Great Gifts for the Holiday? American Pies – HC or TPB – An Excerpt!

pieguycoverwebsiteI wrote a book a couple of years back titled American Pies – Baking With Dave the Pie Guy… it’s got a bunch of pie recipes, all tried, photographed, and described in detail – and a bit more… it all started with the question of whether or not you could make a pie from persimmons, something I loved as a child, and discovered because of my grandfather.  The answer is yes… here’s the Fresh Persimmon Pie recipe from my book… which you should buy people for Christmas… just saying. Here’s the Amazon Link:

AMERICAN PIES: Baking with Dave the Pie Guy

Chapter Three

Fresh Persimmon Pie

You may have guessed by now that this is not just a book of pie recipes.  There are stories behind each of the choices I made for my ‘baker’s dozen’.  (The final pie was the American Pie – we’ll get to that, but you saw it on the cover of the book).  As is the case so often in my life, my past met up with my present one night, and I started remembering, and thinking.

I grew up in southern Illinois.  My grandparents lived in a very small town that had already started to die out by the time I first visited.  The highway moved to the side and bypassed them.  They had lived there for a very long time, having built several homes, and even a log cabin.  My Aunt Lucile (We called her Aunt ‘Toole’ – though I don’t really know why) lived in the house next door, which my grandfather also built.

I spent a lot of time in Flora – that was the town.  Some of the strongest memories and impressions of my life date back to those few small streets, the park outside of town, Johnsonville Lake where my grandpa took us fishing, and the railroad tracks we walked up and down that led out of town.

In those days, there were still a lot of trains.  Sometimes you had to hurry to get off the tracks and out of the way as hundreds of cars rushed past, looking tall as large buildings and making so much noise conversation was impossible.  In later years, my brother and I explored those tracks on our own, but when I was younger I went there with my grandfather, Merle Cornelius Smith, who I remember as the finest man I ever met – and who I wish I’d been older while knowing so I could have heard, and understood, his stories.  I’ve heard a lot of them second hand, and I’ve got pictures, records and the memories my mom has shared.  I just wish I’d been a little more aware of just how amazing his life had been, so I could have soaked more in while I had time to spend.

He took my brother and I back along those railroad tracks because there were nut trees in small groves that he knew where to find – and in one small hollow down off the track, there were persimmon trees.  My grandfather introduced me to a lot of things in life.  He taught me to fish, to tie my own flies, to wrap a fishing rod and build it from scratch, and he taught me about a lot of food that I likely would not have known, or enjoyed.

He showed me how to make dandelion greens into something very much like spinach.  He introduced me to fresh, home-made canned yogurt, gardening, raising earthworms, polishing stones and making jewelry.  Out along the railroad tracks, he introduced me to persimmons.

They were different back then than what you’ll find in the grocery store these days.  They were sort of like a game – you could win a treat, but you couldn’t win if you didn’t play.  About a third of all the persimmons we picked left a bitter aftertaste…finding them just ripe enough was an art form and a shaky one at best.  Still, when they were good, they were among the best flavors in the world, and I never forgot them.

One day we were in our local grocery, here in North Carolina, and there, in a carton, were persimmons.  I got excited.  I probably babbled about them.  I know everyone reached the smile and nod point with me pretty quickly but it didn’t matter.  They were there, and I bought some.  As I ate them, day after day, I waited for that bad one – that bitter taste that had plagued the persimmon bliss of my youth.  It never came.  They were sweet, soft, and consistently good.  Finally, I looked them up on the Internet.

As mankind has done so many times in the past, someone got tired of the ‘problem’ of bitter persimmons.  They not only engineered new ones that were almost never bitter (I did find one bitter one late one night and almost laughed until I cried trying to explain why a bad taste in my mouth brought a good memory).  They also managed to create persimmons without seeds.  I learned, as I read, that they are also called Sharon fruit, named for the Sharon Plain in Israel, where some of the finest of this particular fruit has been grown.  It does look a bit like a star inside when sliced (as you’ll see in the pictures).  They are orange-yellow to dark orange in color and very sweet.

Anyway, after eating these newly rediscovered treats for a couple of weeks, I was sitting in bed thinking (almost always a mistake).  What came to mind was …why have I never seen a persimmon pie?  This led to the question of whether you could make a persimmon pie, and the inevitable Internet journey that led to the answer.

Of course you can.  You can make a pie out of almost anything.  I found several recipes for fresh persimmon pie, and I copied a bunch of them.  Then I did what I usually do.  I poked them, prodded them, talked about them, and generally procrastinated without doing anything.  I, of course, did not regularly bake pies.  I’ve probably baked a couple earlier in my life, but it was so far back I don’t remember.  The question changed from ‘can you make a persimmon pie?’ to ‘Can I make a persimmon pie.”

