pie experiments

I recently found out about a pie cook-off contest in the city we live in. And as I’ve mentioned before (a few times), I love making pies! So I was really excited, and started experimenting with different crusts and fillings to come up with the perfect pie for the contest!

Unfortunately, they were only taking a very limited number of applicants (is that really the right word? you know what I mean) and all the slots were filled before I could enter! Alas. There’s always next year.

And I got to enjoy making (and sampling) all of these pies anyway!

mini pies

Don’t worry – these aren’t full size pies. I used little glass ramekins so that I could make several different pies with only one dough recipe. And not have to use as much fruit and such if the filling turned out to be less than great. So the pies you see here are a cherry pie (with fresh local cherries from the farmer’s market!), a peach pie, and an apricot pie (with apricots from the tree in our backyard!).

mini peach pie

I experimented a bit with the crust, and decided to try adding some cream cheese. It was good, but not great. It was a bit thicker and denser than I prefer – I like pie crust a bit more light and flaky. The fillings were all pretty good, but the apricot was my least favorite.

Time for some more experimenting.

Since I still had lots of peaches, I decided to try some variations on my peach pie, and a new crust.

mini peach honey pie

This time I used butter (instead of shortening like most recipes call for) and it came out much lighter and flakier than the cream cheese crust, and definitely more flavorful than the typical shortening crust. Winner. And for the filling, I used some honey instead of just sugar, along with cinnamon and nutmeg, and it made for a delicious combination of flavors! Winner! Except that the filling turned out really runny, so I’ll have to work on that and post the recipe once I get it perfected… But the taste was still amazing.

So even though I won’t get to enter the pie contest this year, I found my personal winner for the summer! And maybe next year I’ll have it perfected and enter the contest in time!

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How to make a pie crust

I love making pies. I’ve talked about this before, but seriously, it’s almost therapeutic for me. There’s just something so satisfying to me about making the whole thing from scratch – crust, filling, everything. And it just tastes soooo much better than those horrible frozen pies, or the ones in the grocery store bakery that have probably been sitting there for a week and don’t seem to actually contain real fruit.

And maybe it’s just because I like to make them, or maybe I’m just a snob, but there really is a huge difference between a pie with a homemade crust and a store-bought crust. I know, it’s just the thing that holds the filling together. No one eats pie for the crust. But still, if you start with a good crust, the whole pie is better. Trust me.

My mom is a wonderful cook, but she just refuses to make her own pie crusts. She’s convinced it’s too much work, too hard, and never turns out right. But I promise, they’re really not that hard! So I’m going to share a few tips, tricks, and my go-to recipe so that you can make your own pie crusts and dazzle everyone with your amazing pie-making skills.

how to make a pie crust 1 First, let me introduce you to my friend the pastry blender. This simple little kitchen gadget makes all the difference in making perfect pie crusts. They’re pretty cheap, and you can find them anywhere they sell kitchen tools. But this thing does most of the work for you.

Put your flour and salt in a large bowl, and mix together. Then add the shortening, and use the pastry blender to mix. Use a scooping motion to cut the shortening into the flour. You’ll probably need to occasionally scrape some of the shortening off the sides of the pastry blender.

how to make a pie crust 2

See in the picture above, there are still large chunks of shortening, but it’s starting to get this crumbly texture. Keep using the pastry blender, in that same sort of scooping motion, to break up the shortening and blend it in to the flour.

how to make a pie crust 3

This is about the texture you want it to be – nice and crumbly looking, almost like lots of little pea-sized lumps. Now you’re ready to add the water. Use cold water! This keeps the shortening from melting. I know some people even use ice water, but as long as it’s cold, it’s worked for me.

