Practice Makes Perfect Pumpkin Pie

Special Guest Blogger, Emilee Boychuk, shares a family tradition and her tips for the perfect crust!

Some of my greatest memories of growing up were the holidays. In my family, tradition is everything and every holiday it’s like eating the same meal I did when my Grandmother made it for me at the age of 3. We are sticklers for tradition with each dish of our holiday dinners. You must hand break the bread for stuffing, no adding in anything strange that you think might be a neat twist on tradition (“The Great Dried Fruit in the Stuffing Debacle” of the mid 1970’s is still talked about to this date) and no trying to make a healthy version of the dinner – it’s a holiday. It might seem crazy, but if you ask any of us you will get the same response: “Why fix something that isn’t broken”. If you ask any of our significant others or family friends, you will get a response similar to the great version coined by one of the newest “outlaws” in the family: “ I make a suggestion for what I think should be done and then when I get the answer “Really….?” or that look that says the same, I just do it the way I know they want me to.”

Thanksgiving is one of those times that we come together as a group and have our family dinner. The formula: A big turkey (we usually get through a 25 + pound bird), mashed potatoes, gravy, squash, cranberries, green beans, carrots and buns. Of course the meal must end with a bang, my favorite part, a great variety of homemade pies.

Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved my grandma’s pies. Always so flaky and full of goodness and love. I would always save room for that last piece of pumpkin or apple pie, salivating during the whole meal at the very thought of it. As I grew older though, I realized that this was the one place in the meal where there was a tolerance for creativity. As long as you stuck to the staple pastry, you could do almost anything with the filling: traditional apple, strawberry rhubarb, fresh raspberry – the possibilities were endless! However, no matter how creative and delicious you got with the filling, you had to learn the basics – how to make that tasty, flaky pastry.

One day, probably in early university, I mustered up the courage and patience to finally ask my Mom to teach me how to make a pie crust. A little bit of background first though. My Mom is not someone you want to share a kitchen with. She is always milling around behind you, peeking in to make sure you are mixing something just so, or measuring properly, or just in general doing it the way she always does it. At first, the thought of entering the kitchen with such a meticulous and persnickety person was daunting. I am the exact opposite of my mother. I am messy when I cook, I don’t like measuring, but worst of all, I don’t like being told how to do something.

My first pie experience was watching my Mom doing it. She showed me how to measure out the ingredients (properly of course) and dictated strict instructions on the perfect little cubes that you had to have the shortening in and how everything had to be cold that you were working with. Then came the play-by-play on what everything should look like at each step in an excruciating amount of detail. Even down to the pattern that is the “family pattern” that has to go on the top crust of the pastry covering a fruit pie. At the end I felt overwhelmed and like I had learned nothing. I was defeated. Would I ever learn to make that delicious pie?

My stubborn personality insisted that I continue to pursue this seemingly insurmountable task. The next time, we made tandem pastry. Me on the kitchen table and my mother on the counter. She hovered, but for the first time in my life, it was actually comforting to know someone was watching me, given how intense I learned this pastry making process was. In the end, I produced a pie that was delicious. I believe my mother even admitted that my pastry may have been better than hers that day (but of course it was because she was paying more attention to mine than to hers).

Finally, this Thanksgiving, I resolved that I was going to take off the metaphorical training wheels and make the pastry. Alone. With my mother 100km away. I followed all the instructions but was foiled by my lack of careful planning. Mistake one: Chilling the carefully measured water to the point that it was actually frozen and not realizing this until I had to add it to the pastry (I had of course not planned my time well and then attempted to speed up the process by putting the water in the freezer and not the fridge). In the end I had a pie. It was not the prettiest pie (my pastry rolling talents leave something to be desired) but it was my Grandma’s pie that I had made all on my own. No helicopters. It was a delicious, flakey crusted, pumpkin flavored taste of the last 25 years of Thanksgiving all wrapped into one tasty bite.

