It's comforting to make your own pie," says Jonathan Bennett, executive chef and partner at Moxie the Restaurant and Red the Steakhouse, both in Beachwood. "All of the ingredients are basic and familiar: flour, water, salt and butter." No surprises; nothing to intimidate.
You begin by working fat into flour with your fingertips, shaping the butter-flecked dough into a ball, rolling it out, slipping it gently into the pan and finally pinching and tweaking a thick, ropey edge. It's a deeply satisfying enterprise that resonates with more than 200 years of American history. In his book "Classic Home Desserts" Richard Sax writes: "One of the things noticeable about early pie recipes is their lack of detail; it was assumed that any cook who knew her way around a kitchen could put together a pie."
For those who embrace it, creating a pie is an art, not a task. Subtle hints of human imperfection ensure a one-of-a-kind production: an unevenly fluted edge that carries impressions of the pie maker's fingers, a filling that shows flecks of a hastily peeled apple, a cracked, discolored crust where a trail of thick, hot juice has trickled out. And that's when you've been practicing; for a less experienced baker, the prospect of turning out a beautiful pie can be daunting, to say the least. Be tolerant of mistakes and even your first disasters - a crust that darkens too quickly or a filling that explodes onto the oven walls. They're inevitable. But every error contains a lesson learned and a reason to try again.
"Pies that are so easily mass produced, with stamped-out crusts and machine-crimped edges, can't hold a candle to pie that is crafted," says Bennett. "It's like [the difference between] buying a piece of furniture from a big box store and one from an Appalachian artisan."
Everyone has their own picture of pie perfection. For Bennett, it's his mother Becky Jo's chocolate meringue pies. "I can still remember carefully dabbing my fingers on the little golden 'weeps' of sugar coming out of the meringue," Bennett remembers. "It was better than honeysuckle nectar. Later in life, I found out that a good meringue doesn't weep, but they never had my mom's meringue."
Runner-up is her pecan pie. "There were seven pecan trees in our front yard," he laughs. "My mom would have us 15 feet up, out on a thin limb, shaking our hearts out, trying to get the pecans before the crows did." Read on for his mother's meringue recipe, a couple of his favorite creations and my own recipe for a great holiday dessert, all designed to leave every taster with newfound memories of an unforgettable pie, made by someone they love - you.
Becky Jo's Chocolate Meringue Pie
Bennett's Potato and Gruyere Pie
Cranberry Apricot Amaretto Pie
Bennett's Classic Apple Pie
Making the perfect pie crust
Mushroom Pie Filling
Classic Pumpkin Pie