Pie makes you feel comforted, warm, and loved—especially if someone else makes it for you. As with most things, the homemade variety trumps store-bought every time. It’s as if you can taste the love and care. For those who make pie, there’s one more element sought by our discerning palate: perfection.
Pie success is built on the quality of the crust. The crust supports and frames the pie, encasing the centre goodness in a golden sweet pastry shell. If the pastry is too hard, each bite has the eater wiggling the fork back and forth to break through the tough bottom layer, and eating the outside edge requires picking it up and biting lest the fork fling the crust off the plate as tines fail to grab hold. If the crust is too soft, the pie becomes soggy and unable to hold it’s shape, ashamedly spilling forth its guts. It still tastes good (let’s be clear about that), but it may as well have been a fruit crumble.
I’ve been experimenting with gluten-free crusts for pumpkin pies, trying both press-crumb and pastry recipes with success, but haven’t yet attempted a non-wheat pie with a top crust. The issue is the flexibility and flakiness of the pastry to hold together and yet break easily when pierced through. The gluten found in wheat is a key component for achieving this exalted pastry state.
The price of organic berries being what it is, combined with the seasonality of the fruit makes risk-taking in the pie department an unsavoury prospect. So for the strawberry-rhubarb pie I made last weekend, I compromised with a spelt, oat, and sorghum pastry crust. Spelt is an old species of wheat that contains gluten, though some claim it is easier to digest than wheat gluten. It’s also described as having a nuttier flavour, and is possibly more nutritious. I was delighted with the result. The pastry performed to spec and tasted better than any regular wheat crust I’ve ever made.
Despite the importance of the crust, it is the filling that defines the pie. Berries, stone fruits and apples, all manner of flavoured creams, pumpkins and sweet potatoes, meringues and mincemeat (does anyone actually eat mincemeat?), there are countless types of pie. A pie for everyone, you might say.
My weekend pie featured a classic summer combination of two much-loved foods ripe at the same time, strawberries and rhubarb. The rhubarb I picked from my container garden, the small narrow stalks supplemented with this year’s frozen and much sturdier rhubarb from my mother-in-law’s suburban yard. Things got a bit tricky with the choice between local, pesticide-ridden berries or organic ones from California, and this time organic won the contest.
Having chosen the ingredients and crafted the pie, all that remains is to serve and eat it. For the non-makers of pie, this moment is filled with anticipation. For the devoted pie makers, this is a time of testing. When you serve pie, slicing through the flaky crust to reveal the heart within is not unlike ritual sacrifice. It can be messy. You cut the pie, then watch anxiously as that first piece is removed.
Does the filling hold?
Mine did…at first. Then dark candy-pink strawberry-rhubarb syrup oozed out to cover the bottom of the pie plate. Covered it completely. Then, despite the faultless crust, the strawberries began a slow, stately slide from the wounded sides of the slice. Perfection was out of reach.
But the pie was sublime.
Perhaps failing in the pursuit of perfect pie has made me ridiculously philosophical, but it seems that pie has some life lessons to share. Not the least of which may be to strive for perfection as you define it, but know that messy tastes just as good.