Beth Howard really doesn't see what all the fuss is about when people bake pies. To her, the process should be as simple as possible.
From the meditative quality of making a lattice crust on an apple pie to the alluring ability of baking for different guys in her college years, Howard sees a lot of benefit to making pies from scratch. Her demo, signing, reading, and pie tasting is tonight at Changing Hands Bookstore, and we got a sneak peek into Howard's straightforward pie process, and we have some quick tips for you before the event.
Chow Bella Presents: Baking with Ms. American Pie or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pie
Improv Everything From the length of time cooked to the amount of flour, water, or sugar used, Howard doesn't like exact measurements. She doesn't even like to use exact oven temperatures in recipes because it's so variable. Instead, Howard prefers feeling everything out as she goes to test when it's ready.
By Hand Is Better Cutting and peeling apples, mixing dough, and sprinkling flour all have tactile sensations that can help you feel if you're doing it right. If your dough is too dry, Howard says, add more water. If it's too wet, add more flour. Easy, right?
That being said . . . Don't Overwork the Dough Howard says most baking issues are salvageable, but once you've overworked the dough, you can't save it. She says that when she first started, "manhandling" the dough was her biggest problem. You want to leave nice chunks of fat in the dough to make the crust light and flaky.
"Salt, Sugar, Cinnamon, Flour" That's Howard's pie filling mantra. Just sprinkle those ingredients over layers of fruit and you'll be good. She does note that juicier fruits, like peaches and berries, may need some extra thickening help from tapioca or corn starch because in her experience, adding more and more flour to thicken fillings just turns out gross.
Don't Stress Over Sticky Dough If your dough starts to stick and rip on your rolling pin, just stop and take a breath. Don't panic. All you need to do is clean off your rolling pin and liberally sprinkle flour on your pin and dough. Problem solved.
Cracks and Holes Are Okay Wow. How did we never hear this? Howard has about a hundred patch and quick-fix options for cracked dough. From simple patches to cute cookie-cutter cut-out designs, you can add character to your crust. Or you can just leave the cracks and achieve a more homemade, rustic look with gooey filling bubbling out of it once it cooks. Either way, a good egg wash before baking will solve most problems.
Oven Liner Is Your Friend Remember that bubbling gooey filling we just mentioned? Yeah, well, aluminum foil can't hold up to the heat and weight combo of pie baking. Best to buy the good stuff if you want to keep a clean oven.
Excess Dough Has a Purpose And that purpose is adorable mini-pies and jar pies. You can bake them with the rest of your filling ingredients and give them away as gifts. However, if you run out of filling, you can freeze the mini-crusts for future use.
Don't Get Too Fancy, Have Fun with It In the end, Howard says, over-complicating pie baking takes the fun out of it. You don't need fancy tools and off-the-wall ingredients. In fact, she says the trend to use ingredients like basil, lavender, and dried orange peel is her least favorite. Simple, handmade baking means letting the fruit speak for itself.
Bake with Attitude Howard says her cookbook is different from others because it's "all about the attitude."
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"My book basically says don't listen to everyone else's cookbooks and don't follow recipes so closely," she says. "You don't even have to listen to me."
You can experience her love of hands-on teaching, and, of course, her new cookbook, Ms. American Pie, at Changing Hands in Tempe tonight beginning at 7.