July 2019, Bake #1: American Flag Pie
July 5, 2019
It was Independence Day, so I decided to make an AMERICAN FLAG PIE.
AMERICA! AW YEEEAAAAAAAH
There are a surprising number of American Flag Pie recipes online, but the ones I could find were all varients of the same thing: a two-filling pie with blueberry and strawberry-rhubarb. The blueberries occupy one quarter of the cake, and represent the field that the stars on the flag sit on. The strawberry-rhubarb fills in for the red stripes. The white stars and stripes are just cut-out bits of pie crust.
Look, I’m overexplaining this.
The recipe, you may notice is from King Arthur Flour. I am quickly becoming a KAF fanboi. (KAF is how people who are “in the know” refer to King Arthur Flour. This is how you know I am a SERIOUS BAKER)
We didn’t just have rhubarb lying around the house! So I had to go out and BUY some.
First off, let me say that I am a little obsessed with rhubarb. It is so great! First of all, it’s a VEGETABLE. So what the hell is it doing hanging out with a bunch of berries in a pie?
Vegetables are like the nerds of the culinary world. Fruit are the cool kids. And rhubarb? It’s like that one kid in high school who could hang out with the nerds on math team, but also kick it with the cool kids at … the sports game? The mall? I don’t really know where the cool kids congregated in high school. Because I WASN’T RHUBARB.
I was probably some kind of leafy green. Maybe kohlrabi? Let’s go with that.
Anyway, here are some more RHUBARB FACTS™:
- People grow it IN PITCH DARKNESS in a process known as “forcing” rhubarb (HOW METAL IS THAT?)
- There is a “rhubarb triangle” in Britain where dozens of chefs have entered and NEVER RETURNED (ok i made up that last bit)
- It can grow so fast in the darkness that it makes an eerie creaking and popping sound.
Rhubarb: super cool and great!
The rhubarb stalks I found were only half red, with the stem end fading toward green. I didn’t get a ton of rhubarb, so I needed to use pretty much the whole stalk.
In the final product, I feel the green chunks of rhubarb detracted from its handsome and dapper vibe. So in the future I think I will buy MOAR RHUBARB so that I can use just the red parts.
What, you may ask, will I do with the green parts that I do not use? Here is what: I will THROW THEM AWAY LIKE THE WASTREL I AM
(Aside: rhubarb leaves are poisonous and so you must cut them off before cooking with rhubarb les you end up POISONING ALL YOUR FRIENDS which will cause them to either HATE YOU FOREVER or DIE (or BOTH).)
(Aside 2: There are people on the internet who are apparently going through SO MUCH RHUBARB that they are worried about what to do with their leftover rhubarb leaves. If you are the sort of person who has too many rhubarb leaves, my recommendation to you is that the psychological exhilaration you will get from transgressively throwing them away will actually be HEALTHIER for both you and the world.)
Deep dish pie pans
I also had to buy a deep dish pie pan. From my online researches, I have discovered the there isn’t any strong standardization around what qualifies as a “deep dish” pan versus a regular one. The general consensus seems to be that 1 1/2-inches or deeper gets you into deep-dish territory, but people generally seem wishy-washy about this and different manufacturers use different standards so that even if you see the term “deep dish” in marketing materials, you don’t really know what you are getting.
I find this lack of standardization both distasteful and unprofessional. Cooking world: get your act together!
Mixing the pie crust
I’ve made pie crust before, and my go-to technique involves using a vodka/water mixture in the dough instead of simply water. The idea here is that alcohol in the vodka hydrates the dough but doesn’t develop the gluten, which is a good thing because apparently you don’t want to develop the gluten in your pie dough. Otherwise your pie crust will come out tough and chewy rather than dry and flaky, or something like that.
Anyway, the last time I made pie crust I was like 90% sure I was mixing the ingredients together wrong. And then I was 100% sure I was rolling out the dough SUPER wrong. So this time around I got advice from a friendly Russian lady.
I don’t have a pastry cutter, which means I had to cut the butter into the flour with two chilled knives, LIKE SOME KIND OF YAHOO. I definitely want to invest in a pastry cutter, because using knives is just Too Laborious.
