Good morning, friends and neighbors!
After last weeks “crash course” in chocolate, another discussion popped up that I couldn’t help but stick my beak in as the topic was very close to my heart:
“Hey everyone, of all things in the kitchen, I know next to NOTHING about fruit pies. Help?”
Bakers and chefs chimed in, and I scrolled through their responses before finally saying,
“Yeah, everything here is about right to my experience. Here’s a couple other things I do that you might find helpful..”
My friend from last time popped up. “Oh thank God, I was wondering this too. Have you written about this?”
I went back and found my previous pie-related entries, only to realize I NEVER COVERED FILLINGS.
“Dude, GET ON IT, and then send me the link! Maybe a video how-to?”
Well, I like to correct my mistakes, and I’m here to please, so strap in all. I’m going to take you through baking pies and my personal Top 5 Fruit Pie recipes! Video how-to will come soon!
So What's My Deal with Pie?
Pie, to me, is the ultimate homecooking icon. It’s the real symbol of hospitality and comfort food (get out of here with your pineapple symbolism,) and it’s ingrained in our culture going back centuries:
Beyond that, it’s also the most direct (and beautiful) example of my personal culinary philosophy:
Simplicity, with Elegance
Pie is, by its nature, not a fussy affair. It’s a crust with a filling. Simple in appearance, seemingly simple in execution. To make a truly excellent pie is a work of art and a demonstration of real craftsmanship. If something goes wrong with the crust, there’s NO HIDING IT. If the filling is off, there’s NO HIDING it. No icing. No sauce. No sprinkles. No piling a little mound of microgreens on top of a burned bit.
Pie is honest. It is honest about itself, and about your skill as a baker. That is a beautiful thing.
Back when I was a kid, I loved pie- it just felt more… fun. I don’t think I ever had a birthday cake after the age of 10- simply because I always just wanted pie instead.
That’s something that persists to today, by the way. You know, in case anyone is in the Portland area in July. *hint hint*
Crust And Assembly Recap!
As I mentioned above, I’ve done a couple of posts about pie before- one on making and handling a perfect crust, including my favorite recipe, and another on assembly once you have everything ready. You should really go read those first:
For those of you in a hurry, though, I’ll touch on the most important bits here. Since writing those, I’ve changed up my method a bit so I’ll include that here:
My Favorite Recipe
Got all that? Go look at those blog post for a bit more detail, as well as demo pictures!
Now, on to the fun part- FILLINGS!
When it comes to fruit pie fillings, you can absolutely follow a (tested and proven) recipe, but between you and me, I rarely have one.
I prefer to work with ratios instead [link to bakers math blog]- it’s less to remember, and gives you a bit more latitude to mess around with different elements.
Want it a little sweeter? Add some more sugar! A little thicker? Add some more thickener. Remember- Baking is chemistry. With practice, you’ll understand which rules you can bend or break- and which ones you can use to have fun!
My Fruit Filling Ratio
4 parts fruit to 1 part sugar
8 parts sugar to 1 part cornstarch.
Let me say it again here- this is not set in stone. This ratio will just give you a good idea for how to assemble a fruit filling. You should ALWAYS feel free to experiment and figure your own best recipe out!
Be a mad scientist!
Is the Cornstarch Necessary?
Well, yes and no.
Cornstarch is a thickener, or a “gelling agent” in fancy industry lingo. It works better than flour, and is less expensive than other thickeners like arrowroot.
Most of the time, when people eat a pie, they expect the fruit to be surrounded in some sort of thick “goop”- you can call it sauce, juice, or whatever. It’s what’s in the fruit pie besides the obvious fruit.
Depending on the fruit you are using, you may want to use less or more thickener. This is because some fruits are rich in a natural gelling agent called “pectin.” You might see it in the canning section of your grocery store on its own.
It’s a popular addition for people who make their own jellies or jams, and it’s often used as a vegan substitute for gelatin in cooking and baking.
When making a pie with fruit rich in pectin (such as apples or blueberries) you might remove the cornstarch all together, or cut it down a lot. It all depends on the texture you like in your filling!
In the end, it’s your pie! Experiment and do your own thing!
To Pre-cook, or not to Pre-cook?
This is another one of those divisive questions in the pie world- do you pre-cook your filling, cool it, and THEN put it in the pie? Or do you let the filling cook and thicken in the shell?
Again, it’s up to you! For me, I personally like to pre-cook. It means I can spread out the time necessary to make a pie (having dough and filling made a day before means that I can just assemble and bake when I’m ready!)
