This November, as apples are picked, cranberries are plucked from their bogs, and canned pumpkin returns to stores, home bakers, naturally, have pie on the brain. And so, apparently, do professional bakers and cookbook authors—at least judging by the number of pie-focused cookbooks set to be released this season.
There are whole worlds of information to be discovered within the seemingly narrow topic: Take Pieometry by Lauren Ko, a self-taught baker whose modernist pie designs are an Instagram sensation. Her book will take you well beyond the classic lattice and encourage you to mix matcha or vibrant-hued butterfly pea powder with kiwi in your fillings.
Pieometry by Lauren Ko
For advice on classic pies and classic pie techniques, many bakers have long turned to Ken Haedrich, founder of The Pie Academy, an online educational community of pie bakers. Now, in a cookbook by the same name, Haedrich draws from a wide variety of American pie traditions in his collection of over 255 recipes. But it’s not all about the simple fruit pie: Pie Academy can teach you how to make watermelon rinds into a pie, how to whip up Depression-era pies filled with oats or Ritz crackers, and even how to turn other desserts like coffee cakes and brownies into excellent pies.
Maybe you learned how to frost a cake perfectly or even weave your first lattice from Erin Jeane McDowell in her first book The Fearless Baker or in one of her great recipes on the New York Times or Food52. In The Book on Pie, you’re invited to continue your baking education, but narrow in on pie. Go deep with puff pastries, master meringues, or learn the wonder of frybread crusts.
The Book on Pie by Erin McDowell
Just in time for pie season, we put these experts and varying pie perspectives in a (virtual) room to discuss pie tips and tricks, how to prep for holiday baking, and what they’ve learned in the thousands of successful (and failed) pies they’ve collectively baked. Plus, get some pie recipes from each baker’s new book.
Epicurious: The preferred fat in a pie crust is a long-running point of debate among bakers. Have you settled on a standard pie crust fat?
Ken Haedrich: I use eight tablespoons of butter and two tablespoons shortening (Crisco or lard), which I think helps to soften the dough a little bit. At the Pie Academy and on pie Facebook groups, everyone’s always complaining about their crimping: The flutes they make don’t stick, they relax. The little bit of shortening I put in acts as a muscle relaxer. It helps to actually keep your flutes in place. Butter crusts don’t hold their shape quite as well. Of course, feel free to disagree with me. I’d like to hear your opinions.
Old-Fashioned Shortening Pie Dough
Erin Jeanne McDowell: Well, I settled in the end on all butter because I like the flavor of butter best. But when I learned to bake pies with my grandma, it was 50/50 shortening and butter. That was how I learned! I agree with Ken; it’s still what I advise people, especially anyone who’s having consistent trouble. Shortening is also more forgiving. The melting point is higher than that of butter, so when people are working with it, it holds up better during the process of rolling and shaping.
I don’t totally agree, though, about the crimps holding their shape. I have found that this comes down entirely to how you manipulate the crust and the size of the butter. Large pieces of butter, as I like for a flakier crust, doesn’t hold its crimp quite as well as if you work it in a little bit more.
Lauren Ko I am also all-butter. I approach it from a practical standpoint. When I was first learning how to make pies, it was just, the fewer ingredients I had to buy and use the better. And I enjoy the flavor of all-butter pie crust better. For my designs, especially the ones that require a little more weaving and a little more time, I find that all-butter crust is a little more durable while still flaky and tender. Anytime I try to use or incorporate shortening into my pie, it becomes just a little bit too tender, and those dough strips don’t hold as well for a design process that might take a little bit longer.
EJM: I do have a dairy-free crust in my book that uses my preferred shortening because there are so many pies that are naturally vegan if the crust is not made with butter. So as much as butter reigns supreme in my world, I’m still an equal-opportunity fat supporter. I like all of them. Sometimes I use cream cheese. I even have a pie crust where I use peanut butter.
Epicurious: What is your No. 1 tip for perfecting pies for the upcoming holidays?
KH: It’s amazing, the number of people who will make a pie for the first time for Thanksgiving or Christmas. They’ll put total faith in themselves that they can make this pie, having never done it before. You admire someone like that for their pluck, but on the other hand I would never do that if I hadn’t made it at least once before just to test the waters. I’d recommend some practice pies.
EM: My number one tip for Thanksgiving, which is a custard-pie-heavy holiday, especially, is that they should parbake their crust, which prevents having a soggy bottom. A lot of people skip parbaking because they view it as an extra step, but you can parbake a full 24 hours ahead of time, because you’re going to be baking the pie again, and the crust is going to sort of refresh during that second bake. That’s a thing I check off my list two days early: I can have my crust made and then I can parbaked, and then all I’m going to have to do then is dump the custard in and finish baking.
