this american pie

by C.

PIE IS supposed to be the quintessential American dish.  “As American as apple pie” is perhaps one of the earliest similes learned by schoolchildren.  But the truth of the matter is that the history of pie is neither an American one or a sweet one.  While pies, and sweet pies in particular, have gained a rather devoted following in the last few centuries, Laura Mayer in TIME briefly explored the history of pie just in time for Thanksgiving 2008 and noted that the vast majority of pie’s existence has been spent as a savory meat pie.  In fact, Mayer credits the Greeks with inventing pastry (insofar as a butterless flour-water combination can be called “pastry”) and, therefore, inventing pie.  Personally, I think we humans are secretive creatures who like to get our hands dirty, so the inclination to (1) squish gooey dough in our hands and then (2) hide something inside of it is contained deep within our souls.

So what does one put inside of one’s dough?  Almost anything.  Pie can act as a kind of preserving apparatus, in a way.  Meat, fruit, vegetables… anyone who has eaten shepherd’s pie has probably thought, “where do they come up with this stuff?” right before asking for seconds.  But, on a more personal level, what do you choose for the first pie you ever make?

Probably not a huge soul-searching dilemma.  Unless you have a food blog.  Whose name has pie in it.  And you’ve managed to spend a not-insignificant portion of adult life puttering around the kitchen and studiously avoiding pie.  Then, there’s a little bit of soul-searching.  Vacillating.  Pontificating.  Ruminating.  Procrastinating.  Until finally, finally, you have it.

And so you call up a few friends, and make four pies instead.

This is the first of two pie installments servings.  Each has a simple and simply delicious pie passed down from my mother’s mother, and a pie from Those Who Get Paid to Make Pie Well.

The very first pie to find itself chilling in the refrigerator (you heard me, I started with a no-bake pie) was my grandmother’s fresh berry pie.  Now, when my grandmother made it, it was always boysenberries, fresh from the small garden in their backyard.  My grandfather loved boysenberries.  This could be any berry you want, but in the spirit of making pies to delight the heart of one’s beloved, I made a blueberry pie.

GRANDMOTHER’S FRESH BERRY PIE, from my grandmother’s kitchen
makes one 9″ pie

Graham Cracker Crust
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter (melted)
1/8 teaspoon salt

4 cups fresh berries, divided
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Mix the graham cracker crumbs, 1/4 cup sugar, unsalted butter, and salt.
Using the back of a wooden spoon and/or the bottom of a small glass, press the crumb mixture firmly on the bottom and up the sides of the pie plate.
Line the graham cracker crust with three cups of the berries.
Simmer the remaining berries with water for 3-4 minutes.  Add sugar and cornstarch, stir and cook until clear.  Add lemon juice to the mixture and stir.

Cool, then pour over berries and refrigerate.  Serve with real whipped cream.
watch out for wayward dollops of cream when baking four pies at once
If you’re using a berry that doesn’t automatically fail the “I dropped it on my white shirt” test, like a blueberry, the pie could use more of the simmered blueberry mixture on top of the blueberries.  It might also help with some cohesion issues I found myself having.  (I blame the blueberries.)
MILE HIGH LEMON MERINGUE PIE, adapted from Martha Stewart
All purpose flour, for dusting
Pie pastry dough, blind baked (I used the one in this post, instead of Martha’s pate brisee base, mostly because the French intimidated me and I was already sufficiently intimidated by the meringue.  And because I liked the dough I’d made)
Lemon Filling
1 large egg
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup sifted cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups sugar
5 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons lemon rind
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
7 large egg whites
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
Bake the pastry shell according to directions and allow to cool.
For the lemon filling, combine cornstarch, cake flour, salt, and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Martha notes that this should be a nonreactive saucepan.  I only had one kind, and it turns out it was nonreactive.  Copper saucepans are, apparently, reactive.  Don’t use copper saucepans in this recipe.
Gradually add two cups of cold water and bring the mixture to a boil, whisking constantly.  This should take about four minutes.
Remove the nonreactive saucepan from the heat.  Pour a small amount of the hot mixture into the egg yolks to temper them and keep the lemon filling from becoming lemon-and-scrambled-egg filling, then add the eggs to the nonreactive saucepan.  Cook over low heat for five minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat again and whisk in the lemon juice and rind.  Add the butter one piece at a time, but in a fairly methodical manner while the mixture is warm enough to melt the butter.
When the butter is fully melted and absorbed into the mixture, pour it into a large bowl and let it cool.  Place wax paper directly on top of the  surface to prevent a skin from forming.
When cool, pour the filling into the pastry shell, cover with aluminum foil, and refrigerate for approximately one hour, until firm.
When the lemon filling is firm, make the meringue by combining the egg whites, sugar, and salt in a heat-proof bowl.  Set over a pan of simmering water and beat until warm and the sugar and salt are dissolved into the egg whites.
Remove bowl from heat and whip into stiff peaks.  This alone makes pre-stand mixer cooks who could make any kind of lemon meringue pie, much less a beautiful one, head and shoulders above all the rest of humanity.
Spread the meringue over the pie  so that it touches the crust all around.  This will, at least in theory, reduce the “weeping” that occurs (in which watery puddles form at the bottom of the pie pan after pieces are removed).  Using the flat part of a spatula, lightly tap all over the surface of the meringue to encourage well-intentioned, “it came out this way all on its own” peaks.
Broil until brown, approximately two minutes.  Watch as closely as you would a two-year-old in a china shop.
Serve at room temperature.
Because I was so intimidated by its height and its gravity (or lack thereof), I was very careful to adhere to Martha’s meringue work.  With that said, it didn’t quite taste right.  The lemon filling was delicious, and the crust was of course delightful, but the meringue was, as Nick put it, savory.  Not the expected sweet.  Don’t get me wrong, it didn’t keep me from finishing my slice.  Very quickly.