This first solo mission into the world of the homemade pie left me with a few important pointers surrounding making that “perfect pastry” that I would like to share.

Always start with cold (not frozen) ingredients
It’s important to have your ingredients cold when you begin – shortening, margarine, and water should always be chilled. I even chill my bowls and pastry knife just to be sure. You are probably wondering why- the answer is because my mom says so J

Never try to make pastry in the summer unless you are very skilled and experienced
I think this is due to a humidity and heat issue. I have steered clear of making pies on those hot sticky days to save my walls from the impression of a fussy and unworkable pastry that has been freshly thrown at them in frustration.

Don’t be scared to make your own pastry but learn from someone who knows
It can seem easy to succumb to that $8.99 pie at the grocery store or that frozen pie shell in the freezer section. Don’t. Not only is it enjoyable to bake, but you will get a pie that makes people say “wow” if you are willing to put in the 20 minutes that it takes to make one from “scratch”. It creates, for me at least, a great sense of accomplishment.

That being said, a lot of the pastry making process is visual and learned by feel and experience. You will get a much better result and be much less frustrated if you can find someone who can make the recipe you are trying to use already and is willing to do a few workshops with you. The bonus here- you get a tasty pie in the end each time you practice to share on a non-holiday occasion with friends and family.

Don’t worry about it being perfect

For those of you who struggle with rolling pastry (I am one of those) remember: it doesn’t have to be perfect, it will still taste the same. My last pie had a sizeable crack at the very top of the crust. It glared at me from the oven the whole time it was baking and drove me nuts. But, at the end of the day, the pastry held the filling and the pie was delicious. Don’t try to make it perfect- more than likely you will just end up over-working it and it won’t be as tasty. If you have to start again, start again.

Always let pastry sit at room temperature for a few minutes before rolling it
If it seems to be cracking a lot when you try to roll it out, let it sit for a few more minutes. This was a crucial step that I missed and is why I ended up with the crack that glared at me until I ate it.

Plan ahead
Especially for your first few cracks at making a pie, leave yourself lots of time. Make the pastry the day before you actually want to bake the pie. A lot of pastry recipes can also be frozen, even if they are already rolled out into the pie plate leaving you with only the filling to add when you actually want to bake your pie. Doing this will save you from getting frustrated and more than likely ending up with a not so wonderful finished product.

I am sure I have a ways to go before I can be considered a pastry master, but the important thing is that I am trying and perfecting my skills for that next generation of my family that will most certainly demand a traditional “grandma style” pie for years to come.

The Return of the Constant Baker

Special thanks to my Dad who not only helped me get this site started in the very beginning, but who kindly transferred it to my name, so I could get it back up and running.

So I am back… perhaps not with total avengence, but definitely with inspiration to share my stories from the kitchen. For instance, yesterday I had a fairly long day, full of ups and downs. By the time I got home, I decided I really need to unleash the tension, the restlessness and the bag of chocolate chips in my cupboard. Now, I’ll be honest, I’m trying to avoid all things bad, so believe it or not, I made a delicious loaf of chocolate chip banana bread and didn’t eat any. Truth be told though, I didn’t miss it. What I love most about baking is the sheer relaxation I get from it and the delight in sharing it. I’ve made this particular recipe quite a few times and it’s simple and easy… and that’s what I needed at that moment.

After letting the bread rest over night, I cut it up into manageable pieces and packaged it up for some people at work. I gave some to Daniela who is the receptionist-extraordinare in my building at work. She always does super nice things for me be it hold a package, help me book a room or simply acknowledge me personally when I walk in the building and there are A LOT of people that walk in that building. I divided up the rest for everyone on my team and it was definitely a nice treat for the “crew” who needed some refueling around 11am.

You can find this great recipe on Canadian Living’s website here. I like using the mini-chocolate chips for this as it provides a nice distribution of chocolate throughout. I would also recommend tossing in some coconut for extra texture although I didn’t with this particular loaf because Mike and Luka would have complained. :)

Happy Baking.


Constant Baker