Early success can lead to overconfidence.
After I finally started baking pies for this month’s project, I started to wonder if I’d bitten off less than I should have.
My first couple of pies mostly went well. I’d come up with credibly decent apple, blueberry and peanut pies. I’d made two perfectly acceptable quiches, one of which had been devoured by the Gazette-Mail newsroom.
This is not a particularly difficult feat — I’ve put out Christmas candy canes in July and watched them disappear in a single afternoon. But I did get compliments on the pie.
Reporter Becca Carballo even said the crust to one of my pies was the best part, even better than the filling.
It all went to my head. I got a little too brave.
I wasn’t happy with the Virginia Diner Peanut Pie I made.
Finding the Virginia Diner Peanut Pie had been some kind of serendipity. I discovered the recipe in a cookbook at the beginning of the month and became a little obsessed with making the pie.
My mother, who passed away in March last year, began buying Virginia Diner peanuts in the winter months when I was a teenager, and I became a fan of them, too.
As the anniversary of her death approaches, I’ve thought a lot about my mother. Even on a diet that doesn’t encourage consuming anything that’s 170 calories per ounce (salted peanuts are not a health food), I’d bought two 36-ounce cans of the gourmet nuts because they made me think of her.
I figured they’d last months.
The peanut pie seemed fun, like something Mom would’ve tried to make, but I wasn’t happy with how the recipe turned out. It was very similar to the familiar Thanksgiving pecan pie, with a crusty layer of chopped nuts over a thick, sweet, gooey filling.
The pie reminded me a lot of a Payday candy bar. It wasn’t bad, but I thought the crust could have been flakier, and the wonderfully crunchy Virginia Diner peanuts in the pie should have remained crunchy. They had softened in the cooking.
Sarah Plumley of Sarah’s Bakery on Bridge Road, my pie making mentor, suggested I roast the peanuts in the oven at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.
On my Facebook page, she told me, “I do this with all the nuts when baking. It will release some of the natural oils, making them crunchier, and give them an even more intense nutty flavor.”
I tried that.
After seven minutes, gray smoke began to waft out of my oven. The peanuts darkened to the color of fair trade, organic coffee and tasted like cheap shoe polish.
They also seemed to have softened a little.
Once the peanuts cooled, I slid the contents from my cookie sheet into the trash. But I didn’t give up. I had plenty of peanuts to work with, and I thought I could improve the crust for the pie, which the filling had soaked through.
Getting in a bind over blind
I thought I could try a “blind bake,” as I had for the quiches I’d made.
A blind bake is where you prebake a crust. Danielle Mallory had shown me how to do that. It was something bakers did for particularly wet fillings or for custard pies like quiche.
Basically, you stretch out dough in a pie pan and then place aluminum foil or parchment paper over the top of the uncooked dough. Some pie books prefer parchment paper, though, saying foil will hold onto moisture.
I’ve tried both and see no measurable difference — but when I say I’ve tried both, I mean I’ve tried both exactly one time each, so who knows?
Anyway, after the foil or paper is placed on top of the dough, you add dried beans or rice. A one-pound bag, distributed evenly, on top of the paper is about right. Beans are supposed to be better than rice because grains of rice are smaller, and if a couple of grains manage to get under the foil or paper, they’re harder to free from the half-baked crust.
You can use pretty much whatever bean you want, though I’ve seen garbanzo, pintos and kidney beans recommended.
For the Martha Stewart types, you can also use fancy metal or ceramic pie weights, which cost as little as $6.
A bag of beans you can get for less than a buck. The beans can be reused or even cooked and eaten.
After the weight is added on top of the covered dough, it’s baked for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees, and then baked again for 10 minutes without the weight or covering.
Be careful removing the weights, beans and/or covering, which will be hot enough to leave a permanent mark.
It was another rainy Sunday afternoon when I decided to do my pie baking for the week ahead. I’d made my dough the day before and planned to make a couple of apple pies and one peanut pie.
The apple pie would be a walk in the park. All I had to do was what Sarah showed me.
The peanut pie was a little more experimental.
