The Other Pie Day

pie crust close up

For lovers of crust and crumb, March 14th is boldly penned in their pastry calendars. Pi(e) Day, has become an international holiday, honoring the never ending number 3.14159… and Einstein’s birthday. For those passionate about triangular slices of dessert, Pi(e) Day is their quintessential holiday. 

Pie’s lesser-known celebration, National Pie Day falls on the 23rd of January. Launched in 1986 as a marketing ploy by the American Pie Council to increase sales of Crisco on the famous blue labeled shortening’s 75th anniversary. The Council hoped this would provide the perfect incentive to encourage pie baking among the country’s home cooks. 

More than fifty years prior, a little book titled The Art of Cooking and Serving was written by Sarah Field Splint, who at the time was the Food Editor of McCall’s magazine. Published by the Proctor and Gamble Company, the goal of the book was to serve as a guide to those affectionately referred to as the “average homemaker.” 

pie ingredientsA well-worn copy of the blue plaid, soft covered book sat on the shelf in my grandmother’s kitchen, nestled among the Ladies’ Home Journal Dessert Cookbook and The Settlement Cookbook. She dutifully pulled Ms. Splint’s book from the shelf for consultation whenever flaky pie crust and tender biscuits were on the menu.

Boasting ‘549 Tested Crisco Recipes,’ Chapter XVIII is of particular interest to me. Devoted to the principles of pastry making, it stressed the importance of using level measurements of flour,
chilled shortening and the addition of just enough water. When combined with a light touch, readers are guaranteed a tender pie crust. Why then, does the mention of pie crust still send so many otherwise confident cooks to their grocers’ freezer cases?

When embarking on a strictly-from-scratch pie journey, it is important to understand that by nature, pie pastry is inherently contradictory. It needs to be flaky enough to yield to the tines of a fork yet strong enough to support and encase a filling. The stumbling block for many is deciding which fat(s) to use; all butter, a combination of butter and shortening, or lard on its own or in tandem with butter.  

The type of fat used in pie making has always been and will continue to be wildly debated amongst those wielding the rolling pins. Thankfully, pie bakers have more than enough options from which to choose. 

Early pie bakers embraced shortening over butter for several reasons. Namely, shortening provided stability and consistency in pie pastry, regardless of the season. Not only was it shelf stable, it was less expensive than butter and offered a neutral flavor, unlike lard.

Leaf Lard (not to be confused with processed lard which is hydrogenated and has an underlying pork-like taste) is the highest grade of pie on platelard. In recent years, leaf lard has meandered back into the kitchen, popular with home bakers and pastry chefs for yielding what many believe to be the flakiest of pie crusts. While devout all-butter followers swear by taste alone, many bakers prefer the combination of butter and shortening or lard, for taste plus flake. Today, organic all vegetable shortening provides a viable non-hydrogenated option, yielding excellent results. 

Pastry, like history, has been known to repeat itself. Pies with humble beginnings have returned to the spotlight. The history of Shaker Lemon, or Ohio Lemon Pie, can be traced back to the early 1800s, originating with a religious group known as the Shakers. Spiritual, diligent and extremely thrifty, the Shakers believed hard work was an act of prayer. Acknowledging the expense of fresh lemons that journeyed from New Orleans up the Ohio River, the Shakers developed a recipe utilizing both the rind and the fruit of the lemon. 

It is both coincidental and fortuitous that National Pie Day falls during the month of January when Meyer Lemons are widely available. If ever incentive was needed to bake a pie, the Shakers’ recipe is all the inspiration you need. 

Meyer Lemons are slightly sweeter than their produce aisle counterparts, the Lisbon or Eureka lemons. Lisbons and Eurekas sport thicker skin, are larger than Meyer lemons and their fruit has that classic, pronounced sour taste. Meyer lemons originated in China and were introduced to the United States in the early 20th century. Named in honor of Frank Meyer, who collected new plant species for the United States Department of Agriculture, the sweeter Meyer lemon is showcased in the Shaker Lemon pie for good reason. The rind is thinner, and the flesh is less acidic with just the slightest hint of warmth and spice. Macerating the lemons in sugar softens the rind, creating a memorable lemon filling that is both sweet and tart (note: they are also excellent in whiskey sours).  

Start a day ahead to prepare your pie pastry and macerate thin slices of Meyer lemons in sugar. The result will be a double crust pie brimming with bright lemon flavor, as jammy and thick as the finest marmalade. Consider this the perfect harbinger of Spring in mid-January; a pie worthy of its very own holiday.

