“You can cry or die or just bake pies all day.” – From “Making Pies” by Patty Griffin
After our friend Amy Hild died in a car crash late February, I baked a pie and wrote this post about baking feelings into pies. Grief can seem like a monster or feel like riding a wave and we’re all dealing with it in our own ways. One thing I learned is that I am not the only one who finds solace in baking. My friend Shannon connected with the post and coordinated a trip to Cristen Clark’s home near Des Moines for a pie baking workshop last week.
Cristen Clark writes Food & Swine. She and her family grow crops and raise hogs on their farm. In her free time, Cristen enters baking and cooking contests, frequently taking home blue ribbons. I’ll always remember how she extended a hand of hospitality of friendship soon after we moved to Iowa. There are those people who just get your sense of humor, and she’s definitely one of them. Cristen graciously hosted us at her home for the day and shared her best pie-making tips.
We put on our aprons and Cristen walked us through making pie crust.
During this class, we prepared all-butter pie crusts. Pie fillings varied, depending on what fruit each person brought. I combined apples and pears and Cristen helped me add sugar, flour to thicken, lemon zest, lemon juice, and this delightfully fragrant Vietnamese cinnamon she bought from the King Arthur Flour.
One technique we didn’t learn in culinary school baking lab was how to make a lattice pie crust. Cristen mentioned that thicker lattice patterns are “in” and demonstrated how to weave the strips.
I topped my double-crust pie with horse cutouts.
Cristen treated us to lunch at Goldie’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Prairie City while we waited for our pie dough to chill. Goldie’s claim to fame is winning the Iowa Pork Producer’s “Best Pork Tenderloin” contest in 2009. The Des Loines blog, my favorite resource for unbiased pork tenderloin reviews, lists Goldie’s tenderloin as a top contender near Des Moines.
Inside, the small restaurant looks like a diner and even has a drive-through window. At lunch time, the place was busy and people filled every stool along the counter.
Mary and I ordered a pork tenderloin basket while the other bloggers ordered pork tenderloin sandwiches. “Would you like ranch? our server asked in true Iowan style. Of course we said “Yes.”
Our pork tenderloin arrived in thin strips and reminded me of the schnitzel fingers I once ordered at Glockenspiel restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota. The tenderloin was fried well so that the strips were crispy without being greasy and the pork was moist and tender. When I looked around the table, I noticed my dining companions’ sandwiches were accompanied by tangles of thin onion rings. Those generic, pre-frozen rings appear on so many menus that I’ve come to expect them. Thin rings are my favorite and I really regretted not ordering them here. Val let me try one of hers.
Cristen also noted that the owner raises cattle on his family farm. The cows are processed at a local locker and the beef is served on Goldie’s menu in the form of burgers and sausage. The Magg Combo sandwich combines a pork tenderloin and burger patty. As a new Iowan, I’m still getting acquainted with pork tenderloin sandwiches, but can claim that this is my favorite fried tenderloin so far.
After lunch, we returned to Cristen’s house and finished preparing our pies to bake at home. The way that one bakes his or her pies is so personal and there’s always something new to learn. Competition pie baking is especially fascinating. It’s a completely different beast than baking pies for home consumption, only. I’m not ready for this world, but will certainly use some of these tips Cristen taught us.
Pie Wisdom From Cristen
- Use a foil collar to prevent crust edges from burning. To make a collar, cut a piece of foil long enough to wrap around the perimeter of your pie crust and fold it into a thinner strip. Wrap it around your pie crust edges and remove it about ten minutes before the pie’s done baking. I can not believe I’ve never thought of this before. The collar sure beats trying to crunch strips of foil around hot pie edges and hoping they don’t fall off each time you move the pie.
- Competition bakers keep their pie chilled. Cristen mentioned that when she makes competition pies, she pops the pie back into the fridge frequently to keep the dough cold for perfect forming.
- Add an egg to the crust: The pie crust recipe I’ve used at home at in culinary school did not include an egg. We added it to the flour and butter, along with the water. I didn’t notice a huge difference, but it turned out well.
- On shortening & crusts: Different shortenings produce different kinds of crusts. Last November, Cristen wrote this helpful post explaining how each shortening effects crust. I’ve never worked with lard, but it sounds like the combination of lard + butter is popular among bakers. We also learned it’s possible to make a no-roll “push” pie crust with just oil that’s actually won awards at the state fair, too. I haven’t tried this method yet.
- You can roll pie crust edges up or down: In culinary school, we always rolled the edges of the pie crust down, which Cristen recommended for apple and pear pie. However, she rolled them up on the berry pies. Now, I know I have two options!
- Use a giant dough scraper. I don’t own a giant dough scraper. When I’ve made pie at home, I work as quickly as possible so that the shortening doesn’t melt and sprinkle the dough with a lot of flour when it sticks to the counter. The dough scraper made it easy to lift the rolled-out pie dough from the counter and, as a result, I used less flour.
- Tapioca thickens berry pies. Cristen says the award-winning bakers she’s encountered thicken berry pies with tapioca pearls. She uses 1/4-1/3 cup per pie.
- Dab with butter: Just like my culinary school instructor, Cristen places little dabs of butter on top of the pie filling before covering it with the top crust.
- Look for slow bubbles. We baked our pies for 20-minutes at 400℉ and another 40-minutes at 350℉. Slow bubbles indicate that the juices have thickened into a sauce with an ideal consistency.
- “Blonde” pies are a thing. Pies without any browning on the crust are called “blonde pies.” Some judges prefer them while some don’t, but I’m with Cristen. I like the appearance and flavor of crust with spots of golden brown color.
And my favorite way to enjoy a slice of apple pie? For breakfast with a cup of coffee and cheddar melted on top of the crust!
Special thanks Cristen for hosting us and surprising us with lunch at Goldie’s and to Shannon for coordinating the event and providing transportation.