There are few foods as traditionally American as a fruit pie. Apple, peach, pear, or cherry, it doesn’t really matter the flavor, those that can make a pie from scratch are generally regarded with great respect. While love of pie is pretty universal (books have been written about it!), pie-making is very individual. I am going to let you in on a little secret that we pie-makers know; with a little practice, almost anyone can make a pie.
Making pie is not particularly difficult rather, like so many of the other things we make at the 1900 farm, it is just time-consuming. It is easy to try, but takes some time to master. Modern people don’t tend to eat pie on a weekly basis. We reserve the delicious dessert for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or when we go to eat at Perkins (or any other restaurant). Because of that, pie seems to have gone out of the modern culinary landscape.
In 1900, pie would be familiar. The baker would have access to all of the ingredients on the farm, and it wouldn’t take any time to bake. You could virtually toss it in the oven and forget about it for awhile. Cakes in 1900 wouldn’t come in box form, would sometimes require more ingredients (or more expensive ingredients), and would have to be baked carefully. As access to ready-made, easy to prepare mixes have become popular, the dessert menu of everyday Americans has changed.
New food “inventions” have changed pie as well. Vegetable shortening gained popularity in the early part of the 20th century replacing lard in some pie crust recipes. However, most die hard pie bakers, myself included, swear by the use of lard for ease of use and flaky crust. Find lard by the butter in your local grocery store, and if it isn’t there, ask at the meat counter.
The second part of that secret of pie is that two people rarely make pie the exact same way. That being said, you can start out with one of these recipes and develop your own method.
2/3 c. lard
1 tsp. salt
6-10 T. cold water
This will make a double crust. Blend lard and dry ingredients in a bowl with your fingers or a pastry blender until you have very small crumbs. Gradually stir in water until you have stiff dough. Roll out on a floured board.
The key to making a good pie crust is to not work the dough too much. Use two butter knives or a pastry knife to cut the flour, salt, and lard together. Add the water a little at a time until it is a little bit sticky.
For best results when rolling, chill your dough for a short time beforehand. The keys to rolling dough are to use enough flour and start at the middle and press out instead of rolling back and forth. Check out this 2 minute video:
As you roll, you can fold the dough over to make it more flaky, but remember not to work it too much. Remember to roll it wide enough to put down into the pan – usually you want it about 2 inches wider than the circumference of the top of the pan.
Once your dough is rolled out, insert the fruit filling (see below) and repeat the rolling for the top. Don’t forget to poke vent holes in both the bottom and the top of your pie.
Making pie pretty is up to the discretion of the baker. Red fruit pies stand out with lattice top crusts, and some people prefer crumb topping on top of apple pies. Making a lattice can be done a couple of different ways too, if you make a 90 degree difference with your strips, you make a basket weave pattern, a little bit more of an X and you have a herringbone. The video below demonstrates the herringbone style.
However you choose to make the top of your pie, own it. I like to put cinnamon and sugar mixed on top of the pie for coloring, but that is a personal preference.
You can get standard flavor pie filling at the store, but it is really easy to make your own with seasonal fruit you can pick up at a local orchard or farmer’s market as well. We eat pie seasonally – strawberry-rhubarb in the late spring, cherry, peach, and raspberry through early and mid-summer, pear, apple, and pumpkin into the fall. Farmers in 1900 could preserve fruit through the summer and have different kinds of pie year round. Here are just a couple of recipes for different kinds of fruit pie fillings.
Apple Pie Filling (you can use this recipe for Pear Pie as well)
7 c. sliced fruit
1 c. sugar
1/3 c. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
Mix well. Bake in a double pie shell at 375° for 1 hour.
Rhubarb Pie Filling
Peel the stalk and cut in small bits. Line deep plates with crust. Put in rhubarb with a thick layer of sugar to each layer of fruit. A little lemon extract, peel,or juice improves it. Dredge with flour, dot over with bits of butter and cover with crust, having openings for the escape of steam. Bake one hour in a slow oven.
-From Three Meals a Day, 1889.
2 Tablespoons flour
1 cup sugar
peaches (7 cups is a good amount)
Line a deep pie plate with good rich paste. Peel, slice, and stone peaches enough to dill the plate. Sprinkle over the sugar and flour and fill crust. Put on an upper crust and bake in a moderate oven 30-40 minutes.
-From Mrs. Gillette’s Cookbook, 1899.
I hardly ever use a recipe for pie crust or for the fruit in my pie but I thought I would give you a few to start with. Remember to play around with the flavors, add different spices that you think might taste good, and experiment. You will notice that with some of the more juicy fruits, the recipes call for tapioca. That was a trick even the farm ladies used to get their pie to sit up. You can pick up flake tapioca at the grocery store near the pudding, hide it in your pie, and no one will know you cheated a little bit.
Another key to a proper consistency is letting the pie cool. Everyone likes to think of warm pie a la mode, but if you cool your pie, then warm the pieces back up, you shouldn’t have to deal with gooey filling. At the end of the day if it tastes awful (and this is very rare) you have two choices: put enough ice cream on it that you don’t notice, or you can throw it out and start all over.
I like to put different spices in my pies to give them something unique. For example, I will sometimes put a hint of clove or allspice into my apple pie, vanilla or almond extract into my cherry pie, or ginger into my peach or raspberry pies. Pie can be as unique as the person making it.
Fruit pies are the easiest, so I suggest practicing with them. But once you have mastered the crust, the possibilities are endless. As we head into fall there are many options: pumpkin, pecan, coconut cream, lemon chiffon, French silk, the possibilities are endless. Not all these recipes were around on farms in 1900, but I encourage you to try new flavors. If you get one you like, there is still a hotly contest pie contest at the Iowa State Fair. You could have a blue ribbon like the ladies in 1900.