As it turns out, again, the answer was – of course I can.  Pie is like anything else … you can psyche yourself out and make it into some weird voodoo that only chefs, bakers, and grandmas can pull off with any skill, but the truth is; if you pay attention, take your time, and prepare properly, you can bake a pie.  It’s not rocket science (though I have it on good authority that rocket scientists like pie.).

So…Persimmon Pie.

persimmon

Once I got over the hurdle of deciding to actually bake the pie, things shifted into a higher gear.  I was all business.  I had my recipe.  I was sure we had everything we needed in the kitchen, I mean, it’s full of baking stuff.  I checked my list, and found that we did, indeed, have most of the ingredients for this particular pie right in our pantry.  Of course, I had to buy persimmons.

The recipe calls for 2 ½ cups of fresh persimmons.  Stumbling block number one.  How many persimmons, exactly, in a cup?  And also – looking at the recipe, I realized I had a bigger problem.  You see, there was a picture of the pie they envisioned.  It was flat across the top, maybe even a little sunken.  It looked a lot like the pies in the supermarket, and that was not what I wanted to bake.

I pulled out the biggest measuring cup we have – it’s an Anchor Hocking Fire-King piece we bought at an auction when we spent our nights buying and selling antiques and collectibles on eBay.  Another lifetime, it seems, after all this time.  Anyway, the top line on the measuring scale said that it held four cups.  It didn’t seem like much to me, and even with that measurement to sort of eyeball, it quickly became obvious that, depending on how they were sliced, the number of persimmons it would take to fill that cup was going to vary wildly.  I bought a whole bag of them.  I err on the side of too much fruit every time, and if there are leftover persimmons, believe me, you won’t be sorry when you taste one.

I gathered the ingredients, but not efficiently.  My method was to put each of the things that I had to have in a different container (why? I have no idea) so I dirtied quite a few cups and bowls in the process.  The recipe called for:

2 ½ Cups of ripe persimmons. (We used 5-6 cups in the end)

1/3 of a Cup of granulated sugar.

1/3 Cup firmly packed brown sugar.

2 ½ Tablespoons of quick cooking tapioca…

What?  Here we break down again.  Cooking tapioca?  I’ve had tapioca pudding often enough.  What was it doing in a pie, though?  I had to stop – mid-pie – and go back to the Internet.  I also had to figure out why, exactly, I’d missed this during my quick inventory.  I mean, the pie was half made, and I was missing something – maybe something important.

Here is one of the lessons I learned about pies.  Fruit is juicy.  (wow, what a revelation).  If you just bake it in a pie, it bubbles out over the edges.  It won’t hold together when you slice it.  It’s more like soup, in fact, than it is like filling.  Cooking tapioca is something bakers use to thicken the filling.  Thankfully for my first pie, it’s not the only thing that will do the job.  The more commonly used ingredient is cornstarch, and according to the cooking experts I found online, you could use about the same amount of cornstarch as you would tapioca and it would work just fine.  That’s what I did.  As luck would have it, we had cornstarch in abundance.  This thickening process is one of the tricky things to learn, and may not work for you perfectly until you experiment with it.  The recipes I found varied wildly on the amount necessary for several of the pies we made.  Our results varied just as wildly, and while we didn’t come out with any bad pies, some were runnier than I’d have liked.  This is where grandmothers have the upper hand with their pinch of this and handful of that.  They just knew…and the reason they knew was they’d done it and done it and done it again.

1 Teaspoon ground cinnamon.

1/2 Teaspoon of grated orange peel.

1/2 Teaspoon of grated lemon peel.

Again…time for another break.  Various recipes call for grated orange and lemon peels, or “zested” peels.  What they don’t tell you is how in the world you’re supposed to get said grated peel, or why it’s there.   I can’t tell you that I know why it’s there – other than flavor – but I can tell you how to get it.

First, wash the lemon, or the orange.  You’d think that goes without saying, but I mention it because it’s something I think about.  I once wrote a story that was published in an anthology about Holidays.  My story?  “For These Things I am Truly Thankful.”  In that story, the protagonist becomes obsessed with the history of things.  The water in his sink, coming through pipes that ran beneath the ground, had been put together by plumbers with God knows what on their hands, had picked up silt and other things from the processing plant, the people there – etc.

