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Patchwork Pie

by Jay Ann Cox

In the movie Michael, with Andie McDowell, John Travolta and William Hurt, there is a blissful moment. It is a scene wholly devoted to pie. Not only is there praise for and the ordering of many, many pies at a roadside diner, but Andie McDowell's character sings a country-western ditty all about pie. William Hurt's character falls for her right then and there, when she ends the song, "My oh my, I love pie."

I do, too. I love pie. I really do. Ask anyone who has invited me to dinner for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Fourth of July. I am nearly always the first one at the pie table. I learned how to wield the pie server at a tender age, and have a great deal of confidence teasing that first slice out. It's in the wrist, the filling, the crust, and the humidity in the air. And if something goes wrong and I don't deliver that first slice all pretty and perfect to my plate, I say something hilarious like, "I believe I'll just have some cobbler." And then I eat it, of course.

Patchwork Pie is my fondest dream during the holidays. It's not something that I've ever done, but I sure have wanted to. I keep thinking that maybe this Thanksgiving will be the one where I'll make a Patchwork Pie. All for me. I fantasize about there being enough pies at a big family dinner or gathering to make a whole new pie from each individual pie represented. Think of it as a United Nations for pie. Take a slice from each independent pie nation - apple, cherry, buttermilk, pecan, chocolate, pumpkin, lemon, berry - and create an entire pie in patchwork. Throw in a slice of cheesecake (it's just like pie, really), and I'm in a rapture not unlike my month-long swoon after Robert Kinney held my hand at summer camp.

I've been dreaming about this for years, and I think it can be done. If I baked and took enough pies to the Thanksgiving buffet, my pies combined with the others that are bound to show up could make Patchwork Pie a reality.

If I'm going to make four pies, then I'll need to figure out how many two-crust pies, lattice-work or custard shells I'll need. Do any of them need to be pre-baked? Can I freeze some pies and crusts to get a head start? Once the pastry plan is in place, I start thinking about fillings, bake times and how many eggs will be needed. Most pie fillings require either good fresh fruit or a number of pantry items that are easy to keep on hand.

The point is this: don't be afraid to bake a lot of pies. With time and experience, your pastry skills will improve, or you'll learn shortcuts. Above all, you don't have to kill yourself on the perfect pie crust. I know this is baker's heresy, but there are a number of excellent store-bought crusts available. You can buy one folded or already in a pie pan. I offer here a fine pie crust recipe, adapted from the most excellent Only Texas Cookbook by Linda West Eckhardt, which includes a cheat of egg to make the pastry come together nicely. I also think the pie section in Joy of Cooking is informative and encouraging.

Put your heart and soul into the filling because that's what matters. Don't scrimp now - use real ingredients and lots of them. Arrange the apple slices or pecan halves into a pretty formation if you like. Dust the top with nutmeg, allspice or cinnamon sugar, brush with an egg white or sugar glaze, carve your initials in the top crust. But for the sake of all that is holy, please do not resort to a canned pie filling. Any pie lover will tell you that the filling is the pie -- the crust is its tasty container. And if the crust you bake or buy turns out to be less than desirable, people will still eat the filling and be just as happy.

Besides, failed pie crusts are why graham cracker crusts were invented. Just put some crackers in a plastic bag and bash them into crumbs, mix with melted butter and press into a pan. Ta-daa - pie crust. This works with vanilla wafers and chocolate cookies, too. The trick with a crumb crust is to chill it thoroughly before filling so it will hold up well.

I include four gorgeous recipes for pies. Over the years, I have made these pies for family, a Pulitzer Prize winner, silent auction winners, church members, my future husband and even my mother-in-law. All hits, no misses. I'm batting 1000 on pie, and so can you (My secret? I eat the mistakes). Start with a refrigerator pie with a cookie crust, graduate to a pastry crust fruit pie, then go for the custard-type pies like pecan and chess.

Patchwork Pie is a utopian dream perhaps, but an attainable one. Bake lots of pies this season. Take photos of your good ones and include them in your holiday cards. The pie lovers in your life will understand and love you for it. Peace on earth. Eat pie today.

