Welcome to 2011, otherwise known as the "Year of the Pie." If ever there were a year to learn how to make pie or to expand your pie repertoire, this is it. Pie is hot right now. Hand pies, fried pies, pie on a stick, fruit pies, cream pies, you name it. Cupcakes are out. Pie is in. January 23 is National Pie Day (more info below), so you have a few more days to hone your pie-making skills.
The recipes in Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes, From Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan, are well outside the vernacular of pies generally made here in the Pacific Northwest. Sure, there are fruit pies and meringue-topped pies, but there is also an entire chapter on chocolate pies. Plus chess pie, vinegar pie, bean pies, sweet-potato pies, and more. Pies are to the South what microbrews are to the Pacific Northwest. Everyone makes them, and they are ubiquitous at every get-together, potluck, party, and cookout.
Just reading Southern Pies won't make you a pie-making pro. Author Nancie McDermott admits that the best way to learn how to make great pies is practice, practice, practice. There are recipes and tips for making pie crust--with butter, lard, shortening, and/or canola oil--with useful advice (roll out the crust between sheets of wax paper, for example). But you are also given a free pass to buy premade crust at the supermarket.
Recipes for the fillings are generally simple, though not not always detailed. I used Meyer lemons for the Shaker Lemon Pie (check back tomorrow for the recipe) and the recipe called for "2 medium lemons." Given the varying sizes of lemons at the grocery store, a weight or volume equivalent would have been helpful. In the directions, however, you are instructed to slice the lemons so "you can drape them over the knife blade like the watches in a Salvador Dali surrealistic painting," which is as detailed an instruction as I've ever read.
The simple pies that make up the bulk of the recipes in Southern Pies are easy enough to follow for the novice baker, even if some of the other recipes are more advanced. The chess pies--simple custard pies in dozens of variations--are a delicious way to practice your pie-making without spending a lot of money or time on ingredients. Eggs, sugar, evaporated milk or butter, a little flour, and some flavoring makes the most basic of chess pies. Add some cornmeal for a more traditional variation, or adjust the flavoring with vanilla, vinegar, lemon, or buttermilk.
Southern Pies isn't a book for beginning bakers, but if you are a beginner with enough motivation to learn how to make pies, it will get you on your way.
Read Part II of Cooking the Books, and a recipe from Southern Pies.
Join Pie Party 2011 on Sunday, January 23 from 6-9 p.m. at the Salmon Bay Eagles. This event for pie eaters, pie makers, and other pie enthusiasts includes a pie dinner, music, and readings about pie. $10 or a pie in hand gets you in the door. More details on Facebook.