12/22/14

Muriel Vega

Smoking a Pie and Other Pie Challenges

On the night of December 23, as I stared at our new puppy on the couch, I reached out to Alex and asked him about pies. As he grew up in the South and I didn’t, I figured he would have a bit more experience in the art of eating pies. My grandmother is no longer around so I didn’t have much to go on aside from a cookbook I got for Christmas.

My pie challenge originated almost a year ago in December 2013 from an urge to find something to occupy my hands (and anxiety) with. I found that the art of making pie is a beautiful, complex one. I challenged myself to bake 50 pies over a year, which may sound simple over such a long period of time, but it’s anything but.

Learning how to make pie crusts made me a more humble person, seriously. Praise the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of the South and beyond for having such magical hands and the ability to whip out perfectly flaky crusts in an afternoon. The relationship between flour, salt, and butter is a finicky one; those three ingredients must come together at the perfect temperature and ratio to result in a delicious pie crust. Harder than it sounds. Tears and screams happened in my kitchen more than once, scaring most of my animals to the other side of the house. But once you get it, you hear bells and whistles and it’s wonderful. As I baked my way through my first dozen pies, I started getting more and more ambitious with my crusts. Once I mastered the all-butter crust, I made crusts with cream cheese, pecan brittle, poppy seeds, and even lard. Those pies are prized moments and every time I complete one, I feel as if I won a county fair contest and obtained one more blue ribbon.

The most amazing aspect of this challenge is how it’s grown from a personal growth experiment to an endeavor supported by so many people in my life.

***

During the day, I work at a church. No, I’m not religious, but it’s a mostly fulfilling job where I get to do things I love. There are many elderly ladies at my work, but Ruth is a special one. Ruth tells me stories about how when she was my age, she had many boys hanging with her. She tells me that I should always have Plan A, B, and C, up to J if I can, in life and that I should always say yes to dessert. She’s 89 years old, so I tend to listen to everything she says as my life’s gospel.

Once I started this 50-pie challenge, she was the first one I told. She told me that she would teach me everything she knew about pies as it was one of her favorite desserts in the whole world. She told me about how her favorite part of the whole process is that final moment when you crack the window and you carefully place the pie beside it. Nothing feels better than that moment, she said. As I told her my issues with pie crusts and how frustrated I became after failing time after time, she shook her head at me.

“You gotta love the pie, Muriel. If you don’t, the pie won’t love you back.”

I’ve taken that advice to heart. From the moment on, I only baked when I wanted to instead of when I needed to. My challenge became more enjoyable and my crusts started coming out better and better. But as a final piece of advice, Ruth told me her special ingredient for all her pie crusts: vodka.

“Always keep vodka in the house, Muriel. For pies and for life.”

***

At my house, all of our relationship bonding exercises have to do with food. We are the household that has three types of meat curing in the fridge, maybe a piece of bacon hanging in our back room waiting to be smoked and a giant container full of fermented kimchi. When guests come over, I usually offer them food like your grandmother who thinks you should put some meat on those bones. When I told Alex that I was making 50 pies, his eyes glazed over and I had to shake him to get him out of his future food coma.

Halfway through my challenge, I was getting bored of the ol’ oven pie. I wanted a challenge within my challenge. I told Alex that I wanted to smoke a pie and we joined up forces. It took two weeks to prepare us for that sunny day in June. Pie number 24 was going to be a Black Cherry Habanero Pie, smoked with apple and mesquite wood.

Luckily, most smokers (good, ceramic ones) work similarly to an oven. As long as you maintain the heat within the prescribed temperature and you avoid direct heat to the pie, that pie is going to be the best thing you’ve ever had. The pie crust comes out perfectly spongy with the aroma of smoke that will fill your entire house. The spicy habanero pair up beautifully with the sweet black cherries, making it into compote with layers of flavors. Make sure to use a heat resistant pie pan, e.g. oven safe. It cooks in less time at 375 F, about 20 minutes less than your usual oven affair, and well, it’s pretty darn good. Since then, we’ve also smoked a Salted Caramel Apple pie with a bacon lattice.

Finishing up a pie gives you a unique sense of accomplishment, at least for me. I feel like a chemist every time, like I discovered the perfect combo of ingredients for this particular pie and it turned out well. Alert the presses! The challenge ends on December 2014.

Now go make this pie.




Black Cherry Habanero Pie

Make your favorite all-butter pie crust

Filling (adapted from Four & Twenty Blackbirds recipe)
4 cups black cherries, pitted
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 habanero, diced
¾ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons ground arrowroot
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Egg wash + demerara sugar

Smoker notes | Set between 350 F and 375 F. Use apple and mesquite wood for flavor

Combine all ingredients in one bowl, mix well.
Pour into prepared pie shell. Make sure not to fill it all the way to the top so it doesn’t overflow when cooking.
Arrange lattice (or design of your choice) on top.
Place in the fridge for 15 minutes.
**During this time, prepare the smoker with the wood and set the temperature between 350 F and 375 F. Make sure the pie only receives indirect heat.
Take the pie out of the fridge and brush it with egg wash. Then, sprinkle sugar on the top.
Place it in the smoker for 35 minutes, or until bubbly and the crust is brown.

Muriel Vega is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. You can find her byline at The Guardian, Paste, xoJane, The Atlantic, among others. She’s most likely covered in flour right now. You can follow her pie challenge on her Instagram.