Friday, June 14, 2019

Easy as Pie

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

This spring, I’ve shared artifacts, documents and stories from our museum with more than 1,500 students. They’re developing a better understanding of what’s inside a History Museum. They’re also learning that everyone and everything has a story. Many stories are known, while some are still waiting to be discovered. These stories are important because they act like glue to stick facts together into a form we can remember, and help us make sense of things. Through these stories, we can also learn more about our own histories.

My own story includes pie. I come from a long line of mid-western pie makers. It doesn’t matter if the pie is sweet or savory, for dessert or as a main dish, pies are popular in my house. Our museum has some great examples of both pie artifacts and documents.  
Segmented pie cutter
 For example, here’s a pie pan and segment cutter to easily and fairly divide slices. This means the slices are all the same, a bust to dieters or those wanting an extra big piece. Bakeries and restaurants use a device like this to eliminate guesswork and make serving slices easy. 

Another artifact from our collection useful in making pies is this wooden rolling pin. The handles are smooth and worn, a testament to a lot of use.
Wooden rolling pin, late 19th Century

While I don’t use a pie segment cutter, I do use a rolling pin and I learned pie making from my Indiana grandmother. Like many women of her time,
Proud Elmira Pie maker, c. 1900
my grandmother was a sturdy, can-do woman, much like the woman pictured here. This image captures that similar attitude well. My grandmother was a homemaker, and her pie-making skills were the stuff of family legend. One legend involved her making over forty Thanksgiving pies and using the hood of my grandfather’s car as a cooling rack.

When it came to making pie crusts, she had two rules she followed. She passed these rules down to my mother, and to me, and in my own family, I’ve insisted both my son and daughter learn how to make a decent pie crust. 

Grandma’s Two Rules
First, one of my grandmother’s rules was, even if making a pie with two crusts, it’s best to mix each crust separately rather than doubling a recipe. She felt this gave a baker more control over the ingredients. Her second rule concerned which ingredients to use. She swore that using solid vegetable oil guaranteed her the best success when it came to making a flaky pie crust, and always used Crisco. Today there are good organic substitutes you can find with similar consistencies that work well. Whichever fat you choose, throw a couple of ice cubes in the water to keep your fat cool as long as possible. This helps make your dough easy to handle and roll out. No worries if it’s a warm day, you can just pop the dough into the refrigerator for 20 minutes to chill before you roll it out. 

I also follow the rule that using the right tools helps.

The Right Tools
In addition to using a large enough bowl to mix in, and a good rolling pin like the example above, use a pastry cutter to cut the solid fat into the flour mixture.
Example of pastry blender
A pastry blender acts like small knives to cut and break up your ingredients. The key to using this tool is to press down, then turn your wrist slightly clockwise as you lift up. Mix in your ice-cold water a tablespoon at a time and keep adding water until the dough starts to clump together. Using your hands, press this into a ball. Next, dust the table surface and your rolling pin with flour. Take your dough and place it in the center of your table. Press it into a fat disc, then begin to roll it flat starting from the center.
The baker in our photograph demonstrates how to lean in and put pressure on her rolling pin while she rolls out her dough. Notice the bowl nearby allowing her to add more flour to dust the dough or rolling pin if either become sticky. 

Another proud Elmira Pie maker, early 1900s
Crusts can seem hard but become easier with practice. If you’d rather just eat pie, you can always pick up a pie from your favorite local bakery. While a search of Elmira’s business directory from 1857 lists four professional bakers, by the early 20th Century there were nineteen bakers listed. Here, this 1901 picture of Rhoades Bakery shows a crew of bakers posing with pies.
Rhoades Bakery workers, Elmira, 1901

Today we have a lot of options. But baking or buying, it's always time for pie!

Basic Pie Dough
(Makes one 9-10 inch crust)
1 cup plus 1-2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour, keep some extra in case things get sticky
1/3 cup solid vegetable shortening
½ teaspoon salt
3-5 Tablespoons ice water
Blend dry ingredients first, then using a pastry blender cut the mixture while adding the ice water a tablespoon at a time until desired consistency. Gather into a ball, and roll out.

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