The Way Life Should Be (Including Pies)

On the 8th hour of an 11 hour road trip to a tiny northeastern corner of Maine, I got a phone call from my grandmother.

“Bethany! Helen wants to know your favorite kind of pie. She’ll bake one today and bring over some of her doughnuts, too.”

“Blueberry” was the only correct answer, and it’s the one I gave. Helen is “the pie lady” of the island, a tiny wisp of a woman with snowy hair and eyes that are equally kind and sad. She lost her husband a few years back, and now maintains their famous model train set on her own. All year long, she bakes and cans in miraculous quantities for neighbors and friends.

Helen's pie

Helen’s blueberry pie had a delicate waxy crust, lightly browned and filled with a jammy tangle of tiny Maine blueberries. The colors of these berries are unlike anything else – amethyst and indigo, with little blushes of pink and red. Wild blueberry barrens in the fall could hold their own with the flashiest New England hillside.

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wild blueberry barrens, photo by Gina Mazza, @gmazza123

Nana and I had pie and doughnuts for breakfast one day, with more blueberries on the side, served “Swedish style,” as she said, with brown sugar and sour cream. I’m not sure about the authenticity of that, but it was absolutely delicious.

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I could write a book about this place – the peace, the lonesomeness, the beauty, the salt-and-stone character of the people. Or the family history hiding around every sunlit corner of the barn, whispering from the folds of a great-grandmother’s silk dress, well over a century old.

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Sweet peas and black-eyed susans in Nana’s barn

The thing about being the pie lady is, people rarely remember to bake you a pie. I made Helen a savory British style pie with chicken, ham, leeks, and cider. The recipe came from trying to conjure up a dish I had years ago in a much missed London pub. Because I couldn’t bake a pie in Nana’s kitchen without also making one for the family, the second bake of the day was a flan parisien – an elegant name for a sturdy, velvety, vanilla custard tart glazed with apricot jam. The recipe for the savory pie will be below, but I’ll write the custard recipe in a new blog post, since this one is lengthy!

I used the same dough for both, from the flan parisien recipe. Although a single recipe of the dough is for one crust’s worth, the dough scraps from a double batch allowed me to make the leaf decoration “crust” that I wanted for the savory pie. This pate brisee dough is one of my two fail-safe pie crusts (the other is this buttery beauty). I like the texture of pate brisee because it’s both firm and crisp, with a satisfying sandy crumble, and a surprisingly salty note for how little salt is in the recipe (only a teaspoon). This makes it an excellent balance to something as sweet and rich as the custard, but is also a great base for a savory pie. And it uses softened butter, so the dough comes together really quickly.

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Pate Brisee Dough

Makes one 8-9 inch pie crust

from Zen Can Cook’s Flan Patissier recipe

  • 2 1/4 cups flour
  • 3/4 cup (1 and 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 3 tablespoons milk

Sift the flour into a bowl or onto a piece of parchment and set aside. In a medium-large mixing bowl, beat the butter with a spatula or wooden spoon until smooth and creamy. Then add the salt, sugar, and egg yolk, mixing until well combined. Add the milk and mix again. Finally, add the flour, and gather the dough together with your hands until it becomes smooth and manageable. Flatten into a disk, wrap with cling film, and refrigerate for at least an hour. When you’re ready to use it, let it rest at room temp for about five minutes before rolling – otherwise it may be too brittle and start to crack. Butter the pie tin, line with the crust, and refrigerate until ready to fill. You don’t need to blind bake this dough, as it doesn’t seem to take on much moisture from the filling.

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Chicken, Ham, Leek, & Cider Pie

Preheat oven to 350F. Have your pie tin lined with the crust and refrigerated so you can use it when you’re ready. If you’re making garnishes instead of a traditional top crust, refrigerate those as well.

-1 recipe Pate Brisee dough, above, for a single crust plus leaf garnishes. Make a double recipe for a traditional double crust pie.

  • 2 small to medium chicken breasts, cubed
  • 3 pieces Canadian bacon, cubed
  • olive oil, for frying
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 small to medium onion, diced
  • 1 rib of celery, diced
  • 1/2lb frozen garden peas (usually about half of a small bag, I like Birdseye)
  • 1 small to medium potato, peeled and diced
  • 2 leeks, trimmed and cleaned, white/light green parts sliced
  • 3 Tbs flour, for thickening
  • 1/2 cup dry sparkling cider
  • 1/2 to 1 cup chicken stock, depending on how thick you’d like your filling
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream

The directions for any savory pie, in my opinion, begin with your typical mirepoix (onions, celery carrots), plus the leeks in this recipe. Sauté these in the olive oil on medium heat until beginning to caramelize. Remove from the pan and sautee/brown your meat in the same pan. For this recipe, I started with the chicken, and added the ham once the chicken was starting to brown because it cooks more quickly. Add the mirepoix back in along with any extra veggies (potato and peas) and season well with salt and pepper.

Deglaze the pan on high heat with your choice of wine/cider/guinness/sherry to get the delicious brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Whisk in the flour. Lastly, add the liquid you are using to simmer and soften the mixture – in this case, a mixture of stock and cream. Turn to low, and simmer for 15 minutes. If it seems too thick, add more stock; too thin, slowly add more flour. Taste for seasoning and remove from heat. Let cool.

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Pour into pie shell and garnish with pastry leaves, or top with a full crust. Bake on middle rack with a sheet tray on the bottom rack to catch any drips, for about 50 minutes, until filling is bubbling and crust is golden brown.

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Carry to the pie lady in a pie tote that only a Nana would own, or enjoy with lots of family and lots of cider.

 

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