My mother grew up in depression era Iowa, the oldest of 3 daughters of a Share Cropper. She milked cows before going to school and again as soon as she came home. Her 2 best friends were a pig named “Herk” and a mule by the name of “Coley”.
My grandmother was an old school, meat and potatoes farm-wife cook. You woke up to a hot breakfast, came into a good lunch and at 6 o’clock a filling supper with sliced bread on the table and always a pie for dessert. My favorite part of supper was knowing I would be able to dig into that yummy, mouthwatering pie and be in food heaven.
I watched my mom very closely when she cooked. I wanted to be just as good a cook when I grew up. I remembered the coffee she put in every beef pot roast, that is now my “secret ingredient” in my pot roasts. The fluffy pancakes she would make every Sunday morning with lots of hot coffee for the grown-ups and milk for my sister and I. The thing I loved the most was company coming over. Whether it was my dad’s fishing chums, a neighbor or family members; everyone was welcome. There was always a cake, pie or cookies of some sort for them to sit around the living room and enjoy with a hot cup of coffee.
I loved watching my mother roll pie dough. She would dust our kitchen table with flour, use a fork to take out a ball of dough from her mixing bowl and lay it down in the flour. Never handling it too much. “You don’t want to ‘Mother’ that pie dough to death or it’ll be so tough, it won’t be fit to eat!” She would always give me tips of how to handle pie dough the right way making sure I knew it wasn’t bread dough.
Making pie was like second nature to her as I’m sure it was with most women her age. Her recipe was the basic Betty Crocker pie dough recipe. Flour, salt, lard (Crisco at our house) and of course, Ice water. Her wire pastry blender was so old and beat up from making a life time pie crusts that the red paint on the wooden handle was nearly worn through. Her rolling pin was never washed, but only wiped down with a clean cloth. She would stand at the table, cutting in the dry ingredients while turning the bowl and only looking down a couple times while watching Merv Griffin opening his show with some sort of crooner-type love song. Of course the front of her apron always had two hand sized spots of flour on them because a dish towel wasn’t handy.
She had 2 very old tin pie pans that my sister still uses to this day. “Juice Saver” pie pans that were deep dish and wider across than the normal clear glass Pyrex Pie Plates. Her pies were mouthwatering, juicy and the crusts were perfectly flaky. At least in the eyes of a 10 year old tom boy girl.
I made my very first pie the year the Mount St. Helens erupted. In 1980 I was a freshman in high school. It was a blueberry pie for my dad’s work picnic and boy was it UGLY! The blueberry juice had bubbled up through the steam slits leaving dark purple puddles on the crust and it seeped out through the edges where it hadn’t been sealed properly. Ugh…mom said “It’ll be fine”, which was her generic answer to what ever it was which was clearly NOT fine. I put it out on a table at the picnic, one of the ladies sliced and served it with juice running everywhere due to my not adding enough flour in to the filling mixture to thicken it. We took three quarters of it home and it ended up being a nice treat for our chickens that evening when my sister fed them.
Fast forward 20 years in my own kitchen. I had gathered together all the gadgets I needed to mix my pie dough. A rolling pin which I had broken in on many batches of cut-out cookies, an old wire pastry blender I was lucky enough to find at a swap meet. It was like my mom’s, accept mine has a little tab at the end of the handle to put your thumb on. I had a beautiful cranberry Pyrex bowl to mix my dough in and I was ready to go. I had tried my best to make a pie dough that I was happy with, trying not to “Mother” the dough too much while mixing it. I tried recipes that had ingredients like vinegar, mayonnaise even eggs. Nothing was as good as what I remembered my mom’s pie crust tasting like. Finally I saw a recipe for pie crust that called for milk.
I decided to go for it. I didn’t like the taste of regular Crisco. I wanted to try the Butter Flavored kind. Wow! What a difference in taste that made! Changing the liquid to milk, I was really starting to like this new recipe. I also started rolling my pie dough out onto a flour sack type dish towel. I sprinkled flour onto it and rolled out my dough. It made it way easier to control my rolling surface and clean up was a snap. It was also easier to take the towel out into the front yard and shake out the flour and bits of raw pie dough for the dogs and little birds to enjoy.
I tried to remember how my mom had put it all together. How did she crimp the edges? How many slits in the top do I need? I checked out cookbooks and looked at pies in the bakery sections of Costco and Safeway. The one thing which stood out in my mind, really made me say “Holy Crap!” was Turbinado Sugar. More commonly known as “Sugar in the Raw”. The sugar crystals are much bigger and have a slight Carmel color to them. Sprinkled on top of these bakery pies gave them a “finished” look; as though the baker actually CARED about the finished product. So after a light spray of water from a water bottle, I sprinkled the Turbinado Sugar lightly all around the raw dough and decided on cutting 6 slits in the top of the pie. I decided on this amount as they could also serve as cutting guides. I suppose other people would cut 8 slits for smaller pieces. I would rather a person enjoying pie and coffee in my home get a good, hearty piece that will give them something to come back for like my mom’s did with her guests.
At the time when I started to experiment with making pies, all I had were metal pie pans. The dough was good, but didn’t seem like it was getting brown enough on the bottom. This is when I discovered Crockery Pie Plates. Ones that had been made of clay on a potters wheel. I have 4 or 5 of these beautiful pie plates. They’re spendy, but well worth the money as the finished product is so nice. I experimented with different pies and found my new pie dough recipe along with baking them in the crockery pie plates was an absolute winner. The smell of a pie cooking makes the whole house happy. Cracking a window or opening your front door allows that smell to waft out into the world. Driving up our driveway and smelling that good smell of pie baking is a treat in its self. Walking over to the kitchen and seeing that beautiful pie plate with a yummy looking creation in it is just icing on the cake! The flaky crust, the little bits of crystals reflecting on top and a peek into one of the steam slits seeing a piece of apple, cherry or strawberry gets your mouth watering and ready for that first scrumptious bite.
After what seems like years, I have found my groove when it comes to pie crusts! The HOLY Grail of pastry! I love to watch a person eating my pie. Their eyes light up, they stop chewing and say “this is REALLY good”. It doesn’t taste like my moms pie. It does evoke the same reaction people had when eating her pie. People talk about my pies like they did hers. That’s as good as it gets for me. The feeling I get when people leave my home and I know they enjoyed their selves; that knowing the time they spent with us made them feel good. A full belly topped off with a delicious piece of pie will do it every time.
Miss Sarah’s Pie Crust
2 cups All Purpose Flour
1 cup butter flavor Crisco or regular butter (at room temp)
1 teaspoon salt (lessen this amount if you’d like)
1/4 to 1/3 cup milk (enough to make a workable dough)
Roll out 1/2 of the dough on a floured surface to 3″ bigger than your pie pan. Place dough in pie pan so that it falls over the edges of your pan. Fill with your choice of pie filling. Roll out second 1/2 of dough and place on top of filling. Fold dough away from you and under its self. Crimp how ever suits you. Spray or baste with water and sprinkle ample Sugar in the Raw on top. Bake at 400 degrees until juice bubbles and pie crust is golden brown.