It also leads to a thicker filling, since you are really just heating the pre-cooked filling and baking the crust.
Letting the filling cook in the crust can lead to a juicier pie, but will require extra attention during the baking. Your crust will likely be nicely browned before the filling is completely cooked, so you’ll wind up having to tent it with foil. Additionally, the extra moisture may require time to make sure your bottom crust gets completely cooked! That’s all a bit too much for me.
How Do I Know When It's Cooked?
Regardless of whether you pre-cook or not, the tell-tale sign that your filling is properly cooked is watching for bubbling in the vents of your top crust.
As your pie bakes, the filling will bubble up. It’ll start out with small, fast bubbles- like a boiling pot of water. What you are looking for is the bubbles to come up slow and thick, like bubbling tar. That means that your filling has been thickened to the point that the cornstarch is well-cooked, and you’ll have thick, shiny goop!
Alright, got the basics down? Here’s some of my favorite filling ideas! Depending on how big a pie you are making, some of these may make a bit too much. Hold on to it and make another pie, or just scale it down!
Got all that? Good!
Here's some of my favorite pie fillings!
The Über Apple Pie!
This is the pie I made for my recent blogs. It’s a fall favorite of mine, and a wonderful demonstration of “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth OVERdoing!” The pie crust is seasoned with apple pie spice and made with apple cider. The filling gets dosed with Applejack Brandy, and the selection of apples just screams fall!
3 lbs Apples (my favorites are Granny Smith, Fuji, Gala, and Honeycrisp)
½ cup of brown sugar
1.5 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tbsp Brandy
1 tsp Vanilla Extract
Core the apples, and peel HALF of them. Dice small.
Cook over medium heat until the apples release a noticeable amount of liquid in the bottom of the pot.
Add the sugar, and whisk the cornstarch, spices, brandy, and extract together into a slurry. Pour in and stir regularly.
Cook until thick, with a shiny layer of goop forming on your spoon!
Tips and Tricks
Blueberry Lemon Mint
Coming from New Jersey, summer meant BLUEBERRIES. Adding citrus to berry pies brightens them up and highlights their tartness, and the addition of mint lends an herbaceous, cooling feeling that makes this pie legitimately refreshing.
(adapted from The Joy Of Baking)
4 cups blueberries
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
Cook blueberries over medium heat until a noticeable amount of juice forms at the bottom of the pot. This time, add the lemon juice and zest, but whisk the sugar and cornstarch together well before adding in. Cook until shiny and goopy. Stir in the fresh mint.
Tips and Tricks
Gotta love that sweet heat!
4 lbs chopped fresh peaches
1 lb. sugar
About 1 oz. cornstarch
Any spices you like (for a smoky hit, add a little ground chipotle pepper!)
A few jalapeno peppers, diced and seeded.
Cook as for the blueberry pie, whisking the dry ingredients into the cooking fruit, and adding the jalapenos at the end. Just like with the herbs, adding the peppers toward the end preserves their heat! If you cook them with the filling, they wind up just tasting like green pepper.
Cherry Almond Cardamom
This is another go-to fall/winter pie! Despite cherries being very much a summer fruit, their combination with cardamom and toasty almonds makes this pie unnaturally filling and warming- like a hug in your belly, perfect for a cooler night in fall!
4 lbs cherries (a mix of sour pie cherries and dark sweet cherries)
1 lbs sugar
1 oz. cornstarch
About ½ c toasted, chopped almonds
½ tsp cardamom
½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla
Follow the same directions as above, but this time mixing in the almonds.
Tips and Tricks
Strawberry Rhubarb with Goat Cheese and Black Pepper
Now this one is the master course, and a demo of everything we’ve gone over in this blog.
It’s creamy. It’s fresh. It’s spicy. It’s sweet. It’s YUM.
3 lbs. Strawberries
1 lbs. Chopped rhubarb
1 lbs. Sugar
1 oz. cornstarch
4 oz. soft goat cheese
Black pepper, to taste
Cook fruit and rhubarb as above, whisking the sugar, cornstarch, and black pepper together and adding together.
Before baking, spread or otherwise evenly distribute the goat cheese over the bottom of the pie shell. Pour fruit filling on top.
There You Go!
Now you know how to make your own fruit pies, just in time for the holidays!
Think you’re family will be pleased? Which pie is your favorite?
Let me know in the comments!
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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