Shaker Meyer Lemon Pie

Makes one 9” double crust pie
Recipe by Ellen Gray

Lemons for Filling

  • 3 Meyer lemons, (total weight between 6 and 6½ ounces) washed thoroughly
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • pinch of salt

Prepare the lemons 24 hours in advance.

Using a sharp knife, slice off the ends of each lemon, then carefully slice the lemons paper thin, saving the juice. Remove the seeds and combine the lemon slices with the juice, the sugar and the salt in a large bowl, tossing to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside overnight. The lemons need not be refrigerated.

Flaky Half and Half Pastry

Adapted from the Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook

  • 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 6 tablespoons well chilled vegetable shortening, cut into ½” pieces (Spectrum
  • Organic All Vegetable non-hydrogenated Shortening can be found at Whole Foods and is highly recommended)
  • 6 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter cut into ½”pieces
  • 6-8 tablespoons cold water

Combine flour, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Cut in shortening and butter using a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture is the consistency of coarse

Sprinkle on cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, using a fork to toss the
mixture lightly. Add additional water, 1 tablespoon at a time to the driest part of the mixture. (You may not need all 8 tablespoons.) The dough should be just moist enough to hold together when pressed gently.

Gather the dough together, divide in half and shape into two discs. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before rolling out. Makes crust for one 9” double crust or lattice top pie.

All Butter Pie Crust

  • 2½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • ½ cup ice cold water

Combine flour, sugar and salt in a large mixing bowl. Cut in the butter pieces using a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture is the consistency of coarse cornmeal.

Add the ice cold water, a tablespoon at a time, tossing the mixture to distribute the water. Add additional water, 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing until the mixture is moist and just holds together.

Gather the dough together, divide in half and shape into two discs. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour before rolling out.

Makes crust for one 9” double crust or lattice top pie.

When ready to prepare the pie, roll out one circle of pie dough on a lightly floured
sheet of parchment paper into a circle about 11” in diameter. Gently ease the bottom crust into a 9” pie plate being careful not to stretch the pastry. (This causes shrinkage.) Turn the edges under and crimp decoratively.

Refrigerate the bottom crust while you roll out the top crust and prepare the filling. Roll out the second circle of pie dough on a lightly floured sheet of parchment paper into a circle about 11” in diameter. If you wish to make a lattice crust, use a pie crimper to cut 1” strips of dough. Carefully slide the parchment paper with the top crust onto a baking sheet.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate while you prepare the filling.

Shaker Meyer Lemon Filling & Assembly

  • Meyer lemon and sugar mixture
  • 4 eggs, lightly beaten
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • egg wash made of 1 egg white beaten with 1 teaspoon of water
  • sugar for sprinkling the crust

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Using a rubber spatula, turn the lemon/sugar mixture a few times to distribute the sugar that settles at the bottom of the bowl. If any stray lemon seeds have floated to the top, this is a good time to remove them.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour with a few tablespoons of the lemon syrup that has formed from the macerated lemons; the mixture should be smooth. (This helps incorporate the flour with the filling.)

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs then add the flour/lemon syrup to the eggs and whisk to combine. Gradually add the melted and cooled butter to the lemons and sugar, then add the egg/flour mixture, gently but thoroughly.

Retrieve the bottom and top crusts from the refrigerator. Place the pie plate with the bottom crust on a parchment lined baking sheet. Pour the filling into the bottom crust and carefully place the top crust (or lattice strips- you needn’t weave them, just place them diagonally over each other) over the filling. Seal and crimp the edges, carefully brush the crust with the egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. If not using a lattice, cut decorative vents in the top crust, allowing steam to escape. (Don’t worry if a bit of the lemon filling pops through the crust.)

Place the baking sheet with the pie on the bottom rack of the oven and bake for 20 minutes, to set the bottom crust. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees, carefully cover the edges of the pie with strips of aluminum foil to prevent overbrowning, and bake for an additional 40-45 minutes.

The top crust should be golden and a little bit of the lemon filling should bubble up through the vents, or the lattice. Insert a small knife in the center of the pie to test the custard; it should test clean. Remove the pie from the oven and place on a cooling rack. Cool the pie for several hours before slicing. Cover and refrigerate any leftovers.

Photos by Rachel Bowman

Ellen Gray is a freelance food writer and a professional baker at a small bakery in the Garden State. She wields a rolling pin by day and pens observations about pie by night at No More Mr. Nice Pie.


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