Friday, November 21, 2014


photos: via serious eats and four pounds flour

Each month, Masters of Social Gastronomy tackles a new curious food topic breaking down the history,  science, and stories behind some of our favorite foods. This week MSG took on the All-American Pie, specifically "the twin pillars of the American pie kingdom: the gentle apple pie and its heavily-spiced cousin, pumpkin pie." 

The two speakers were food historian Sarah Lohman of Four Pounds Flour who took us back to medieval Europe and the origin of pie and gave us a lesson in the contest of gluttonous pie eating and Soma of Brooklyn Brainery who gave us the history and science behind picking the best baking apples to making the perfect pie crust.

Apple pie... you can't get more Americana than that. But with over 75,000 varieties of apples worldwide how do you choose which apples to use? Apparently, no two apples are alike. Every apple is best used for a specific purpose. Some are solely for cider, others simply as a stand-alone dessert (not in desserts but eaten raw), and still others are just for baking. To get to the core of which apples fall into which category one needs to bite down and get beneath the skin to the cellular level (I'm sorry I had to do it). I won't go into details but you can read about it here. Also check out Serious Eats Taste Test: Finding the Best Apples for Baking. Soma's hands-down favorite baking apple is the Northern Spy. Sarah went with her mom's choice, Golden Delicious. 

I picked up heaps of information and history on how Libby's may have single-handedly saved  Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pie. Not convinced? Take a moment to imagine the time and effort involved with scraping out the insides, discarding the seeds, and roasting a fresh pumpkin. Not to mention the mess. Libby's Dickinson Pumpkins are a special strain of Pie Pumpkin created specifically for their canned pumpkin. The Dickinson pumpkins are oblong, tanned in color with thick orange flesh and are smaller, squatter, meatier, and sweeter than Halloween pumpkin. Their low water content allows for Libby's signature creamier (and denser) texture and sharper pumpkin taste. 

Did you know that pie-eating contests didn't originate in the United States but in Canada? By the turn of the 20th century, thanks to county fairs, pie-eating contests became a symbol of Americana sweeping across the country as a popular pastime. The military even joined in the gluttonous fun as regiments pitted soldiers against one another as a means of boosting morale during WWI. 

The best tidbit I took away from the event was a technique I was unfamiliar with for perfect flaky pie crusts. Instead of the traditional method of cutting the fat into the flour, you use a food processor to create a flour/fat paste which acts as a base that you then add dry flour and water to. Apparently it's not the fat that's coating pockets of dry flour that creates the crust's flakiness but the flour that's coating pockets of pure fat.

Dry flour moistened by water forms gluten which then gets stretched out into wide layers, creating the basic structure of a pie dough. As you roll out your dough, pure pockets of fat flatten out into long, wide, thin sheets, separating the layers of gluten-enforced flour from each other causing them to separate and gently puff as they bake. A flour/fat paste acts just as pure fat does so that when you add plain dry flour to the paste, incorporating it evenly, then add water, chill, roll, and bake - the results yield a flaky crust. You can read all about it at Serious Eats The Food Lab: The Science of Pie Dough

Here are some other tips: keep ingredients cold, weigh your flour, use butter not shortening for flavor, and swap out some of the water with vodka (the vodka has less water and evaporates as it bakes). 

Easy Double Crust Pie Dough (slightly modified from Serious Eats)
12.5 ounces all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 1/2 sticks (20 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into 14-inch pats
3 tablespoons of ice cold water
3 tablespoons of chilled vodka
  1. Combine two thirds of flour with sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse twice to incorporate. Spread butter chunks evenly over surface. Pulse until no dry flour remains and dough just begins to collect in clumps, about 25 short pulses. Use a rubber spatula to spread the ought evenly around the bowl of the food processor. Sprinkle in remaining flour and pulse until dough is just barely broken up, about 5 short pulses. Transfer dough to a large bowl. 
  2. Sprinkle with water and vodka using a rubber spatula, fold and press dough until it comes together into a ball. Divide in half. Form each half into a 4-inch disk. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before rolling and baking. 

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