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The Pies of Texas

by Jennifer Farmer

It seems that the dessert most ordered in American restaurants today is pie.

And Texas restaurants are no exception. That does not seem odd when four out of five Americans claim that their mothers made the best pie. Pie, as we now know it, was perfected by American and British bakers in the nineteenth century, and the Greeks and Romans served covered pies 2000 years ago. But today's pie bears little resemblance to these original pies.

In the lean early years of New England, pumpkin "pyes" were simply whole pumpkins with the fiber and seeds scooped out, filled with milk and baked on an open hearth. As the Colonies prospered, pies became richer and more varied. When populations began spreading Southward and then Westward, creative cooks began putting the fruits and nuts that were native to these new areas into crusts, creating original, regional pies.

A pie is always served from the pan in which it is baked. Most pies consist of a layer of pastry dough or a crumb mixture lining a pan with sloped sides. The crust may be baked blind (with no filling) and then filled later, or the filling may be baked with the crust. The crust may be made from pastry dough or a type of baking powder biscuit dough. My favorite is a butter cookie dough.

Designs and techniques vary almost as much as flavors and fillings. There are nut pies, fruit pies, cobblers, cream pies, custard pies, appetizer pies and main course pies. I personally love the cream and custard varieties, but my mother made the best fruit pies and cobblers. It took me years to achieve the flaky tender piecrust that she made so effortlessly.

Pie making is a precise operation. Certain rules apply, and certain techniques must be well learned and followed faithfully. The secret of making good pastry lies in the way the dough is handled.

Here are a couple of basic piecrust recipes - one using butter, and the other using shortening. It is very hard to decide which is best, so I sometimes combine the two by using half butter and half-shortening or some other combination. Of course, there are as many piecrust recipes as there are pies themselves.

Ingredients for Basic Shortening Pastry

  • 2 cups flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2/3 cup shortening
  • ¼ cup cold water
OR

Ingredients for Basic Butter Pastry

  • 1-¼ cups flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 stick (½ cup) cold butter)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons Cold water
Measure the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. With a pastry blender, using an up and down chopping motion, thoroughly cut in shortening until particles are the size of peas. Sprinkle in water, tossing with fork after each addition. Mix lightly until all flour is moistened and dough almost cleans side of bowl. One to two additional teaspoons of water can be added if needed.

Gather dough together with hands, press firmly into a ball and handle like a snowball. Shape dough into flattened round on a lightly floured cloth covered board. Today you can easily use wax paper or parchment paper instead of cloth, but my mother says cloth still works best.

With a floured rolling pin, roll the dough from center to outside in all directions. Lift the rolling pin at edge of dough to prevent outer edge from becoming too thin. Keep the dough in a circular shape by pushing the edge in gently with slightly cupped hands. If edge begins to crack or break, pinch it together immediately. Lift the dough occasionally to make sure it is not sticking. If it does stick, carefully lift it and rub a little extra flour into the cloth. The dough should be about 1/8 inch thick and approximately 2 inches larger all around than the inverted pie pan.

Fold the pastry in quarters, place in pan and then unfold. Ease the dough gently into the pan and towards center by pressing with fingertips. This helps prevent stretching which causes shrinkage of pastry. Make the edge of the pastry even by rolling and folding edge under and fluting. Fluting is done by pinching pastry into "V" shaped points all around the edge.

Variations may include substituting lard for half of the butter or shortening for a tender, flaky, more rustic-tasting crust. For a richer dough, substitute a well-beaten egg or egg yolk for part of the liquid in the recipe.

Most people think of pie as dessert, but keep in mind that flaky bite-sized bits of pastry with cheese, shrimp, or other meat makes a delicious appetizer, and an egg pie filled with cheese, meat and vegetable is an enticing meal.

With all the wonderful delicious pies to choose from, it is difficult to pick just a couple to share but here goes. Since this is Texas, one cannot do without Pecan Pie.

