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The Secret Ingredient for Better Pies (It's in Your Spice Cabinet!)

Rachel Tepper
Editor
Yahoo Food
December 11, 2013

The Secret Ingredient for Better Pies (It's in Your Spice Cabinet!)

Rachel Tepper
Editor
Yahoo Food
December 11, 2013

Photo credit: Gentl & Hyers/Grand Central Publishing

If your idea of a pie is something treacly and traditional, hold on to your old velvet topper. Sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen, co-owners of Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Brooklyn, New York, are about to turn your old-school world upside down.

"Pie is definitely more of a savory snack," Emily recently told us. "It’s not like a cake or a cookie. [Its] crust is kind of bread-like and buttery."

It’s an interesting point, and explains why the sisters’ use of spices and herbs like paprika, rosemary and sage—ingredients traditionally relegated to more savory realms—work so well in their pies.

"We think about what characteristics of any given herb or savory element … would bring out [in] fruit and custard," Emily explained. 

This thinking is on full display in the “Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book,” which was published this fall and features a number of pie recipes flecked with –– delightfully unexpected –– herbs and spices.

Among them is a cranberry sage pie, which makes a compelling case for these ingredients’ place in a baker’s kitchen. ”Cranberries are very, very bitter and tart and tannic,” Emily said. “The herbal sage element ––it balances the sweet tartness, and the grassy flavor of the sage complements it.”

Below, a few particularly delicious reasons to ransack that spice cabinet.

Lavender Honey Custard Pie (pictured above)

Ingredients:

  • All-Butter Crust for a 9-inch single-crust pie (recipe at the bottom of post)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tbl flour
  • 1 tbl stone-ground white cornmeal
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 3 tbl unsalted butter, melted
  • 2/3 cup lavender honey (or any variety floral honey)
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tsp fresh lemon juice
  • 4 drops food-grade lavender oil
  • Candied lavender flowers, to garnish (recipe follows instructions)

Position a rack in the center of the oven and reheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Places the pre-baked pie shell on a rimmed baking sheet.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, flour, cornmeal, and salt. Whisk in the melted butter, followed by the honey. Add the eggs and egg yolk one at a time, whisking well after each addition. Add the heavy cream, lemon juice, and lavender oil, and whisk well to combine.

Strain the filling through a fine-mesh sieve directly into the pie shell, or strain it into a separate bowl and then pour it into the shell. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 40 to 50 minutes, rotating 180 degrees when the edges start to set, 30 to 35 minutes through baking. The pie is finished when the edges are set and puffed slightly and the center is no longer liquid but still quite wobbly. Be careful not to overbake or the custard can separate; the filling will continue to cook and set after the pie is removed from the oven. Allow to cool completely on a wire rack, 2 to 3 hours. Serve slightly warm, at room temperature, or cool.

The pie will keep refrigerated for 2 days or at room temperate for 1 day.

Candied Lavender Flowers 

  • 3 tbl dried lavender flowers
  • 1 tsp water
  • 1 tbl granulated sugar

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pour the lavender flours into a small bowl, sprinkle with water, and fluff with a fork to distribute the water evenly. Pour the moistened lavender flowers into a 6-inch or larger fine-mesh sieve and shake off any excess water. Sprinkle the sugar, 1/2 tsp at a time, over the flowers, shaking to distribute the sugar in between additions. Tap the sieve finmly against the heel of your hand to shake off excess sugar. Spread the flowers evenly on the prepared baking sheet and place in the oven to dry for 20 minutes. Cool, and then break up any clumps with your fingertips.

Candied flowers will keep indefinitely in an airtight container.

Cranberry Sage Pie

Photo credit: Gentl & Hyers/Grand Central Publishing

Ingredients:

  • All-butter crust for a 9-inch double-crust pie
  • 1 tbl coarsely chopped fresh sage
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 4 tbl ground arrowroot
  • 1/4 ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 4 cups whole cranberries, fresh or frozen (two 10-ounce bags)
  • 1 small baking apple, such as Northern Spy or Golden Delicious
  • 1 tbl vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • Egg wash (1 large egg whisked with 1 tsp water and a pinch of salt
  • Demerara sugar, for finishing

Have ready and refrigerated one pastry-lined 9-inch pie pan and pastry round or lattice to top.

In a heatproof bowl, pour boiling water over the dried cranberries to cover by about an inch. Allow them to plump while making the remaining filling.

In a food processor fitted with a blade attachment, combine the chopped sage, granulated sugar and brown sugars, salt, arrowroot, cinnamon, and allspice. Process until the sage is fully blender. Pour the sugar mixture into a large bowl.

