In the series Fear of Frying: Culinary Nightmares, food reporter Nina Barrett has done her part to tame some of the tasks that can make entering the kitchen so unnerving. She’s tackled knife sharpening, party throwing and egg boiling. For this installment, Barrett wraps up the series the way you might end a meal: with a slice of pie.
Once upon a time, there were three disobedient little pie crusts. Even as lumps of dough, they had behaved badly. This was odd since they had all come from a recipe in the otherwise reliable Joy of Cooking, with only the shortenings varied for experimental purposes. One was too moist and needed to be scraped up off the counter with a spatula. One was too dry and kept needing to be patched together where it fell apart. The third one might have been JUST RIGHT, but since it seems pretty clear that some Evil Pie Crust Fairy stood over my cradle years ago and placed a Pie Crust Curse on me, this one, too, looked a little half-baked.
Now, I had heard that somewhere in the suburbs of Chicago lived the Fairy Godmother of All Pastry. So I packed up the three disobedient pie crusts and drove and drove through the River Wood Forest Lake Glens of Chicagoland until I came to her cottage, nestled deep in the woods.
The Fairy Godmother beckoned me into her kitchen and introduced herself.
“My name is Gale Gand,” she said. “I’m the executive pastry chef and partner at Tru in Chicago, fancy-pants fine dining and Michelin star restaurant. And I’m also an author and a television personality, and I also have three kids so I’m a mom and wife. And a massive pie-baker.”
She pulled out a lump of dough she had made that morning, which had been chilling in her fridge. It contained half-butter and half-Crisco for shortening, plus the secret magic ingredient she learned about from her mother—who was, incidentally, the daughter of a chemist.
“And her secret to having a flaky pie crust,” she said, “is that she used a little bit of vinegar in her liquid. And vinegar is an acid, so it inhibits protein from developing into gluten, which is sort of what the enemy is in pie crust. That protein in wheat, if you agitate it, if you work it, if you warm it, turns to rubber, turns to gluten, which is good for bread and bad for pie. So you’re trying to inhibit those proteins from what they want to do naturally, which is get elastic.”
Her dough behaved perfectly as she rolled, staying supple and circular without sticking or cracking. Quick as a flash, she peeled six apples with a vegetable peeler and sliced them into chunks with a sharp knife. They happened to be Granny Smiths, but she told me that “my real favorite, and I feel like whispering this, because I judge a lot of pie contests, and I don’t want to give away every secret. But what I think makes the BEST apple, the very very best apple for an apple pie, are Honeycrisps. They’re fantastic! They’re expensive, so buy em on sale. But a lot of my summer apple pies and fall apple pies are made with Honeycrisps, and they’re terrific.”
She put cornstarch in the filling, along with brown sugar, salt, some spices, and the same Nielsen-Massey vanilla she uses in her signature root beer line. Then she dotted the mound of apples with chunks of butter, which she said would melt into the filling and give it the same velvety decadence as a fine French sauce. When she draped the top crust over the apples and crimped the edges into waves with her fingers, the pie looked just like the kind of granny cap the wolf is wearing when Little Red Riding Hood gets to her grandmother’s cottage. Then she spread heavy cream all over the top and sprinkled it with sugar.
“That part you can leave off,” she said. “That’s like the pastry chef in me that you know, wants a little more sparkle on the outside, wants a little more richness just when there might’ve not been enough butterfat. Let’s just add a LITTLE more.”
When her pie went into the oven for an hour, I brought the three disobedient pie crusts in for her to examine. The one where I had used half-butter and half Crisco was way too crumbly, like shortbread, she said. And the one where I had used half-butter and half virgin coconut oil was too greasy, she said—though the coconut flavor was great. But it turned out that the third one, where I’d used the secret ingredient our grandmothers used to swear by, was pretty magical after all.
“Thath a nith flake,” she said with her mouth full. “See the difference? That’s a nice flake.”
“You can see it when you break it,” I agreed.
“Yeah, it breaks differently,” she said. “See how it’s shearing in layers, kind of like mica? Versus the first one that sort of broke like a rock breaking in half.”
“I really like this one,” I said affectionately.
“I do too! We might have to switch,” she said. “That might be the lesson for today.”
Then her six-year-old twins, Ruby and Ella, got home from kindergarten just as Gale’s pie came out of the oven: magnificent, fragrant, and golden-brown, like the Princess of All Pies. But it was still too hot to eat, so Ruby began to nibble on the three disobedient little pie crusts.
“Good,” Ruby said, about the first one.
“Okay try the next one,” her mother said.
Ruby tried the second one. “Gooder,” she announced.
It didn’t seem to bother her that they hadn’t behaved the way they should have.
“This one and this one together, is even gooder,” she decided.
So maybe a pie doesn’t have to be perfect to live happily ever after. It just needs to be good enough to make people happy, when they come home.