chips in the chamber, turn on the fan, ignite the chips with a flame and watch smoke billow from the tube to infuse smoke into the cold cream.