The term pie (like biscuit) means something rather different in the United States than it does on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In Europe a pie usually contains meat, potatoes, and other vegetables and may have a crust of puff pastry, of mashed potatoes, or of a flour dumpling. It is normally the main dish of a meal. In the United States, on the other hand, a pie is for dessert, or is a sweet snack. It need not be a baked food; for example, ice cream pies are now popular. In at least one instance (Boston cream pie), pie is more properly a filled, layered sponge cake. Having said that, this section discusses pies primarily in terms of the traditional one-crust or two-crust baked American dessert pie, and, briefly, the fried pie, a related, traditional American dessert.
A pie crust is one of the simplest of baked doughs, comprising only flour, shortening, salt, and water. The ability to combine these few ingredients properly to produce a flaky, tender pie crust, however, is rare, as attested by the number of leathery, soggy, nearly inedible pie crusts that are served to diners in U.S. restaurants every day. The first step in making a pie crust is to cut the shortening into the flour; that is, mix the two using a fork or similar mixing tool, reducing the particle size of the shortening to small lumps, perhaps one-quarter the size of a pea. Then a measured amount of cold water (even ice water, in hot weather), with the salt dissolved in it, is added, and the dough is gently mixed until the flour is wetted and the dough forms a lumpy, slightly sticky ball. The dough should then be allowed to rest for a time, preferably in a refrigerator, to allow the water to equilibrate with the flour protein.
An amount of this dough just sufficient to form the crust (either top or bottom) is then rolled out into a circle. An absolute minimum of dusting flour is used, and it is best to use cloth sleeve on the rolling pin and a flat cloth on the bench top, both of which have been rubbed with flour and the excess flour removed. Once the desired diameter of crust is achieved, the circle of dough is loosely rolled up on the rolling pin and transferred to the pie pan, where it is gently shaped and the edges sealed (if it is the top crust, and the filling is in place).
The main mistake in making a flaky, tender pie crust lies in excessive working of the dough and consequent development of the gluten in the flour. This can happen if too much water (or water that is warm) is added to the dough, and it is mixed until the water disappears. Also, excessive dusting flour, and rolling the dough more than once, will contribute to gluten formation. In large-scale pie production (either in a commercial bakery, or in an institutional setting) the dough just described may be too tender for the kind of handling it receives, and a certain amount of gluten development will be done on purpose, in the interests of production efficiency. Although this speeds up the operating line, it produces the leathery crusts that are abandoned on dessert plates across the country.
Fillings for pies are usually either some kind of fruit in a starch-stabilized juice matrix or a custard. The formulation of a good pie filling deserves an entire article to itself and will not be explored here. However, the stabilizing system should be such that during baking the filling will not boil or foam excessively, to the point where it overflows the side of the pie. If the pie crust at the filling/crust interface does not bake rapidly enough, it will soak up moisture from the filling, and the final crust will be soggy. This may be due to using a cold filling in the pie or having too low an oven temperature.
One type of pie avoids this pitfall, by adding the filling after the bottom crust is baked. An example is strawberry pie; a single crust is baked in the pie pan, then the fruit is placed in the cooled crust and a strawberry-flavored starch glaze is poured over the top. The pie is refrigerated until served.
These desserts are traditional in the southeastern part of the United States, although they are now produced commercially and sold throughout the country. A pie crust with a slightly developed gluten is used. A circle is rolled out, fruit filling is placed on one half the circle, the other half of the crust is folded over, and the edges are sealed. This is then fried in a half inch of hot fat, in a heavy skillet. In the commercial version, the shaped and filled piece is fried in a deep fat (doughnut) fryer. A top conveyor belt keeps the pie submerged throughout its journey through the hot fat. The crust absorbs some of the frying fat, tenderizing it so that it is not leathery as it would be if baked. The commercial fried pie is given a sugar glaze before being cooled, wrapped, and dispatched to the consumer. The traditional fried pie, on the other hand, is usually eaten while still warm, fresh from the kitchen, and any glaze or other topping would be superfluous.
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