The labor was exacerbated by the fact that every pie-making tutorial has put the fear of God into me that YOU NEED TO KEEP THE BUTTER COLD or else your pie will EXPLODE IN THE OVEN. That is a best-case scenario: if it doesn’t EXPLODE, then it will come out ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTING and anyone who is unfortunate enough to eat it will start crying TEARS OF BLOOD and SPEAKING IN TONGUES before soon becoming CATATONIC
(This is all definitely true and I encourage you to look online for the vast library of pie-making literature that describes all the above practically verbatim.)
To avoid this pie tragedy, my approach was to cycle between (a) cutting the butter into the flour for around 2 minutes, and (b) letting the in-progress dough cool in the fridge for around 10 minutes. I also made sure to freeze the knives I was working with, just for good measure! I was nothing if not THOROUGH.
I went through this cycle three or four times. Which means it took me the greater part of an hour just to cut the butter into the friggin’ flour. Whereas if I had a pastry cutter it would have taken maybe three minutes.
ACTION ITEM: Set up a test where I make three different pie crusts, paying varying levels of care and attention to how cold I keep the ingredients during mixing.
But so anyway, there’s that YouTube video with the nice Russian lady. I found this video very useful, because it taught me that my shortbread dough needs to be way more crumbly than I’ve historically made it.
She also demonstrates how to use a bench knife to collect the dough into a rectangle, and she has this nifty technique for smearing the dough with the palm of her hand. Her explanation is that this helps laminate the dough, which in turn makes it super flakey and delicious. I have no idea if this is true, but it sure SOUNDS smart!
(I find that, in general, you can say pretty much anything you want about making pie crust as long as it’s presented as being in the service of making the curst flakier. Heck, you could probably convince people to put CORN FLAKES in their pie crust because that would make it flakier—
Wait, what? Corn flake crusts are already totally a thing?
I … guess I shouldn’t be surprised???)
Rolling out the dough
Last time I made a pie, I had a really tough time rolling out the dough: it stuck to the counter and got all torn up as I worked with it. This time around I took a few tips I picked up from the internet, and they helped tremendously:
- Generously flouring the work surface, the rolling pin, and your hands.
- Frequently rotating the dough as I rolled it out.
- Keeping the rolling pin in the freezer before using it.
That last one is just something I made up, and I don’t really know if it helped. But rolling out the dough was no problem this time around, so now I will be freezing my rolling pins for the rest of my life.
Really, the whole process was quite easy! SUPER easy! Easy as …
puts on sunglasses
Wait, I’m not done with the dough yet
Transferring the big floppy circle of pie dough from my countertop to the pie plate was non-trivial. Fortunately, another internet trick saved the day! I folded the dough into a quarter-circle and transferred it into the pan before simply unfolding. The folded dough less floppy and easier to handle than the full round. As Emeril would say: BAM!
In addition to the bottom crust, I also had a smaller lump of dough from which I cut out the stars and stripes for the top of the pie. This process was a bit trickier than the crust, because (1) the recipe instructed me to roll my round puck of pie dough into a rectangle – a geometric impossibility – before cutting out my stars and stripes, and (2) I don’t have a star-shaped cookie-cutter, so I had to cut the stars out with a knife, meaning they turned out looking as if the stars in our night sky were fashioned by some kind of IMBECILE GOD (or at the very least a GOD WHO LACKS A STAR-SHAPED COOKIE CUTTER).
My major learning from this experience is that when rolling out dough, you need to consider the shape of dough you’ll ultimately want, and should thus form your starting shape accordingly. If you want to end up with a flat circle, shape your lump of dough into a cylindrical puck; when you roll it out, it will naturally flatten into a circle. Likewise, if you want a flat rectangle, start with something closer to a rectangular prism.
I don’t know if the above learning will actually work. It sounds like something that would work better in theory than in practice. But I guess I just need to try it and see.
Oh, and my other major learning is: if you want to make a star shape out of dough, get a star-shaped cookie-cutter.
Making the filling
The was my second experience making pie filling. I have been moderately surprised at how simple the filling is. You basically just take a bunch of fruit and throw sugar in there, and maybe some spices.
Oh! And also THICKENER.
I know I said I am a King Arthur Flour (a.k.a. KAF) fanboi, but you may momentarily rescind my fan credentials for I am about to whine about the EVIL CARTEL of BIG FLOUR.
