In my last Weekend Meditation, I wrote about the inspiring adventure of making thirty-six pies for the wedding reception for two close friends. Inspiration is one thing, but the practical details are another. Read on for the saga on how we pulled it off and our special, secret ingredient!
Two Months Before the Wedding: We start talking about it. We figure if we make the dough ahead of time and get other friends to help with the baking, it just may be possible. Crazy, but possible. A friend and I are are assigned the title co-czar. We immediately feel the weight of the challenge.
One Month Before: The spreadsheet (Pie Chart) is created, supplies are procured or ordered (butter and flour from Trader Joe's, fruit from the caterer, 38 pie tins from a supplier.)
Two Weeks Before: We make the pie dough. Eighteen pounds of butter plus 26 pounds of flour will make 72 disks of dough for 36 double-crust pies. Six people. One measures the flour, another cuts the butter, a third works the food processor, fourth forms the disks, fifth wraps in plastic, sixth is the runner, including a trip to the airport with a stop at Trader Joe's for more butter. The dough goes home with the wedding couple to live in their freezer with its only other occupant--a bottle of vodka.
The Day Before: Pick up fruit, frozen dough, sugar, pie tins, etc, and rush over to Pie Central, which is another mutual friend's home that has a kitchen with a lot of counter space. Along the way, we stop at the local market and rid them of all their strawberries (the caterer had forgotten to order them.) Back at Pie Central we prep 45 pounds of rhubarb and 12 pounds of strawberries. People arrive and the rolling of dough begins. More people arrive and more dough is rolled out. One by one, the pies appear. And a few hours later, two by two they disappear as people stop by to pick up their allotment for the next day's bake-off, little slips of baking instructions tucked in their pockets.
The Wedding: We arrive, bearing our share of 6 baked pies. Soon the kitchen fills up with pies as people arrive, bearing crates, paper bags and boxes filled of golden brown disks. They look lovely and we have yet to taste them. But our work is done and now it's our job to sit back and enjoy the evening.
My co-czar is an architect so he took the practical/engineering approach and created a spreadsheet of several pie dough recipes and filling ratios. This was very helpful when extrapolating out for the large quantities we would need for all the pies. In the end we chose a variation on the least fussy recipe from Joy of Cooking. We even skipped the shortening for simplicity's sake (but added sugar.)
For the crust:
24 oz flour
2 T sugar
1 t salt
16 T (two sticks) of very cold butter cut into 1/4" cubes
1/2 C of ice water, or more
Put the flour, sugar and salt in the food processor and pulse two times to blend. Add the butter and pulse another five or six times. Add the water and pulse a few more times. Remove lid and pinch a bit of dough. It should hold together nicely. Better if it's slightly too wet than too dry. Empty on to a well-floured board or countertop and using the heal of your hand, smear the dough away from you three or four times. Gather together, divide into two equal sections, quickly and carefully form into disks, wrap in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. Can be frozen. Let sit on the counter until slightly pliable, but not soft. Or defrost overnight in the refrigerator.
For the filling:
1/2 pound of strawberries
1 1/4 pounds of rhubarb
4 oz sugar
2 T cornstarch
Wash the fruit and drain well. Hull the strawberries and slice into large chunks; slice the rhubarb into 1/4" pieces. Toss in a bowl with sugar and cornstarch.
The secret ingredient is revealed: rice flour! (It can be found at most Asian or natural food markets.) Use it to flour your rolling pin and surface. It will keep the dough from sticking and, since it doesn't contain gluten, it won't won't toughen your crust. Do this and you will be in pie crust heaven.
Liberally sprinkle your counter with the rice flour. Place the disk in the center and roll out in the four directions, turning the disk every now and then to keep it from sticking. When the disk is about 13" round, place it in the pie tin and gently tuck it all around so that it fits. Trim the crust so that it meets the rim of the pie plate. Roll out the second disk in the same manner.
Heap the fruit mixture in the pie tin and cover with the second crust. Trim slightly so that there's about one inch hanging over the rim and then tuck the edge of the top crust under the bottom crust. Flute the edges or press with a fork to seal. With a knife, cut slits into the top of the pie.
Our pies held up overnight in the refrigerator which was good to know. (This had us a little worried.)
When it's time to bake, preheat oven to 425°F. Brush the top of the pie with milk or cream or even yogurt. Sprinkle on about 2-3 T of sugar and place the pie on a baking sheet. Put in the oven and bake 45-55 minutes. Check the pie after about 30 minutes and tent with foil if it is getting too brown. The crust should be deep golden brown and the filling should be bubbly.
Remove from oven and cool slightly before slicing.
When I wrote the Weekend Meditation post, I hadn't yet tasted our pies. I figured that their success would be measured more in the doing (community, support) than the end result (taste, texture). Boy, was I wrong. Or at least I was not completely right.
As one of the two pie czars, I was very aware of how many moving and out-of-my-control parts there were in this project. Several sets of hands had measured, mixed, divided, and wrapped the pie dough. It was transported from cooler to the bride and groom's freezer where it sat for weeks, thrown into paper bags the day before the wedding, then picked up and delivered to the Pie Central kitchen where it sat on the counter to thaw.
Several more hands rolled out the dough, cut the fruit, measured the sugar and cornstarch, assembled the pies. From there the pies were delivered to ten different kitchens to be baked off the following day: ten different ovens, ten different decisions on when to tent with foil, ten different ideas on the meaning of the word 'done.' You can see why my expectations were...modest.
But the following evening at the reception, when the sliced pieces were delivered to the tables with their little scoops of vanilla ice cream and I picked up my fork and shattered the crust, I was thrilled. These might even be good, I thought. Then I took a bite: a crisp, buttery, crumbly crust surrounding the just sweet enough, just firm enough rhubard/strawberry filling. It was the perfect slice of pie. Amazing.
Lesson learned. In cooking and in life, don't fool yourself into thinking it's all about precision, perfection, control. In the long run, all that will fall away in the wake of the most important (the real secret) ingredient: love. Or if that word is too much for you, then 'caring' is a good substitute. When you really give a damn, it will always taste good.
(Images: Dana Velden)