Start adding the water one tablespoon at a time. You can keep using the pastry blender at first, but I usually end up using my hands once it starts getting soft and sticky.

how to make a pie crust 4

Your dough should look about like this – a little bit sticky, but still kind of flaky. If it won’t stick together, add a little more water. If it’s really sticky and wet, add a little more flour. Don’t over-mix or knead it, just mix till it will stick together and form a ball. You want a nice marbled look (you can see it better in the picture below). Form a ball, and turn it out onto a floured surface to roll it out. Press the ball flat with the palm of your hand. You can refrigerate the dough for about half an hour now, wrapped in plastic wrap, before rolling it out – some say it’s easier to roll and makes the crust more flaky. I usually don’t (because I don’t plan ahead and have enough time…) and mine still turn out fine.

how to make a pie crust 5

Roll it out until it’s nice and thin. If it starts to tear, wet your fingers and patch it back together. If the dough sticks to the rolling pin too much, rub a little more flour onto the rolling pin. When rolling the dough, use firm and even pressure on the rolling pin to push the dough out and away rather than down. Change directions often to create a circle. (Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly round. Mine never are. You’ll trim the edges later anyway. You just want to make sure it’s roundish so it will fit in your pie pan.)

You can see that nice marbled look in the picture above – it’s the shortening not completely blended in with the flour. This is what makes the pie crust flaky! That’s why you don’t want to over-mix it.

Once you think it’s thin and big enough, turn your pie plate upside down over the crust to measure; it should come out at least one to two inches all the way around the edge of the pie pan. If it’s big enough, you’re ready to move it to the pie pan!

how to make a pie crust 6

The best way I’ve found to do this is slowly and gently lift one side and fold the crust in half. Then, still slowly and gently, lift one side to fold it in fourths. Now pick up the wedge of crust, move it to the pie pan, and unfold it. If there are any tears, wet your fingers and press the crust back together.

Now trim any extra around the edges (you can leave a little extra either to make a decorative edge, or to seal the top crust on) and fill your pie! Or if you’re making a cream pie or other pie that doesn’t need to bake, poke a few holes with a fork in the bottom and side, and bake the crust. (The holes keep it from puffing up or forming bubbles in spots.)

And here’s my favorite recipe! Makes one 9-inch crust

Basic Pie Crust

1 cup flour
pinch of salt
1/3 cup shortening
3-4 Tbsp cold water

Mix flour and salt in a medium or large bowl. Add the shortening, and use a pastry blender to cut it in to the flour (see tips above).

Once it has a nice crumbly texture, about the size of small peas, begin to add the water one tablespoon at a time. Continue adding water until the dough becomes sticky enough to form a ball. If it gets too sticky, add a little more flour.

Roll it into a ball, then put it on a floured surface and press it flat. You can wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about half an hour if desired (some say it makes it easier to roll out, and flakier). Use a floured rolling pin to roll out the dough. It should be about two inches larger than the pie pan. Slowly and gently fold the dough in fourths, transfer to the pie plate, and unfold. Mend any tears with wet fingers gently pressing the dough back together. Trim the edges, and you’re ready to fill the crust! Then just bake according to the directions for that pie.

If you’re making a pie that needs a pre-baked shell, use a fork to poke a few holes in the bottoms and sides, then bake it at 475 for about 15 minutes (check after 10). Let it cool, then fill.

Sorry if I disappointed anyone by not having cute ideas for the pie crust edges. I usually just use a fork to create a ridged look, or put a crust on top – which I’ve usually cut a heart or other shape in the center of. Maybe some day I’ll get more creative and share some decorative ideas! In the meantime, go make a pie and see how simple and delicious it is to have a homemade crust!

Chocolate Covered Strawberry Cream Pie

I love making pies. Which is kind of ironic because my husband absolutely loves cake, and I don’t really like making cakes. At least he agrees that my pies are always delicious, even if he would prefer a cake.

I started making pies for Thanksgiving when I was about twelve. I have a little dream to one day open up a little pie shop. (I kind of want it to be just like the Pie Hole in Pushing Daisies…) So I often invent pie recipes in my head. I wish they were as creatively titled as the ones Kerri Russell invents in her head in Waitress. But they are most definitely delicious! (And no, I don’t base all of my cooking on TV shows and movies… just apparently my pie making.)

I rarely actually make the pies I invent… but I’m working on ways to make that happen more often – without consuming mass quantities of pie, that is.

This pie was actually a Valentine’s Day invention. You can’t get much more Valentinesy than chocolate covered strawberries, right?

chocolate covered strawberry cream pie 2

Chocolate Covered Strawberry Cream Pie: Chocolate cookie crust, a layer of dark chocolate custard, a layer of strawberry cream, topped with dark chocolate shavings and a chocolate covered strawberry.