Caramel-Earl Grey Custard Pie in Gingersnap Crumb Crust
Erin Jeanne McDowell
Epicurious: Do you have any special pie tools you’d recommend?
KH: One tool that everyone tries to steal from me every time we do our pie getaways is this flour shaker from Pampered Chef that I use when I’m rolling out dough.
Pampered Chef Powdered Sugar Shaker
EM: I know exactly the shaker you’re talking about! Such a great idea. My number one tool is some form of pie weights for parbaking, whether you use dried beans or whether you buy pie weights.
Ceramic Pie Weights
LK: I have an eight-shape cutter set from Ateco. Even if your pie flavors are pretty classic, or whatever you’re doing is very traditional, adding some geometric shapes or patterns can be a fun way to kind of spice things up and make things a little bit special for the holidays.
Ateco Geometric Shapes Cutters in Graduated Sizes
Epicurious: What are your strategies for spreading pie prep over multiple days?
LK: My least favorite part of the pie making process is making dough. I just find it really tedious and boring and manual, so usually I make a huge batch of dough, like 10 disks at a time, wrap them up in plastic, and freeze them. Splitting up the process can make it feel a lot less arduous, and because dough freezes really well (it keeps for 3–6 months), it’s easy to stockpile and slowly build up your stash.
KH: I don’t like measuring things so much, especially with the dry ingredients. So I get out a lot of quart size freezer bags, and I’ll put the dry ingredients I need for a single batch of crust in each bag. I’ll just do 10 of these at a time. It just makes so much more sense than measuring things and washing up every time. There’s sort of like this mental obstacle that you jump over just by having those bags in the freezer, where you can see them and think, Oh, now it’s easy to make a pie, just because those bags are sitting there.
EM: This is so funny because making the pie dough is my favorite part of the process. I even like it more than eating the pie. When I think of the part I want to do ahead, I always think of the other aspects.
There are a lot of fillings that you can prepare ahead. Sometimes, when I’m making a lot of pies for a holiday, I’ll make sure that there are a couple of fillings I can do ahead of time. My favorite filling to do ahead of time is pre-cooked fruit fillings. When you pre-cook a fruit filling, then it can sit in the refrigerator or some of them can even be frozen, depending on the method. Now that you’ve got your filling made, on the day of serving and of baking, all you’re really doing is assembly. And when you can focus on the assembly, that’s when you get those especially pretty pies, because you’re not, just as Ken is saying, measuring lots of things and mixing everything together last minute.
LK: You can also always freeze a full crust in a pie tin, crimped end everything. Or you can even freeze an entire pie that way, if you’re cooking an entire Thanksgiving meal. All you have to do is pull the pie out and bake it straight from the freezer. For a lot of my punch-out crust designs, I’ll roll it out, cut pieces out, and freeze that crust solid on a baking sheet.
Epicurious: Could you describe your creative process for coming up with new pies?
EM: I like to take notes with me nearly everywhere I go, and I take lots of pictures. I have a pie in my new book that has this raspberry meringue that’s pink that was inspired by a cloud. I looked at the sky and said, “Look at this amazing pink cloud! I can make meringue that looks like that!”
One of my favorite things to do is just think of a pie that doesn’t exist that I wish existed, because I really love pie, so I like to think about all kinds of flavors almost like a challenge. Some of my favorites are often savory. And many of my recipes are inspired by people I know saying to me, “I’ve never had a plum pie,” or something similar. The next thing I know, I’m kind of creating pies for all these different people in my life. I could almost give the pies in my new book names of the people that inspired them. There’s a lot of customizing, and a lot of possibilities. Pie-ssibilities, dare I say.
KH: Back when I lived in New Hampshire, right down the street, in a secret location that I would never tell anybody, I found a few bushes that were wild currants. Wild currants are very hard to come by, and I learned that I had enough to make a couple of pies a year. So, you know, sometimes my inspiration will be based on fruit that comes to me or is near me.
When I lived in Annapolis, we were tailgating a Navy Midshipmen football game, and someone said to me, “Well what kind of pie did you bring?” Because it was a very cold day, she said “I hope it’s something warm, it’s got some heat in it, maybe like jalapeños?” I started playing around hot pepper jelly for some of my pies in place of much of the sweetener. It really worked well. That was a good 10 years ago, and ever since I’ve been making apple and pear pies with jalapeño jelly. I’ve got two recipes like that in the new book. That’s sort of how it happens.
EM: Oh my gosh, I can’t wait to try that recipe. I love hot pepper jelly.
