A few weeks back, the Magpie Powers That Be asked if I’d be willing to take over the pie-making part of the bakery. I said yes, of course.
I love pie.
Turns out, making pies at home is one thing. It’s another entirely to make them in bulk in huge ovens. It’s not nearly as easy or straightforward as one might think.
First, the kind of pie. At home, I bake fruit pies year round — sour cherry, rhubarb, grape, berry — because I have all those fruit, fruits we picked in season and squirreled away in the freezer. But for the diner, I don’t have a freezer full of prepped, in-its-prime fruit to pull from. Plus, I have to think about things like shelf-life, fridge space, and customer preference.
All this means I’ve been experimenting with lots and lots of pies. (Thank goodness Magpie lets me take home rolled crusts — at the bakery, we use the sheeter to roll them out — for my test bakes!) I make a bunch and then run a plateful of samples over to my parents for them to taste test. The bum pies that no one wants go to my brother’s family because they say they want them.
A sampling of my fails…
Black Bottom Oatmeal: tastes like Ellie’s food bin, my daughter said.
Salted Caramel Apple: made with a fabulous homemade caramel sauce that, once baked, could not be detected, so — why bother?
Apple Sweet Potato: nah.
Spiced Shoofly: too dry, and the spices didn’t add anything.
Another variation on Shoofly: didn’t like the dry top.
Bourbon Pear Crumble: Bland and too sweet.
Assorted fruit pies, assorted crumb toppings, etc.
My mother says I’m getting too picky. I disagree. Rather, I say I’m becoming acutely discerning. (Recently scrolling through a NY Times pie montage touting “pies that taste as good as they look,” I was horrified: gelatinous fillings, blatantly imbalanced flavor combos, and scandalously soggy bottoms. What, oh what, is this world coming to?)
Second, the baking. Even set at 400/425 (the ceiling/floor temps) and baking the pies directly on the floor of the oven, it takes the pies longer to bake than in my home oven. They don’t burn, which is nice, but it takes forever.
Because the pies start out on the floor of the oven (for proper brownage), they have to be transferred to baking sheets part way through when they start bubbling over (and it works best to start them on the floor of the oven so the bottom crust gets sufficiently browned). Also, when parbaking (or straight baking) them on the floor of the oven, the pies have to be placed at the front of the oven so they’re accessible — this means, only about six pies at a time and all that wasted space and heat at the back.
Maybe there’s a sturdy thin metal peel that we could use to get pies all the way to the back? On the other hand, heavy glass-pan pies and floppy aluminum-pan pies are pretty tricky to manage…
To parbake a crust, I line it with foil, fill the pan with dried beans to weight it down, and bake it for about 25 minutes. Then I remove the foil full of beans and return the crusts to the oven for another 10 minutes or so. Sometimes the crust, freed of its bean weights, bubbles wildly, even rising up above the pan rim. Other times, the crust doesn’t bubble even a little.
There is no rhyme or reason, best I can tell, so when it bubbles high, I just press it back down and go about my life.
Third, the pans. My mother had always told me that glass pie pans were the only way to go — how else to see the underside to make sure it was sufficiently browned? And most all the aluminum-panned pies I ever saw did look colorless and soggy. So my whole life I believed her.
But for the bakery, we needed to figure out how to make pies in those dreaded aluminum pans. So I started working on it and — guess what! — they brown beautifully!!!
The trick is to parbake the crusts until they’re golden before adding the filling. (Pies baked with raw dough will brown on the bottom but the sides have trouble getting color — something I’m still puzzling over.) This means, for to-go pies, custard pies and fruit pies with crumb toppings are best.
(Update: just this morning I discovered that pastry in aluminum pans can be parbaked on baking trays — not directly on the oven floor as I do for the glass pans — which means that now I can parbake twelve, and maybe even fifteen, crusts at a time!)
So far, I generally bake pies for the diner on Monday — I choose pies that have a good shelf-life since they need to last several days (if/when they start going through two to three pies a day, I’ll add in more fruit pies) — and then I bake a dozen or so pies on Friday to sell whole, out the door. I’d love to make more, but we’re still building clientele; hopefully, I’ll soon be able to pull out all the stops and go full throttle.
These are the pies I’ve made, both for the diner and to sell out the door…
- Grits: vanilla custard with grits as the base, served with sour cream whip and lemon marmalade; this pie, the head baker’s choice, is available weekdays in the diner.
- Sweet Potato: served with buttermilk whip (people seemed a little unsure of this pie which surprised me, considering we’re in the South and all)
- Coffee-Spiked Shoofly: this was surprisingly popular
- Apple: both lattice-topped and crumb topped
- Triple Berry Crumble: the spiced oat topping is so yummy
- Blueberry Crumble
- Red Raspberry: store-bought berries are quite different from homegrown ones; I’m still tweaking.
- Peanut Butter Cream
- Pumpkin Torte: a fig-walnut biscotti crust, pumpkin mousse filling (leftover from the diner), whipped topping.
- Pistachio Coconut Cream: pistachio and coconut crust, pistachio-infused custard, whipped cream and toasted coconut; I never even tasted the final product!
- Almond Cream Pear Tart: one of my favorites.
- Millionaire’s: coconut, chocolate, and pecans drowned in caramel — wildly delicious
- Pumpkin: except I use butternut
I have a couple new pies I’m excited to roll out in the next few weeks (citrus! chocolate! cranberry!), and have even more I’d like to experiment with soon (salty honey, mincemeat, chiffon, buttered rum cream, fig crumble, chess, savory).
I’m especially trying to up my fruitless (ha!) pie game, so if you have recommendations, do share!
This same time, years previous: a fun kitchen hack, curried Jamaican butternut soup, apple raisin bran muffins, how to use up Thanksgiving leftovers in 10 easy steps, cranberry pie with cornmeal streusel topping, apple rum cake.