9/10/2009

#14 Plum and Port Pie

Posted by Chrisi

When you’re on the quest for pie perfection, there is a lesson in every pie. In this particular pie, there were several… which doesn’t bode well for the pie.

Lesson 1: The pie is only as good as the ingredients you put in it. You would think that of all weekends, Labor Day weekend (the peak of summer bounty) would be the perfect weekend to go to the Farmer’s Market, but I didn’t make it. Maybe it was the six mile walk in the morning or maybe (most likely) it was that I went to work with my husband. So instead of farmer’s fresh, sweet succulent plums, I ended up with hard, barely-a-drop-of-juice-to-be-found, tart plums from the closest grocery store. In the store, the plums looked ripe. They felt ripe… but as soon as I began to slice them, I knew this pie was in trouble. I added sugar. I soaked the plums in booze overnight (booze fixes everything, right?). I added cinnamon and cardamom but no amount of trickery could mask the fact that I started with crappy plums. Which brings me to Lesson #2…

Lesson 2: Buy your fruit from the farmer’s market. Farmer’s bring their freshest, most ripe fruit to the market because it won’t survive shipping or meet the grocer’s desired shelf life. (My red plums would have happily basked in the glow of fluorescent lights for weeks without consequence). For pies, it’s better to buy over-ripe about-to-go-bad fruit than under-ripe fruit. In fact, my best strawberry pie (the one that won first prize in a pie swap) was made from jam-quality fruit, in which I cut out the bad parts. With a double-crust pie, no one is the wiser.

Lesson 3: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In my pursuit for the perfect pie crust, I first experimented with various fats (see Fat vs. Shortening) to determine the effect on flavor and flakiness. Now I am experimenting with different flours and flour combinations. The author of the Pie Bible (see Resources) states that the use of an all-purpose flour/cake flour combo (2:1) produces a “well-behaved” dough and the flakiest crust. I found the dough to be sticky—almost slimy—and very delicate. It wasn’t any more (maybe less) flaky than my 100% unbleached all-purpose organic flour crust. Maybe my fondness for this crust has tainted my objectivity or maybe, just maybe, I found the perfect pie crust combination early in my pursuit.

Lesson 4: No such thing as a universal thickener? Pie bakers often debate the virtues of tapioca vs corn starch as a thickener. In all my pies thus far, I have used Minute® tapioca--a starch extracted from the root of the cassava or yucca plant. For this pie, I added a quarter cup of tapioca to compensate for the extra liquid from the port. While the pie set up nicely, the bottom crust was not as crispy as I would like and the overall texture was slightly gummy (little clumps of tapioca). I think that, in this instance, corn starch or pulverized tapioca would have been a better choice. It would have produced a smoother texture and eliminated the tale-tell sign of small tapioca beads through the lattice crust. A fellow blogger named Rose says, “I prefer cornstarch because I find that it actually enhances the flavor of the fruit. But as any starch in excess dulls the fresh fruit flavor and can make the texture gummy, I like to let the cut fruit sit with sugar for at least 30 minutes, drain the syrup that forms, reduce it by 1/2 to 2/3 or until very thick (I like to use the microwave …) and add it back to the fruit filling. This way only about 1/3 the usual amount of thickener is required, the pie is just as juicy, and the bottom crust crisper.” But upon further research I found that cornstarch does not hold up prolonged cooking or in acidic environments (e.g., fruit). Another thickening option is Instant Clearjel®, “a modified cornstarch that professional bakers use to thicken pie fillings. It has several advantages over ordinary cornstarch. Instant ClearJel® thickens without cooking, works well with acidic ingredients, tolerates high temperatures, is freezer-stable, and doesn't cause pie fillings to "weep" during storage.” Less Clearjel is required to thicken a pie than cornstarch. Clearly, I have some experimentation to do.

So this pie was less than perfect…all is not lost if the lessons learned lead to a better pie next time. Yes, the plums were tart and a little crunchy and, sadly, the nuance of the port was barely detectable. But as I tell my students, experimentation and failure are necessary for personal growth. To call this pie a “plum disaster” would be dramatic. It was edible and perhaps the most perfect looking pie I have made to date. I won’t dwell on the negative but will move on to the next challenge.

Pie Filling: 

• 6-7 cups of sliced ripe red plums, skins retained
• 3/4 cup of raw cane sugar (varies by ripeness of plums; unfortunately mine were not very ripe)
• 1 tablespoon of fresh lime juice
• 1/2 cup of port (I used a Grand Tokay—an Australian dessert wine)
• 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
• A pinch of cardamom
• <>

Crust: Double 9” crust made with 50:50 Spectrum shortening-Plugra (butter)  

Directions: Combine the sliced plums, sugar, lime juice, cinnamon and cardamom in a non-reactive bowl and allow to “juice.” Meanwhile, in a saucepan, boil the port until the volume is reduced by half (to a 1/4 cup). Add the reduced port to the fruit and add the tapioca. (Note: If you decided to use cornstarch, I assume that you could add the cornstarch to the reduced port once it cooled). After addition of the thickner, allow the pie filling to sit for another 5 minutes. I actually let mine sit in the frig overnight. Some pie makers swear that this improves the flavor of the filling, softens the thickner, and allows the juices to distribute evenly. Assemble the pie. (I made a lattice top).

Bake at 400⁰F for 50 minutes or until the filling is bubbly. 

P.S. - I did attempt to make a few peach lollipies with left-over pie dough.  Those are going to require a lot of work to get right... stay tuned.

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