LK: My process is often driven by what I have on hand, whatever is in season or on sale at the store. And, as Erin mentioned, just trying to figure out how to take flavors and make them a little different or find combinations that are original, or maybe outside of the box. I take inspiration from what I have in the spice cabinet, or flavors that I grew up eating, and other dishes. In terms of design inspiration, I’m inspired by my environment and things that are around me. I have pies in my book that are inspired by bamboo purses, patio furniture, and bathroom tiles.
Happy As a Gram Tart
Epicurious: Is there an occasion you’d have trouble thinking of a pie for?
EM: I still have stubborn people in my life who like to say they don’t like pie. What is the pie that I could serve them to change their minds?
LK: A brownie pie is a gateway drug to pie, because it’s two desserts in one. You’re kind of sneaking the pie in, kind of like parents trying to feed their kids vegetables. Or, just go the other route with savory pies, which subtly builds that love for pie.
KH: Whenever I read somebody writing about pies and cakes, they usually try to divide the world between pie and cake people. I was thinking, if your friend doesn’t like pie, maybe they’re a cake person. So what’s the cakeist pie that I could possibly come up with? And what I came up with is sawdust pie. It’s very cakey, that’s probably perfect for somebody who doesn’t really go in for a fruit, custard, or nut pie.
Okay, here’s mine: I’m always kind of overwhelmed by friends who have a lot of different food allergies and restrictions. If I were to have a dinner party with somebody who is vegan, somebody who is gluten free, and somebody else is allergic to nuts, what can I make?
EM: Something that’s really fun when you have people with a lot of different restrictions is to just bake the crust separately and serve it with a couple of different jams, compotes, whipped cream, and different things. People can kind of build these little pie bowls. This way, you could still experiment with having a couple of different options without having to make three or four full pies.
KH: For my pie problem, every January, I’m invited to a big oyster roast at a friend’s house. I’m never quite sure what dessert would work for an oyster roast.
EM: I want an invite to this oyster party! Recently, I made pies in a muffin pan, so they were miniature. And then I filled them with a really simple lemony custard. I’d bring something like that could be so great in an oyster roast, because the pie would be handheld, just like the oysters that you’re slurping down. They could just kind of be easy to go from one thing to another.
Epicurious: What tips would you recommend for home bakers sharing pies with others during this pandemic?
KH: I would buy some nice little pie slice boxes and bake a nice sturdy pie (not a gooey or creamy pie) to put it in one of those boxes. And I will put a little note in there for somebody that would say, “Nice to know you’re there even though I can’t spend a lot of time with you.” Something like that could just brighten somebody’s day.
Lidded Pie Slice Boxes, Set of 8
EM: I love that! I also use those slice boxes. Because I tend to have about eight pies minimum in the house at any given time, I’ve gotten into the habit of making these pie sampler plates where I cut my pies into eight and everyone gets like a slice of different ones.
Another thing that I like to do to encourage my friends to start baking pie is sometimes I gift a pie sampler in a pie plate that I don’t necessarily want back, in the hopes that they will bake a pie in the pie plate.
Pyrex 9-inch Pie Dish, Pack of 2
LK: Something I’ve learned from having this email listserv, which is really just all my friends and neighbors, is that even if it doesn’t look fancy, people are really excited and grateful for a baked good that they didn’t have to make themselves. For anybody who’s looking to share what they’re making, I wouldn’t worry too much if it’s not perfect.
Epicurious: What pie trends do you think are upcoming, and do you wish were upcoming?
EM: I’ve been seeing a lot more playing with the dough instead of fillings and garnishes. People are literally treating the dough like either clay and they’re sculpting it or they’re treating it like a canvas and they’re painting on it. It’s actually really easy to paint pie: just take a little bit of food coloring and diluted with a little bit of alcohol and brush right on the pie crust and the color will linger. I’ve been making pies for a long time and they’ve never been this cool. I’ve never been scrolling through and been so shocked by so many different pies, but I think we’re just going to see more creativity and more people thinking outside the box, like Lauren does, showing us new ways that we didn’t know existed.
LK: My style is colorful, geometric, modern, but I can see people incorporating other art styles like Impressionism—or whatever else—that you can apply color and technique to a pie surface. It’s an ideal canvas.
KH: One trend I’d like to see is crusts made with different whole grain flours. I have three different crust in the new pie book (oats, cornmeal, and whole wheat). Pie, which we don’t think of as healthy, can have redeeming health qualities, and using whole grains is a good boost for that.
Pie is a very grounding thing, a very tactile thing; it carves out space to get out of your head and not think. You can’t believe the number of emails I’ve gotten from people with mind-numbing office jobs who are now into pie making. They’re just so happy to have this to do on the weekend.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious