Pie pairs perfectly with the spirit of the holidays

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By: Marshall V. King
mking@flavor574.com

Photo supplied/Justin T. Gellerson

When Emily Hilliard goes to a gathering with food, her friends expect her to bring a pie — and sometimes more than one.

There are often “oohs” and “ahhs,” she said, but her friends seldom critique her baking. It’s tough to criticize an expert, and there’s rarely such a thing as bad pie.

This weekend, Hilliard baked 15 pies for a friend’s wedding — with some help from other friends.

She made apple pie, and pumpkin pie with bourbon and molasses, and pecan pie that has brown sugar instead of corn syrup.

“Pie demands to be shared.”

Hilliard is an Elkhart native who grew up eating her grandmother’s pies, her mother’s pies. She graduated from Elkhart Central in 2001 and went to the University of Michigan. After graduating from there, she and friends started baking together using berries from trees around Ann Arbor. She moved to Vermont and kept baking and started a pie blog in 2005 called Nothing in the House.

She worked in sustainable agriculture, but thought she’d write about music instead of food after getting a degree in folklore. Turns out, she’s still writing a lot about pie.

She’s interested in traditional culture and folklore, home cooking, women’s domestic creativity and regional differences. “Pie for me, I think, connects a lot of those interests,” she said.

It takes time to make pie, and how it’s eaten has meaning for Hilliard.

“Pie demands to be shared,” she said. You cut it into six or eight slices and rarely eat them all. Unlike a cupcake, it’s rare that someone eats a piece of pie all by herself.

Sharing food generates stories, and sharing stories becomes part of eating pie. “It’s this special kind of storied food,” Hilliard said.

In her family, making pie was a tradition. Her mother Jacque and other family members made pie. Her mom’s crust recipe used Crisco. When Hilliard starting making a butter crust, she was scared to tell her mother. Eventually, though, her mother came to use the recipe too, Hilliard said.

Tips from Emily Hilliard on pie making

  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re making pie. That’s a grand experiment and tradition. “And pie is rarely bad,” she said.
  • Use cold, cold butter. That leads to a flaky crust. If your butter gets warm, the crust won’t be as good.
  • Don’t knead or overmix the crust. It’s fine to have lumps of butter or lard.
  • Follow your instincts. Even if you’ve never made a pie, follow a good recipe. As you get more confident, you can experiment.
  • Make more than one. “It’s not necessarily about the first pie. Maybe your first pie is going to be awesome. But it’s about the practice,” she said.

Hilliard makes an average of two pies a month. She likes galettes made with a bit of crust and a simple filling of savory items or apples and sugar. She can make just about anything, including a “show stopper”: banana cream with salty bourbon caramel.

“I’m more of a fruit person, but people really respond to multi-step layered sort of things,” she said.

She’s been loving the Cranberry Chess Pie adapted from Hoosier Mama because the “creamy, sweet, buttery custard” goes with the tart of the cranberry. “It’s so good,” she said.

Hilliard uses pie to look back at how people live and eat without putting too much weight on the pie. “I think that sometimes – and especially these days – food can become too precious,” she said. “I don’t want to discount it either, but I’m also wary when food, pie, whatever it is, becomes too precious and we’re asking it to do too much.”

Pie takes time to make, but not matter how good it is, we’ll get hungry tomorrow. “You can’t let it get too lofty,” she said.

Thanksgiving is coming and then Christmas. It’s the perfect time for pie. (Though, to be fair, there is no bad time for pie.)

If I could only eat one food the rest of my life, it’d be pie. That’s a grand statement, but pie can be savory or sweet and varied in form. Technically, an empanada and a quiche are both pies. So is pizza. My dear friend Trennis Yoder used to say his favorite kind of pie was the one he was eating, and I’d concur.

I plan to make pie in the coming weeks. I won’t be alone. I’m grateful to folks like my mother, like Elizabeth Yoder, and like Hilliard who can help guide me.

When Hilliard comes home for Christmas, she’ll be in the kitchen with her family. “When we make food as a family, it’s very communal,” she said. She usually makes pies alone, but at the holidays, she’ll be working on the crust and filling with family.

“To me, that’s really nice,” she said.

And of course, when the pie is done, they’ll also eat it together.

“One thing about pie is it sort of demands that you sit down and eat it and share it,” she said.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.

Have pie to share?

We’d love to get your best pie recipe or story as the holidays approach. We’ll publish as many as we can on Flavor574.com and in The Elkhart Truth. (We wouldn’t refuse pie if you brought it to our office, but since we can’t publish a real pie, we’d have to eat it.)

You can send your pie jots, recipes or pics to mking@flavor574.com or send them along via social media or in comments on this story.

If you need help finding a Thanksgiving pie recipe, Emily Hilliard has some great suggestions on her blog. If crust is your weakness, try this recipe.

Nothing in the House Pie Crust
Used with permission from Emily Hilliard.

This is the standard crust recipe I use (unless otherwise indicated) for most pies that call for a pastry crust. It makes enough for one double-crust pie. If you only need a single crust, halve the recipe or make a full recipe and save half of the dough for a future pie by wrapping it tightly in plastic wrap and storing it the freezer or fridge.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (or 1 cup all-purpose + 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour*)
  • ½ tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1½ sticks COLD unsalted butter (12 tablespoons), cut into slices
  • ½ beaten large egg, cold (save the other half to brush on top of the crust)
  • ¼ cup ice-cold water
  • ½ tablespoon cold apple cider vinegar (I keep mine in the fridge)

*If you use whole wheat pastry flour, you may need to add additional liquid.

Directions

  1. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Using a pastry cutter or fork and knife, cut in the butter. You want to make sure butter chunks remain, as that’s what makes the crust flaky.
  2. In a separate small bowl, whisk together the COLD liquid ingredients (Using cold liquids ensures that your butter will not melt–another crucial detail for a flaky crust!).
  3. Pour the liquid mixture into the flour-butter mixture and combine using a wooden spoon. Mix until dough comes together, but is not overly mixed (it should be a little shaggy). Form into a ball, wrap tightly with plastic wrap, and let chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour before rolling out.
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