Use the same food processor bowl to briefly process 2 cups of the whole cranberries to a rough chop; add them, along with the remaining 2 cups whole cranberries, to the sugar mixture.

Peel the apple and shred on the large holes of a box grater. In a colander, drain the plumped dried cranberries of excess water, but do not press or squeeze them out. Add the shredded apple and the drained dried cranberries to the bowl with the rest of the filling and mix well. Stir in the vanilla extract and egg, and mix well. Pour the filling into the refrigerated pie shell, arrange the lattice or pastry round on top, and crimp as desired.

Chill the pie in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes to set the pastry. Meanwhile, position the oven racks in the bottom and center positions, place a rimmed baking sheet on the bottom rack, and preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Brush the pastry with the egg wash to coat; if your pie has a lattice top, be careful not to drag the filling onto the pastry (it will burn). Sprinkle with the desired amount of demerara sugar.

Place the pie on the rimmed baking sheet on the lowers rack of the oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the pastry is set and beginning to brown. Lower the oven temperate to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, move the pie to the center oven rack, and continue to bake until the pastry is a deep golden brown and the juices are bubbling throughout, 35 to 45 minutes longer.

Allow to cool completely on a wire rack, 2 to 3 hours. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

The pie will keep for 3 days refrigerated or for up to 2 days at room temperature.

Paprika Peach Pie

Photo credit: Gentl & Hyers/Grand Central Publishing

Ingredients:

  • All-butter crust for a 9-inch double-crust pie
  • 2 1/2 pounds peaches (enough for about 5 cups sliced)
  • 2 tbl fresh lemon juice
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 3 tbl potato starch
  • 1 tbl sweet paprika
  • 1/8 tsp white pepper
  • 1/4 tsp allspice
  • 1/4 tsp ginger
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 to 2 dashes Old Fashion bitters
  • Egg wash (1 large egg whisked with 1 tsp water and a pinch of salt)
  • Demerara sugar

Have ready and refrigerated one pastry-lined 9-inch pie pan and pastry round or lattice to top.

Bring a large pot of water to a simmer. Have ready a large bowl of ice water. Score an X into the bottom of each peach, and drop it into the simmering water for 30 to 60 seconds. Remove and immediately drop into the ice water. When the fruit has cooled slightly, the skin should slip off easily when scraped with the back of a knife.

Slice the peeled peaches into 1/2-inch slices, add to a large bowl, and sprinkle with the lemon juice. Add the granulated and brown sugars, potato starch, paprika, white pepper, allspice, ginger, salt, and bitters and toss well to combine. Spoon the filling into the refrigerated pie shell, leaving behind excess juices. Arrange the lattice or pastry round on top, and crimp as desired.

Chill the pie in the refrigerator for 10 to 15 minutes to set the pastry. Meanwhile, position the oven racks in the bottom and center positions, place a rimmed baking sheet on the bottom rack, and preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Brush the pastry with the egg wash to coat; if your pie has a lattice top, be careful not to drag the filling onto the pastry (it will burn). Sprinkle with the desired amount of demerara sugar.

Place the pie on the rimmed baking sheet on the lowest rack of the oven. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the pastry is set and beginning to brown. Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, move the pie to the center oven rack, and continue to bake until the pastry is a deep golden brown and the juices are bubbling throughout, 30 to 35 minutes longer.

Allow to cool completely on a wire rack, 2 to 3 hours. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

The pie will keep refrigerated for 3 days or at room temperature for 2 days.

All-Butter Crust

Ingredients:

(For a single-crust pie)

  • 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp granulated sugar
  • 1/4 pound (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, but into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 2 tbl cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup ice

(For a double-crust pie)

  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tbl granulated sugar
  • 1/2 (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 cup ice

Stir the flour, salt, and sugar together in a large bowl. Add the butter pieces and coat with the flour mixture using a bench scraper or spatula. With a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour mixture, working quickly until mostly pea-size pieces of butter remain (a few larger pieces are okay; be careful not to overblend).

Combine the water, cider vinegar, and ice in a large measuring cup or small bowl. Sprinkle 2 tbls of the ice water mixture over the flour mixture, and mix and cut it in with a bench scraper or spatula until it is fully incorporated. Add more of the ice water mixture, 1 to 2 tbls at a time, using the bench scraper or your hands (or both) to mix until the dough comes together in a ball, with some dry bits remaining. Squeeze and pinch with your fingertips to bring all the dough together, sprinkling dry bits with more small drops of the ice water mixture, if necessary, to combine. Shape the dough into a flat disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, preferably overnight, to give the crust time to mellow. If making the double-crust version, divide the dough in half before shaping each portion into flat discs.

Wrapped tightly, the dough can be refrigerated for 3 days or frozen for 1 month.