Southern Pecan Pie

For the crust, I like to put in a bit of spice. To the regular crust recipe, add 2 tablespoons sugar, ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon, and 1/4 teaspoon, each, ground nutmeg and ground cloves.

For the filling:

  • 1 cup Dark corn syrup
  • 1 cup Sugar
  • 4 Large eggs
  • 1-½ teaspoons All-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon Salt
  • 1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
  • ½ stick (¼ cup) Butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons Bourbon whiskey
  • 2 cups Pecan halves or pieces
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a mixer until foamy, then add the sugar, syrup, flour, salt and vanilla and beat until well blended. Stir in butter and mix well. Arrange pecans in crust and pour filling over them. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until crust is done all the way through and center of pie is fluffy. There are many wonderful versions of pecan pie, and this is just one of them.

Peach Pie

For the filling:
  • ½ cup Sugar
  • 1 tablespoon All-purpose flour
  • 4 Large eggs
  • 1-½ cups Milk
  • 1 teaspoon Vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon Ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of Ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon Light rum
  • 5 or 6 Ripe peaches, sliced (canned or frozen work just fine)

For the whipped cream topping:

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons Sugar
  • 1 teaspoon Vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon Ground cinnamon, plus extra to sprinkle over whipped cream
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

To make filling, combine the sugar, flour and spices in a small bowl and stir well to mix. In another bowl, whisk the eggs until they are liquid, then whisk in the sugar mixture. Stir in the milk, vanilla and rum, and set aside.

Arrange peach slices in the crust and pour the custard filling over them. Skim the foam off mixture before pouring. Bake pie for about 45 minutes until crust is baked through and the filling is set.

To finish the pie, whip the cream with the sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon. Spread the cream over the filling, making sure it touches the edge of the crust all around. Sprinkle with cinnamon.

Here is one that is a sure-fire hit with kits.

The Crustless Brownie Pie

  • 2/3 cup Unsweetened cocoa powder
  • ½ cup All-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon Baking powder
  • ½ cup Light brown sugar
  • ½ cup Granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup Vegetable oil
  • 4 Egg whites
  • 2 teaspoons Vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons Chopped pecans or walnuts (optional or vary with other nuts)
  • Gently sweetened whipped cream for garnish
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Spray an 8-inch pie plate with cooking spray. In a large bowl, combine the cocoa, flour and baking powder. In another bowl, whisk together both sugars, oil, egg whites and vanilla until blended. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture, and stir until blended. Pour into prepared pan and sprinkle with nuts. Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes. Cool, garnish and serve, or serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Lemon Meringue Pie

For the filling:
  • 1 cup plus 6 tablespoons Sugar
  • ¼ cup Cornstarch
  • ¼ teaspoon Salt
  • 1-½ cups Boiling water
  • 2 teaspoons Grated lemon zest
  • 1/3 cup Fresh lemon juice
  • 3 Large eggs, separated
  • 2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

In a heavy saucepan, combine 1 cup of the sugar, the cornstarch and the salt and mix until well blended. Gradually add the boiling water, stirring constantly, and cook over moderate heat until the mixture thickens. Add the lemon zest and juice and stir.

In a small bowl, lightly beat the egg yolks. Add a small amount of the lemon mixture to the egg yolks, stirring constantly, then pour the egg mixture into the lemon mixture. Add the butter and continue cooking until the mixture is very thick. Pour into a baked shell.

In a bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until foamy, then gradually add the remaining 6 tablespoons sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. With a spatula, cover the pie with meringue, sealing to the edges. With a spoon, make a few peaks in the meringue.

Bake just until the top browns slightly. Cool before serving.

I have a small chef's torch that I use to brown the meringue on my pies, so if you have access to one, do not be afraid to use it.

I hope this helps to get you started on some Texas pies. We must not forget fried peach pie, crumbly apple pie and, of course, peach cobbler, but those will have to wait for now. Until then, happy pie baking Texas style.


Jennifer Farmer is a pastry chef living in Austin, Texas.
Online Since 1997
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