I want to point out that the orange and / or lemon in question came from a grocery store, where it was groped by consumers, placed by a stock person, possibly coughed and sneezed on.  Before that they were in a box, shipped from another country, and suffered all of those same things – along with bug spray and BUGS (which is why they spray).  So…since you are using the outside of the fruit, wash it thoroughly.

If you have a potato peeler or a cheese grater, either of these will work fine – and even if the recipe in hand says “zest” – it’s all the same when it hits the pie.  I happen to have a zester by lucky coincidence.  I bought a fancy vegetable carving kit so I could have the tools to carve Halloween pumpkins, and, as it turns out, one of the things they sent (though I had no idea what it was until Trish told me) was a zester.

3 Tablespoons of lemon juice.

I know, I know.  Get on with it, right?  I promise that I will, but I have to tell you, the lemon juice confused me too.  Now I know it’s important, and if it’s missing from a fruit recipe, I usually add it in for good measure.  Lemon juice is a natural preservative.  I’m sure you’ve bitten into an apple, or left one sliced and laying around longer than you should have.  They get brown very quickly.  The same is true of a number of fruits, and if the first thing you do is to slice your fruit, you chance the quick advance of decay while you are busy mixing and whisking and doing pie-baking things.  You sprinkle the aforementioned lemon juice onto the fruit to keep it fresh – and it works.  I can say that after 13 pies, it worked for me every time.  You also get a slight citrus flavor from it, but not distracting.  You actually – oddly – get more flavor from the zested / grated peels.

2 9″ Pastry pie crusts.

I use the boxed crusts you can find at the supermarket.  I do not use the store brand, or any generic.  If I get permission from the company (still waiting) I’ll let you know the brand name before I’m done, but suffice it to say the mascot giggles a lot.  They are (hands down) the best.  I will eventually branch into making my own crusts, I suppose, but my suspicion is that, though I might make one as good as the ones I use, probably I will not make one that is better.

The last ingredient is butter or margarine.  You’ll see anything from one to three tablespoons in pie recipes, but here’s the deal.  This is a pinch of this and handful of that thing, again.  When all the filling is in the pie, you’ll spot the top of it with small dabs of butter or margarine.  It melts down in and blends with the juice, cornstarch, and filling and it’s important so make sure you remember – right before that second crust goes over the top of the pie (I’ll mention this again when I reach that point, but I want to be sure you don’t forget.  I did – once – and had to peel back the top crust and slide it in.  A delicate job that could have ruined a perfectly good pie.)

Preparation:

Now it’s time to make this pie.  Rinse the persimmons (see my note about washing fruit above).  These have a weird leaf/stem that has to be cut out.  It’s easiest to cut in a circle around it and pop it off the top.  The recipes all called for the persimmons to then be cut into thin slices.  Here is where I’ll make another comment.  We did as they instructed, and the pie was actually very good.  Persimmons, though, unless incredibly ripe, are kind of crunchy.  If you slice the persimmons into, basically, circular slices, you’ll find them a little hard to cut with a fork when eating them, though they look really good in the bowl, and in the pie.  I didn’t mind this – but I love persimmons.  For better results, I think, I’d suggest almost dicing the fruit.  Some recipes call for pulping the persimmons (boiling them to mush) but I don’t like doing this to any fruit – dicing will give you smaller, more manageable chunks.

persimmon2

Once your persimmons are cut, or sliced, and ready –put them in a medium to large sized bowl and sprinkle the lemon juice over them.  Set this aside and find yourself another medium sized bowl.  In this bowl, combine the two types of sugar, tapioca (or cornstarch), cinnamon, orange and lemon peels and stir them thoroughly.  You need to mix up all the powders until you have them spread evenly so you don’t end up with pockets of cornstarch, or sugar on one side, and all the orange peels on the other.  I use either a whisk, or a large spoon for this mixing.  The spoon is good because you can use it to sprinkle the resultant mixture over the fruit.

persimmon3

Now, set aside your second bowl and get your pie plate ready.  I recommend as deep a 9″ pie plate as you can find.  I only use glass or Pyrex plates.  Set the plate on a surface where you have some working room, and then get out your pie crusts.  Unroll the first crust and place it over the top of the pie plate, then carefully press it down into the plate so that it shapes to the glass.  The crust will extend out past the edge of the plate.  At this point, take a knife and cut around the edge of the plate, trimming off the excess crust.

You can do what you want with this excess.  They say it’s bad to eat it raw, though I’ve done that.  The “Pie Bloke” over in the UK tells me it’s because there is raw egg in it.  Trish suggests rolling it into balls, sprinkling it with cinnamon and sugar, and baking it to make pie-crust cookies.  We did that once, and they were okay, but nothing to write home about.  The important thing is that you trim even with the flat top edge of your pie-plate.