KAF’s recipe calls for “Pie Filling Enhancer”. What is this inconspicuously generic-sounding ingredient?, you may ask. Some sort of well-standarized thickener that is common throughout the pie-making world, perhaps? Surely it could not be some kind of SPECIAL SECRET INGREDIENT sold only through the KAF store, an ingredient which, if not readily at hand, can only be substituted with another thickening ingredient – say, cornstarch – via a frustratingly fiddly set of mathematical involutions! Surely King Arthur Flour, a brand that invokes the doughty image of that legendary protector, would not risk its good name and sterling reputation by flexing its not-inconsiderable influence in the baking world to its own grubby commercial ends!
You can probably see where I’m going with this.
Here’s the thing. The recipe I was using called for Pie Filling Enhancer©. I didn’t have Pie Filling Enhancer®. Fortunately, KAF has a handy guide to help you calculate substitutions. Unfortunately, the guide is not particularly user-friendly.
In my case, I was using cornstarch as a substitute. As you can see by looking at the table, the amount of thickener you need varies with the type of fruit filling you’re using in your pie. My pie has two types of filling; therefore, I needed to use two different conversion ratios.
No problem! I was on math team! I can do this.
Oh, but wait: this conversion table is listed in volume measurements (i.e., teaspoons, tablespoons, and cups). I like to bake with weight measures (i.e., grams or ounces), because I have a kitchen scale and BY GOLLY I’m going to USE IT. So my recipe print-out is in units that are completely incompatable with this table.
No problem! I can re-print the recipe using volume measures. A bit annoying, but fine.
Oh, but wait: apparently KAF’s proprietary Pie Filling Enhancer®™ includes some kind of sweetener, which means you ALSO need to adjust the amount of sugar you use in your recipe when making a substitution.
No problem! I mean, I already poured the sugar, but the adjustment calls for MORE sugar, not less. I don’t have to, like, TAKE OUT sugar that I’ve already mixed with my rhubarb. I’ll just grab some sugar and calculate the adjustment …
Oh, but wait: the two columns in this conversion chart are inconsistent. If I use the left column in the blueberry conversion table, it says I need LESS cornstarch than Pie Filling Enhancer™©®. But if I use the right column, it says I need MORE cornstarch. (6 tbsp + 2 tsp is more than 1/3 cup, right??)
Um … no problem? I guess there’s just an error in the conversion table … ? I’ll use the ratio in the left column and … see if that works????
Oh my god, Greg, stop complaining and just tell us how the pie turned out
I would! Except I CAN’T. Because
I SPILLED IT
THE PIE, THAT IS
The brief story is: it was an American Flag pie and I wanted to eat the dang thing on Independence Day, so I put it in the fridge to get it to cool faster. (A pie like this is so liquidy that it really needs to properly set before you cut into it.) At some point I pulled it out of the fridge to check on it. It was still too warm, so I put it back in the fridge. As I turned to close the fridge door I suddenly heard a horrifying crashing sound, and a burst of fruity color appeared at my feet. The pie had spilled. I had not even gotten to taste it.
Now, before I continue, let me tell you something. I am not a proud person. But even I will not eat pie off of the floor. Even after baking a pie all afternoon long. Even if it IS America’s Independence Day. I have my standards.
Fortunately, there was SO MUCH pie on the floor that it was really more of a heap than a pure splatter. And a fundamental property of a heap is that the stuff at the top of the heap is elevated from the stuff at the bottom of the heap. Which is to say, the top layer of pie had not TECHNICALLY touched the floor. So I skimmed as much of this untainted crust and fruit filling as I could, and I ate it.
Like I said: I am not a proud person.
It was pretty tasty. At least, the little bit that I actually got to eat was pretty tasty. I think the crust turned out okay?
My main learning from this project is the critical importance of friction in baking, and prinicipally, the friction between an item of bakeware and the surface upon which it rests.
In particular, if you have a glass pie pan resting on a stainless steel cooling rack, then there’s not a whole lot of friction there; the pan is prone to sliding around. Therefore, you should rest your pie pan upon a textile or silicone potholder whenever possible.
Finally, I feel like having an American Flag pie topple and splatter to the ground on Independence Day is, like, a metaphor for something. Exactly what, I don’t care to think about too hard.