I know, this isn’t exactly a healthy treat… but at least I used fresh strawberries! And dark chocolate! That’s got to count for something. Let me make a little confession here: I have a serious sweet tooth. I try to find healthy alternatives so I don’t just eat chocolate and candy all the time. But sometimes, you’ve just got to have the real thing. So many (most) of my dessert recipes will probably be less healthy than my other recipes. But at least they’ll be delicious!

For this pie I actually broke one of my cardinal rules of pie making – I used a store-bought crust! But I knew I didn’t have time to experiment with making my own chocolate crust, and I needed a disposable pie tin (I took one of the pies to a neighbor) so I caved. It wasn’t terrible… but I definitely want to come up with my own crust for this pie next time.

 chocolate covered strawberry cream pie 1

This recipe makes two pies – perfect for sharing the love! Or if you want, you could do just the chocolate layer or just the strawberry layer for one pie.

You’ll want to make the chocolate custard first so it has time to set up a little before pouring the strawberry layer on top. Be patient with this! It takes a long time for the custard to thicken. Just keep the heat on medium and keep stirring. If it starts boiling, then it’s done (but it doesn’t have to boil! It’s just that if it reaches boiling, it won’t get any thicker.) Once the custard is nice and thick, you’ll take it off the stove, add the vanilla, butter, and chocolate chips. Stir until the chocolate is completely mixed in, then pour half into each pie shell.

chocolate strawberry pie recipe 1

Put the pies in the fridge so the chocolate can begin to set up while you make the strawberry cream.

In a large bowl, whip the cream until stiff peaks form. Puree the strawberries in a blender or food processor. With a rubber spatula, slowly fold in the pureed strawberries and sweetened condensed milk.

strawberry cream pie recipe 1

You can add a little more of the sweetened condensed milk if the strawberries are really tart – but don’t add too much or it will overpower the strawberry flavor and make the cream runnier.

The strawberry cream will be about the consistency of yogurt (and feel free to eat it by the spoonful like yogurt! It’s pretty tasty!)

 strawberry cream pie filling

Pour half of the strawberry cream into each of the pie shells on top of the chocolate layer.

chocolate strawberry pie recipe 2

Refrigerate for about 4 hours, or until set. The strawberry cream layer will stay fairly soft, but should set up enough to top it with a chocolate-covered strawberry (the strawberry will sink in a little, but not very far) and some dark chocolate shavings.

Chocolate Covered Strawberry Cream Pie Recipe

2 chocolate cookie pie crusts (like Oreo or Keebler)

Chocolate custard:
5 Tbsp cornstarch
1 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 1/2 cups milk (I used 2%)
3/4 cup half-and-half
3 egg yolks
2 Tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips (milk or semi-sweet would work too)

Strawberry cream:
1 1/2 cups whipping cream
3/4 cup strawberry puree
1/2 can sweetened condensed milk

1. Mix cornstarch, sugar and salt in a saucepan. Add milk and half-and-half. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until smooth and thick. (This takes a long time – be patient!)

2. With the egg yolks in a small bowl, slowly stir in at least 1/2 cup of the cream mixture (this keeps the eggs from scrambling in the hot custard). Slowly pour the egg mixture into the saucepan with the rest of the cream, stirring well. Cook 2-3 minutes more, stirring.

3. While this finishes cooking, melt the chocolate chips in the microwave, about 30 seconds. (They don’t have to be completely melted)

4. Remove pan from heat and add butter, vanilla, and melted chocolate chips. Stir well to make sure chocolate is completely melted and mixed. Pour half of the custard into each pie shell and put them in the refrigerator.

5. While the chocolate custard is setting, make the strawberry cream. Puree the strawberries in a blender or food processor until smooth. (It takes about 1 1/2 cups of berries to make 3/4 cup puree).

6. Whip the whipping cream until stiff peaks form. Slowly fold in the strawberry puree and sweetened condensed milk. Pour (or spoon) half of the strawberry cream on top of the chocolate layer in each pie. Put them back in the refrigerator to set up for at least 4 hours, or even overnight. The strawberry layer may be a bit runny – the longer it stays in the fridge the better!

7. Top with a chocolate covered strawberry and chocolate shavings if you want, and serve!

Note: The chocolate custard layer was adapted from the Lion House Basic Cream Pie recipe.