On a cold, grey in-between weekend — too cold for biking or hiking, and not cold enough to snow — I can't think of a better thing to do than stay inside, all cozy and warm, and make and eat pies.
A quiche or meat pie will do for dinner one night and a few more later in the week if there's only one or two of you. Or it makes for a nice casual meal with friends. A sweet and cinnamon-y apple pie baking in the oven will comfort every body and soul, first with the yummy aromas, then fork-by- delicious-forkful. If any is left over for the rest of the week, it's a miracle of willpower.
The key to all these comfort foods is pastry. Being able to make a decent pie pasty unlocks wonderful doors — social, sensory, customary and otherwise.
Since medieval times, pie making has been a cultural mainstay of the western world. Sadly, it now seems to be falling out of favour. It could be a case of convenience or post-postmodern food stylists and attitudes about healthy eating run amok. I think it's mainly because making pastry intimidates people — neophyte cooks and experienced ones alike. But don't let it!
First, if you avoid those pre-made, frozen, commercial pie crusts you'll get much more satisfying, tastier results. You'll also be able to make a pie with a deeper filling than those shallow aluminum pie plates allow, plus you'll save money and the waste from all that packaging you swear you'll re-use but never do.
Besides kick-starting main meal mainstays, good homemade pastry is the secret to amazing lemon tarts, butter tarts, galettes and fruit pies. Fall means loads of fresh, crisp apples. Go for firm, tasty ones for pie filling, like Spartans, Honeycrisps or Ambrosias, and you'll get pies suitable for their own major food group.
Don't get confused by all the pastry recipes and terms out there. Hot water crust pastry, which uses boiling water and, sometimes, hot melted lard, is traditional for things like English pork pies. Shortcrust pastry — "short," as in "shortbread," meaning rich in fats, usually butter — is traditionally associated with quiche and all things "continental." In Canada, we're most familiar with some form or other of shortcrust pastry although we've pretty much shortened the term to simply "pastry" or "pie crust," not quite lapsing into the more American "pie dough."
Whatever kind of pastry you try — whether it's Googling up a recipe or checking out a tried and true family one — Alex Relf of Peaked Pies has some great tips.
"Pastry is very simple to work with if you use quality ingredients, keep them cold, and have a bit of patience on that learning curve," says Alex, co-owner and chief pie-maker at Peaked Pies, which has quickly gotten hundreds addicted to its delicious Australian-style meat pies since opening this summer in Whistler Village.
"Before you know it you can do it with your eyes closed."
For flour, he recommends a good, fresh all-purpose one, like Robin Hood. Whole wheat flour is fine, too, but your pastry will have a different — some say nuttier — flavour and different texture. As for quality fat, Alex recommends good butter like Avalon, unsalted if you can, and don't chintz.