Locally Grown Pie

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by Jill Lightner

Pie matters. It’s dessert, yes, which all by itself is enough to rate of high importance, but pie is also a symbol of just about everything that is good and true. When one sits down to eat a symbol, there are invisible high standards in mind, waiting to be exceeded. When one actually dares to bake such a symbol, a mighty chorus of advice sings out, challenging brave souls to mess with tradition.

I grew up in a household that believed five pies for four people was the only way to guarantee everyone got a fair share. (I also didn’t know that Libby’s canned pumpkin came in a single-pie size until I was 24.) Over the years, variations on the pie theme have come to be a primary source of holiday conversation. Unlike religion or politics, nobody ever argues over pie. We all have our favorite flavors and preferred recipes, and they’re viewed with tolerance and understanding. Stripped to its basics, pie requires four things: fat, flour and liquid for the crust, and a fruit or vegetable for the filling. Everything else is up for discussion.

The crust gets the most attention—because a bad pie crust is very bad, indeed. People have different ideas about whether crispness, flakiness, or tenderness is the highest priority in a perfect crust. Its precise shade of golden brown, or the relative attractiveness of the decorative edge? Nobody who loves pie judges by such superficial qualities.

I believe that butter is the best fat to use in a pie crust. Good butter gives an unbeatable flavor and a flaky-crisp texture that is my ultimate favorite crust, especially when eating cold slices of pie for breakfast the morning after a big holiday feast. Tremendously good butter is made in Bow, at Golden Glen Creamery—it’s lightly salted, supremely fresh, and wonderfully delicate, everything that the best butter needs to be.

Flour is the simplest ingredient, the one even the most dedicated bakers are likely to take for granted. Most flour is very precisely average, fulfilling its role without being actively pleasurable—one could even label it “boring.” In my grandmother’s day, the local grain mill was her town’s primary source of both jobs and charitable donations. She’s not around to ask, but I bet the flour she used was different than what’s on most shelves today. Perhaps it was more inconsistent, but also more capable of greatness—and certainly far too important to daily life to ever be boring.

Two Washington brands have proven themselves quite capable of achieving greatness. The first, more easily available flour is Shepherd’s Grain Washington White. It’s an all-purpose flour, grown by about 30 Northwest family farms using sustainable practices. It’s milled in Spokane, and found on numerous local grocery store shelves.

The second option is the fresh-milled, whole-grain flours from certified organic Bluebird Grain Farms in the Methow Valley. Whole grain flour bakes differently—it’s trickier to keep crust tender and flaky—but if you’re determined to sneak some nutrition into people who think pie makes a well-balanced meal all by itself, you won’t find a better flour.

All pie bakers have one secret they’re convinced helps them make good crust, so I’ll share mine: A pastry cloth and rolling pin cover. The idea is that the flour-sprinkled cloth prevents crust from sticking to your counter without letting it dry out from too much additional flour. My cloth—like my rolling pin—is currently on its third generation of bakers, which makes it the most cost-effective household purchase in existence.

The crust is what inspires pride, but the filling is the fun part. For pumpkin, I have been perfectly content with the simple two-pie-sized can of Libby’s I grew up with, but apple is a different story. Casual experiments proved exactly one thing: Apples are strangely untrustworthy. A raw apple might seem quite firm and tart, only to disintegrate into bland mush.

I ended up asking two apple experts—Les Price of Jones Creek Farms and Rose Merritt of Rosabella’s Garden Bakery (home of a locally famous five-pound apple pie)—and they both called out Gravensteins as being an exceptional pie apple. Price said, “The Gravenstein is the second-most bred apple of all (somewhere around 25 named strains), behind only the Red un-Delicious. The powers that be have tried to make it redder…Fortunately the breeders have not been successful and it still remains an ugly and luscious apple. ”

Merritt says, “The best of all pies are made by mixing varieties of apples. We almost always mix varieties such as Gravenstein and Jonagold together (that’s a summer apple mixed with a winter apple). ”

My favorite—which is so ugly it makes even the Gravenstein look lovely—is another grown by Jones Creek Farms: Bramley’s Seedling, a beloved British pie apple. The apple is squat and russety (a nice way of saying “blotchy brown”), and so tart it’s nearly inedible when raw. The Bramley is a perfect example of apple untrustworthiness: Who would expect an apple that looks and tastes so unpleasant would turn into a perfect pie? But it does, every time, for 200 years. Next year, Great Britain will celebrate Bramley’s Bicentennial, which will include the dedication of a Bramley-themed stained glass window (and for those planning a visit, Bramley Apple Pie Week will be October 4-11, 2009).

So yes, pie matters. Go forth bravely, and bake yourself one. Or several. Or make it an even dozen, and invite my family over.

Try our recipes for an all-butter crust, a sweet potato pie, and a trustworthy apple pie.

Jill Lightner edits Edible Seattle, loves to bake and writes the food blog locallygrowngirl.com. She has a special fondness for Tastykake lemon pies.

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