Chocolate Dream Pie

This pie is quick to prepare, but needs about two hours in the refrigerator before serving. Depending on the cookie crust, it is a dairy-free pie. Don't tell them it's made from tofu, but if you must, wait until after their eyes are rolling back in ecstasy.
  • 6-ounce bag semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1/3 cup strong espresso or coffee liqueur
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 pound silken tofu (from the produce section)
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 chocolate cookie crumb crust (make your own or buy it)
Melt chocolate in a double boiler with the espresso or liqueur. Stir in the vanilla. Put the tofu, melted chocolate and honey in the blender and combine until smooth. The mixture will be the color of chocolate mousse. Pour filling into pie crust. Decorate top with shaved chocolate or cookie crumbs. Refrigerate for two hours or until set. When serving, cut in smaller wedges as this pie is very rich.

No-Sweat Pie Crust
There are flakier, eggless recipes, but this one is good and mostly foolproof. Makes two 9-inch shells, or one double-crust pie.

  • 3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup butter, well-chilled
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 egg
  • 5-1/2 tablespoons icy water
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
In a mixing bowl, cut the shortening and butter into the flour until pea-sized lumps form. Beat egg, water and vinegar together slightly. Make a well in the flour mixture and add the liquid mix. Using your fingers, work quickly to form a ball. Divide dough in half and roll gently to the size you want. If the dough becomes too soft, chill it for a few minutes. The secret to flaky crust is little chunks of cold butter that don't quite get incorporated into the dough.

If you need a cooked pie shell (a "blind" crust), put the rolled-out dough into your pan, prick bottom and sides with a fork and bake for 8 minutes at 450 degrees, or until desired brownness.

Apple Walnut Rum Raisin Pie

Serve warm with a pitcher of heavy cream for drizzling over the top.
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1/3 cup raisins, soaked in white rum for 15 minutes
  • 5-6 good pie apples, cored, peeled, sliced (Braeburn, Granny Smith or Macintosh)
  • fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 to 1 cup sugar, depending on tartness of apples
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • cinnamon sugar
  • 2 unbaked pie crusts, one for the shell, one to lattice or as a top crust
Combine walnuts, raisins and apple slices in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle on lemon juice, sugar and salt, and let stand. Adjust sweetness by tasting. Arrange fruit in pie crust and dot with butter. Sprinkle with cinnamon (or cinnamon sugar). Add top crust, cut vents or create a lattice top from strips. Bake for 45 minutes in a 400Fdegree oven, or until crust is brown and fruit is bubbly. If you want to add a cinnamon sugar coat to the crust, sprinkle it during the last 15 minutes of baking time.

Buttermilk Chess Pie

An old-fashioned pie that tastes like baked eggnog, this recipe makes two 8-inch pies. Serve warm with strong Hawaiian coffee, but also good cold, eaten over the sink
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • dash nutmeg and allspice
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 unbaked 8-inch pie shells
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Chill prepared pie crusts until ready to fill. Using a hand mixer or stand mixer, cream butter and sugar. Add flour and combine. One at a time, beat in eggs well. Add the vanilla and spices to the buttermilk. Combine the two mixtures, stirring well. Pour into pie shell, dust with more nutmeg and bake for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350F degrees and bake for 35 minutes or until custard sets.

Sasha's Pecan Pie

  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup dark corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups pecan halves
  • 1 unbaked 10-inch pie shell
Prepare and chill your crust until you're ready to fill. Preheat the oven to 375F degrees.

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs until foamy, and set aside. In a saucepan, combine the sugar, salt and corn syrup. Heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened and no crystals remain. When syrup is ready, add the butter and stir until melted. Stir in the vanilla. Transfer heated mixture to the egg bowl a few spoonfuls at a time so that the eggs don't scramble. Add nuts and stir until thoroughly coated. Pour into prepared pie shell. If you have the time, arrange the nut halves by using a toothpick or chopstick to turn them over and around for the desired pattern. Bake for 40 minutes, or until the custard has set. Cool on a rack.

Very good served warm but runny. Best when cooled first, then warmed slightly in the microwave, and topped with fresh whipped cream. Achieve Nirvana with a scoop of Blue Bell Vanilla Bean a la mode.

Jay Ann Cox is a food writer and Texan, living in exile near Lizard Lodge, Arizona.

If you have questions about this article or the recipes, contact us at moc.gnikoocsaxet@nibrof_solkim.

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