A Somerville resident’s pie baking adventure

*This article originally posted on Boston.com*

A Somerville resident recounts her experience entering a baking competition, where she made 10 pies to feed 300 people.

I blame Facebook. Less than two weeks ago a friend posted a link on my wall and commented “this sounds right up your alley.” She was referring to a posting she saw about two foodies from Brooklyn who are hosting a tour of cooking competitions this summer called the Food Experiment, and their next stop was Boston. The theme of Boston’s Food Experiment: pie. My friend knows me well.

At first I knew that I must attend such a glorious event. For a small price I could eat pie and drink beer until my belly was full. Then I got an even better idea. I thought to myself, “Why not compete?” A few clicks and one confirmation email later, it was official. I had just signed myself up for my very first baking competition. I needed to bake not only my best pie, but enough of it to feed 300 people.

Considering how many pies I would have to make (I had decided on 10 pies, estimating each pie would yield 30 bite-sized samples), I immediately decided against any pie that required refrigeration and since I lacked experience with savory pies, I ruled them out as well. I decided to stick with the familiar: fruit pies.

After careful consideration I decided to make blueberry pies. Each sample would be topped with a dot of lemon curd and whipped cream. It sounded like a winner to me! I had not made blueberry pie before, nor had I ever had to make food in such large quantities, but I had been bit by the competitive bug and I felt confident that my baking skills would produce a winner.

The day before the bake-off I assembled a small team of helpers and we began tackling the seemingly crazy challenge. We began by loading the refrigerator with mounds of pie crust. The labor was then divided up and while I rolled out pie crusts and cooked the blueberries, my friends prepared the rest of the filling. When one batch of pies was in the oven the process was repeated. The phrase “I’m never doing this again!” was said continuously repeated amidst blueberry stains and flying flour.

After hours of sweating in my tiny kitchen, the last batch of pies was finally in the oven. It was dark out and the kitchen was an absolute disaster but we were surrounded by what I hoped would be award-winning pies sitting on the kitchen table.

The next morning my stomach was full of butterflies as final supplies were gathered. I was grateful for my friend’s suggestion to buy pastry boxes from a local bakery so that I could safely transport my pies in sturdy boxes.

Upon arrival I tried to appear as confident as possible as we carried in my pies and began slicing up the bite size samples. Right away I noticed I had seriously under-estimated how many “bites” I would get from one pie. As I eyed the surrounding competition I felt a flutter of anxiety as I learned there were not one but TWO other blueberry pies at the event. I hoped that topping my samples with lemon curd and whipped cream would help us stand out.

As the doors opened and people began to arrive, I finally felt excited. My friends and I had worked hard to make a dessert we were truly proud of, and now we had the opportunity to share it with everyone else.

Time flew by as we spoke to people at our table and restocked our supply of pie samples. Before we knew it the time had come for the winner to be announced. The bakers were called up to the main stage and I quickly tried to get the bits of pie out of my hair. Knowing that the event was coming to an end shortly I started to realize how tired I was and how sore my feet were going to be.

In the end, I did not win any prizes for what I still believe to be amazing blueberry pies. It would be dishonest to say I didn’t feel any disappointment, but I was glad I had competed. Despite the stress of preparing for such an event I had fun participating. If you were to ask me today if I would sign up for another baking competition, I would say, “No.” But if you were to ask me in a week when I’ve caught up on sleep and I can stand to look at blueberries again, undoubtedly my answer would be, “Yes,” without the slightest hesitation.

Vodka Makes a Perfect Pie Crust Every Time

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*Article originally appeared on www.Somerville.Patch.com*

The perfect summer pie starts with drunken pie dough

Making pie crust from scratch can be intimidating, but a good recipe that consistently provides a buttery, flaky crust is well worth the extra effort. This recipe–adapted from Cook’s Illustrated “All-Time Best Recipes”–features the perfect pie crust with one secret ingredient- vodka.

In a nutshell, the reason why vodka works in pie crust comes down to basic chemistry. Gluten (an elastic chain of proteins) is formed when water mixes with flour. To avoid a tough, undesirable texture caused by too much gluten, most pie crust recipes don’t include a large amount of water. However, this often leads to a dry crust that’s difficult to work with. By using vodka there is plenty of liquid and the final result has an ideal, flaky texture.

Another note on using vodka: the type of vodka doesn’t seem to matter. I experimented with using both middle-shelf vodka and the cheapest vodka I could find and got the same results both times. Also, any flavor from the vodka bakes off in the oven, so your pie won’t taste like it’s been baked in a dive bar.

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To start you’ll need the following ingredients:

Recipe adapted from America’s Test Kitchen

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (plus some extra to be used when rolling out the dough)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 2 tablespoons of sugar
  • A pinch of cinnamon
  • 12 tablespoons of cold unsalted butter
  • ½ cup of cold vegetable shortening
  • ¼ cup of cold vodka
  • 3-4 tablespoons of cold water

In a food processor, ‘pulse’ together 1 ½ cups of the flour, the salt, sugar, and cinnamon until combined. Next, add the butter and vegetable shortening and process until the mixture is in lumps slightly larger than cottage cheese.

Scrape the sides of the bowl and add the remaining flour.  In 4 to 6 quick pulses mix together the flour with the mixture until a mass of dough forms. Empty the mixture into a medium sized mixing bowl and sprinkle the vodka and water over the mixture. Using a rubber scraper combine the liquid with the dough by pressing it down into the dough until it is slightly sticky and the dough forms together.

Next, divide the dough into two even portions on separate sheets of plastic wrap. Flatten the dough into disks roughly the size of the palm of your hand and refrigerate for 45 minutes.

Before taking your dough out of the refrigerator make your pie filling (see pie filling suggestions below) and preheat your oven right before you start to roll out your dough. When rolling out the dough be sure to use plenty of flour as the dough can be a little sticky. Pour the filling into the pie dish and cover the pie with the second disk of dough.

To seal the two crusts together pinch the dough together using your fingers and the back of a well floured butter knife.

Finally, cut slits in the top of the pie to create vents for steam to escape. When placing on a middle rack in your oven you may also want to put a large baking sheet or piece of tin foil on the rack below your pie to catch any filling that might drip from the pie. Bake according to instructions with pie fillings.

Suggested pie fillings:

Triple Berry Pie (adapted from Betty Crocker’s Fresh Berry Pie)

  • 2 pints of strawberries, rinsed and cut into quarters
  • 1 pint of raspberries, rinsed
  • 1 pint of blackberries, rinsed
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • 5 tablespoons of flour
  • ½ teaspoon of cinnamon

Fresh Peach-Raspberry Pie (adapted from Betty Crocker’s Peach Pie)

  • 5 medium sized peaches, peeled and sliced
  • 1 pint of raspberries, rinsed
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • 4 tablespoons of flour

Both fillings bake at 425 for 35-45 minutes. The crust should be a golden brown and the filling of the pie should be bubbling through the slits except for in the very center when finished. If the pie crust is a very dark brown or starting to burn on the edges before the pie filling is finished baking, cover the edge of the pie crust with two-inch-strips of foil and put back in the oven to finish baking.

Let the pie thoroughly cool on a baking rack before cutting and serving with a generous portion of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.