Family, food, travel, other obsessions.
One of Hal’s favorite sayings is “I like pie.” One of mine could be “I like pie crust.” I never mind a good filling, but I think of it mostly as what I have to have to justify the crust. One of my favorite childhood indulgences were the little cookies my grandma and mom used to make with leftover pie crust dough, rolled out into a messy circle and cut into squares, then sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. I burned my tongue on them almost every time, since I couldn’t be bothered to wait for them to cool. Worth every blister.
I’ve experimented over the years with a few different pie crust recipes, but I’ve never strayed for long, always returning to Grandma Clara’s recipe. You can read about the chemistry of pie crust here, here, and here. Not sure what the chemical magic is in Grandma’s recipe, but it is moist and so easy to work with. If it ever breaks, it just takes a pinch to put back together. I suspect the real magic was Grandma herself.
The magic started early for Grandma. Here is the image of her, taken around 1903, that looked down on me from our living room wall while I was growing up. The original is about 20×24 in a massive, gold-leafed frame. As a girl I could never get over those impossibly tiny boots.
I’m sure Grandma had a big pie repertoire, but the only pie I remember her making when I was growing up was lemon meringue. She used a packaged cooked lemon pudding as the filling, which resulted in a nearly flourescent yellow middle for the pie, topped with her effortless, golden meringue. I can still picture her stirring the filling on the stove in our kitchen during the annual winter-time visits she and Grandpa made to Arizona, their trailer in tow so they could retreat at night, after loving on us all day long.
Dad told us that Grandma made pies every few days when they were growing up in their little town, putting some just about every day into the steel lunch pail my Grandpa Victor took with him into the coal mine.
She usually put two pieces of pie in; Grandpa would eat one at work, the other he left as a treat for my dad and his little brother Ross to discover as they met him at the end of the day and carried his lunch pail inside for him.
I love the thought of Grandma and Grandpa’s little scheme, and of the delight of two little boys at finding that tasty triangle waiting for them, day after day, as if each day were the first. I also marvel at Grandpa’s ability to resist eating the second piece himself, day after day. I wouldn’t have been so strong.
Grandma died in 1994 (her funeral was 18 years ago yesterday), but her pie crust has been an enduring connection to her over the years. I’ve long since memorized the recipe. No one seems to have a copy of it in her handwriting, but I can imagine it in her distinctive, shaky script, the product of having been forced to write with her right hand as a schoolgirl, even though she was a natural southpaw (like Dad and me).
Although I don’t need the pie crust recipe any more, I still hear the words from it whenever I make it: “Add liquids all at once. Dough will be quite moist.”
It’s true—it’s almost too sticky to handle at first.
But just a few slaps on a flour-covered surface, and its perfection takes shape.
If Grandma were here, we’d roll out the dough together and talk. It’s been a long time; we’d have a lot to catch up on. We’d remember some of our adventures together, like her trip with Mom to visit me in Berlin, two months before the Wall fell, when she was 89.
I’d tell her that if either of the boys had been a girl, we would have named them Clara Agnes. And that would probably make her laugh, since she told me once that she never really liked her name. Then I’d have to ask her how Aunt Aggie is doing.
Since we never had a girl, I’d ask her for advice about raising boys and tell her how much I love mine.
I’d tell her what a gifted, patient, interesting man I married, and that he was totally worth the wait, even though it meant having her miss out on meeting him or him meeting her. I’d tell her that his eyes are as blue as hers.
I’d tell her how much I enjoy baking for people I love, just like she did. And I’d tell her that because I like her pie crust so much, I’ve started making little hand pies, since it doubles (maybe triples!) the crust-to-filling ratio over regular pie. She’d ask me what a hand pie is, so I’d show her.
First, I find a round form, 4-5″ in diameter. I use this canister lid.
Next, I roll the dough out to about 1/4″ thickness and cut out rounds.
Then I dollop about a teaspoonful of filling on one side. It’s cherry today.
Then I fold them shut. See how easily that moist dough pinches together?
And my top-secret crimper is just a run-of-the-mill can opener.
I cut a little steam vent in the top and slather them with an egg wash.
Then I sprinkle them with a little coarse-grained sugar…
…and pop them in the oven—on parchment, since the filling often bubbles out.
And this is what we get:
Just look at those flaky layers.
Grandma and I would laugh while we talked and baked. She had a wonderful laugh. Then we’d sit down to one (or two) of these little pies and a cup of her favorite beverage, which is making a comeback, it turns out.
And while we were talking, my boys would charge in from the yard, head straight for the cooling rack, and help themselves. And I’d say, “Boys, this is my Grandma Clara. I’m so glad you finally get to meet her.”
And Ted would take pictures of it all so we’d never forget a second of it.
Click here for Grandma Clara’s Pie Crust recipe.