When this is done you have a couple of choices.  As you will see in the photos of my own persimmon pie, I chose to mix all of the ingredients in with the persimmons thoroughly, and then place them in the pie.  The other method is layering, sprinkling in some of the ingredients, then layering persimmons on top of that, sprinkling more, etc.  If you choose this latter method, don’t skimp.  You need all the ingredients in the pie if you can manage it.  The key is that the fruit should be coated in the sugar and cornstarch and cinnamon, and that it should filter down and fill the cracks between the fruit.  As the pie bakes, the fruit will sort of melt into the rest of it, and combine.  It’s a beautiful thing.

persimmon4

From here on out, it’s pretty easy.  Don’t forget to dab in the bits of butter or margarine.  Spread them out across the pie filling, but it doesn’t REALLY matter where you put them.  Next you need to take that second pie crust, unroll it, and very carefully place it over the top of the pie.  You have to get it centered so that there is excess sticking out over the edges of the plate.

There are tools for what I’m about to describe.  I don’t own one.  I have an old can opener with the pointed, triangular end on it.  Not much good for cans these days, but you can use it here.  Hold it with the top down.  Press it firmly into the top crust directly above the flat glass edge of the pie plate.  This presses the two crusts together and leaves a cool indentation.  Right beside this, do it again, and continue this carefully all the way around the perimeter of the pie, until you’ve come full circle and the edges of the impressions touch.  The cool technical term for this is crimping  When this is done, once again, trim off all the excess crust and set it aside for whatever you’ve decided to use it for.

At this point, I usually stop and turn on the oven.  It takes a while to preheat.  This also brings me to another wide variance in the recipes of others.  Baking time, and temperature.  This recipe calls for setting the oven at 375° – and I have to say, on this first pie I probably got lucky.  I’m convinced that the perfect baking time on most pies hovers on or around one hour.  The best results I’ve had have involved starting with a really high temperature, and dropping it down after twenty minutes or so…but for this pie, set the oven to 375° and wait for it to preheat.

Next you need to cut vents in your top crust.  This is another thing that you don’t want to forget, because, as I keep saying, step after step, it’s important.  The vents let the pressure and heat from the fruit cooking inside release any built up pressure and gives the filling a place to bubble up and out if it gets too hot.  I cut slits from near the center down in a star pattern.  Some people cut sort of tear-drop shaped slits, and others try to get artistic and cut designs.  The star was quick and easy, and it’s what I went with.  Later in the book I’ll show you what happened when we tried to get more creative.  In the end – I’m going to eat the pie…so I don’t need anything fancy.

persimmon5

At this point I slapped my pie in on the bottom shelf, as the recipe called for, and set my timer for one hour.  It was a mistake, and I’ll explain that in a moment.  While it’s baking you should look in on it now and then.  Make sure the edges get a little brown before you pull it out, and make sure they don’t get too brown.  Again, it’s something you learn to get just right over time.

But let’s get back to that mistake.  Remember I said you had the vents in case the filling needs to bubble up and out?  It does.  It always does, at least a little.  If you put your pie in on the oven rack, that fruit filling is going to sizzle and drip all over the bottom of your oven.  This is not going to make people happy.  It’s hard to get out, it bakes onto the inner surface of the oven like cement, and it’s easily avoidable.  What you need to do is either to put a foil covered cookie or pizza pan underneath your pie pan, or to make something.  That’s what I do, now.  After Trish quit cursing at me, and showed me how, I started using a drip pan created by taking a couple of sheets of tinfoil and folding them.  You fold one in half, just a bit wider than the pie pan.  Then you take the other, fold it over and around the first forming a sort of cross.  Crimp up the edges so that anything trying to run over the edge of your pie – won’t.  Again…this is important.

Now, place your pie into the heated oven, set yourself a timer (I use the one on the microwave above the stove) and sit back to wait out the hour for your finished pie.  When it’s baked, remove it carefully and place it on the stop top to cool.  I think about an hour is perfect for cooling.  Your finished product should look something like this:

persimmon6

If you did it right…shortly after this, it will look more like this:

persimmon7

And there you have it.  I will include the full recipes for each of these pies at the back of the book (minus the commentary).  They will also be available (for those who buy the book) as a printable recipe cards.  These chapters are longer, but I hope not boring – and I know likely to improve your outcome.  Learn from my mistakes…that’s why I’m here.  Now, on to our next adventure, Fresh Pear Pie.