The blind bake for the peanut pie went fine. Then I peeled, cored and sliced up a couple of pounds of Ambrosia apples and tossed them in a big bowl, along with a cup and a half of sugar, two tablespoons of flour, a good squirt of lemon juice and a vigorous shake of cinnamon.
This was more or less what I’d seen Sarah do.
It looked like a lot of filling.
“You want more fruit than you think you do,” Sarah had told me. “I like for apples to stack in my pie, but think that, as the fruit cooks, it’s going to reduce down.”
I had more than enough, I thought. I stirred the apples, tried to coat everything and let them sit for a while.
I rolled out the dough into the pans and then brushed the dough with an egg wash, which was supposed to keep the crust from going soggy. After that, I added the apple filling, made the lattice, covered the topping, brushed more egg on the exposed dough and then put the pies in the oven to bake.
After I took the apple pies out to cool, I began the peanut pie.
This second time around, I thought the filling looked better. Using an $8 hand mixer instead of a whisk to blend the eggs, sugar and corn syrup helped a lot.
The recipe called for the pie to bake for 45 to 50 minutes. To be on the safe side, I set my timer for 40 minutes and then checked on it after 20 and then at 35.
It burned anyway.
By the time I pulled the pie out of the oven, the crust ringing the pie pan was deep brown and smelled like firewood. The filling looked too dark.
The peanut pie was ruined, and my apple pies didn’t look a lot better.
Ambrosia apples are sweet but very juicy. In the baking, the apples had released a lot of liquid, which hadn’t entirely cooked out. There was too much liquid in one of the pies for the flour to thicken.
I wound up tipping the pie over the sink and pouring out some of the apple pie juice through the lattice. I should have cooked the first pie a bit longer or maybe balanced the filling between the two pies better.
No such thing as a bad pie?
I took one pie to Monday night rehearsal with the Kanawha Kordsmen at the Columbia Gas Transmission Building. My Kordsmen friends raved about it and devoured the thing like a pack of singing wolves.
A couple of them asked about buying a pie from me, which was as high a compliment as I’d ever received about anything I’d ever cooked.
I offered to just make them one. I’m a writer. If I’d wanted to make money, I would have become a plumber or an electrician.
Hoping to find some answers about how to improve the peanut pie, I talked to Susie at the Peanut Shoppe on Capitol Street in Charleston.
She suggested I start with raw peanuts and then just roast them as much as I needed to, like they did at the shop. But I don’t own a deep fryer, and I expect that attempting to jury-rig the process on my stove would probably end in memorable scars and maybe a visit from the local volunteer fire department.
Besides, the point was to use Virginia Diner peanuts.
Back to the drawing board.
In the end, I abandoned my peanut pie on a table in the Gazette-Mail newsroom late Monday afternoon. A box of doughnuts, pizza and some leftover Valentine’s Day cupcakes were already sitting there, but by morning, only crumbs and scraps remained.
A couple of my co-workers told me that burned or not, the pie had been pretty good all the same.
A few readers have asked about what kind of pie crust I’m using. Sarah Plumley said I could share it.
Sarah’s Pie Crust
Makes approximately two single crusts or one double crust.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon table salt
2 sticks (8 ounces or 1 cup) unsalted butter, very cold
½ cup ice cold water
Mix flour, salt and sugar in a bowl or put directly into food processor. Cut butter into slices and then cut slices in half. Add butter to food processor and turn on a medium setting. Butter and flour should become pebbly but not turn smooth.
Gradually add water to dough. Once the dough begins to turn into a solid mass, turn off processor, remove and divide dough into two equal pieces. Form into discs and wrap in plastic.
Chill for at least one hour before using. Dough can be refrigerated for up to a week. If you decide to use dough later in the week, allow it to warm a little before rolling it. You still want dough to be cool, though, to keep butter from soaking into flour.
Also, because I read in a couple of pie books that it helps, I keep my pie flour in the freezer before using it. None of the bakers I’ve worked with do this, though Sarah at Sarah’s Bakery and Danielle Mallory at Starlings Coffee & Provisions said it wasn’t a bad idea.