Inside The Pie Renaissance

January 2, 2015

I’m writing this after a week of Christmas vacation, during which I didn’t really stop eating. Cookies, breads, casseroles, soups, lamb roasts, candies, both a traditional Swedish smörgåsbord and dopp i grytan meal — the list goes on. Suffice to say, I’m going to be hitting the gym a little more than usual.

But, since my brain is still wired for food, I’m going to share one of my biggest sources of unmitigated joy in the past couple months. If you’ve been a city dweller in the past couple years, you’ve probably had your fill of artisan doughnuts, pillowy cakes or too-cute cupcakes. According to “the tastemakers,” these confections are all “over.”

My contributions to the office Thanksgiving potluck.

My contributions to the office Thanksgiving potluck.

That leaves one hitherto-ignored treat overdue for a fresh look: pie. When’s the last time you had a good slice? It’s probably been a while — in my family, pie usually only appears on the table at Thanksgiving. It’s just so much work, and the risk-to-reward ratio in making it is alarmingly high.

I’m not a chef by any measure, but I will say that I am a pretty good baker. I can do justice to a batch of cookies or moist cake more often than not, but pie has always scared me away. There are so many variables: a dry crust or too much filling can practically light the whole thing on fire. Nothing’s more depressing than spending two or three hours making a crust, adding filling, getting everything just so and putting it in the oven — only to pull out a blackened, shriveled, flavorless tire of sugar.

I’d heard rumors, though, of a crust recipe that turns pie-making from nerve-racking to joyous. Well, here it is, friends: the Cook’s Illustrated “vodka pie crust” recipe. Yes, the vodka does something or other to make it better, but the stick-and-a-half of butter doesn’t hurt, either. It’s flaky, rich and golden brown every time.

Family Thanksgiving pie: apple, blackberry, walnut, bourbon.

Family Thanksgiving pie: apple, blackberry, walnut, bourbon.

Honestly, fixing the crust problem has made everything else fall into place for me. Piled-high fruit filling? Check. Dense, syrupy, pecan-like “butter pie”? A dream. Savory apple-and-green-chile? Enchanting. I finally got my mojo back, and it got me thinking: Where are all the pie shops?

You can’t check Facebook this days without encountering some list of the best new doughnuts, cake pop or flash-in-the-pan pastries in the Twin Cities. Even cronuts made a brief appearance in our culinary lives. But a good slice of pie hasn’t received the reputational rehabilitation it deserves.

Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of great pies to be had in diners, bakeries and grandmas’ kitchens around the metro. But I’m waiting for the one that does reinvent the wheel. If it doesn’t come soon, I might just have to do it myself.