Did you know that 9% of Americans choose to eat their pie crust first, before they start in on the filling? And did you know, that when asked if one would prefer a friend, a family member or a pie as their plus one, 29% chose the pie? Just kidding, I made that last bit up. But the first fact is definitely true (according to the internet) and is precisely why pie making, and more specifically #pieart, has become something of a fan-sport. It’s the intricate layering of exquisitely cut dough, the intentional design, the gentle browning until the color is just so, such that when pulled from the oven, the pie just might resemble something you would frame and hang in your house. Yep, that’s #pieart.
And today, we are getting down and dirty with the reigning Queen of instagram’s most liked pies, the lovely and crazy talented Helen Nugent. Founder of the gorgeous Pie-Eyed Girl blog, the cult followed instagram account @BatteredNBaked and the stunning new book on pie artistry, Pie Style. And get this. Helen is a home baker, no formal training at all. Which means that this is SO doable for any of us that consider ourselves pie fancy. Anyway, grab a cider, pull on those cozy socks and read on to discover the tips and tricks that Helen is so graciously spilling with all of us budding pie-artists!
SMP: Let’s talk basics. Can you tell us about your pie-making toolkit? What is inside and what do you rely on most to execute your designs?
HN: There are LOTS of tools because I’m a gadget fanatic! These are some of my favourites that I list in my book. Here are my top 12:
- Baking Steels/Pizza Stones/Baking sheet. I love baking steels because they provide a consistent, even heat that helps crisp up the base of the pie before it has a chance to absorb any juices and cause a soggy bottom. Pizza stones also work well but they don’t store as much heat as a baking steel, and cleaning up spills can be messy. A third option is a preheated baking sheet. While it will not get as hot as a steel or stone, it will definitely help prevent that filling from breaking through to the bottom of your pie.
- Cookie Cutters. Cookie cutters are an easy (and inexpensive) way to pretty-up any pie top. With so many beautiful cookie cutter shapes to choose from, from tiny flowers and geometric shapes to realistic leaves and novelty shapes, they’re an easy and inexpensive way to create a stunning look for your pie.
- Craft Paintbrushes/Pastry brushes. Craft paintbrushes make excellent (and inexpensive) egg wash tools. I especially love the little, thin ones that can get into all the nooks and crannies of my pie decorations. Just make sure that the brushes you use haven’t been used for any non-food related tasks. If you choose to go with a pastry brush, look for one with soft, natural bristles rather than silicone ones which won’t give you an even wash.
- Digital Weight Scale. When I teach people to make pie, one of the first things I encourage them to buy (after a rolling pin) is a digital weight scale. Unlike measuring, when you weigh your ingredients you get the same result every time. Recipes are easier to scale up and down accurately. The best part of a digital scale is the ‘tare’ feature which resets the scale to zero. This allows you to weigh all your ingredients in one bowl, simply by hitting tare between each addition.
- Food Processor. A food processor is my go-to for making pie dough. Why? Because it has the power to make anyone a pastry hero. Really, it’s almost criminal how easy it is. That’s not to say you can’t make pie dough by hand or with a stand mixer but you can do it faster and with more consistent results with a food processor. Look for a processor that has at least a 10-cup capacity so it can easily accommodate pie dough for a double crust pie.
- Hobby or Utility Knife. A sharp hobby or utility knife with replacement blades is one of the handiest tools you can have in your pie toolbox. With a fine tip and beveled edge, you’ll get sharp, accurate cuts in your dough and better control than a standard paring knife can provide.
- Impression or Embossing Mats. Traditionally used by cake decorators for fondant-based cakes, impression mats are great for giving your pie tops a “one-of-a-kind” look. Some of my favorites designs include lace patterns, delicate flower designs and wood grains. Available in a variety of sizes, the best mats are made from silicone, which tend to have the deepest impressions so they hold the final design.
- Multi-wheel Stainless Steel Lattice Cutters. Five to 7 wheel lattice cutters are real time savers, letting you cut multiple and consistent size strips of pastry dough every time. And because the lattice wheels are adjustable in size, you can cut your strips as narrow or as wide as the cutter will allow.
- Off-set Spatula. An off-set spatula is one of my favorite pie decorating tools. I use it to transfer pastry cut-outs and other decorations from my work station to my pie without worrying about warming them with my hands or bending them out of shape. It also does double-duty as a tool for smoothing the tops of curd and meringue pies and getting filling into every corner of a tart pan, My favorite offset spatula has a 4 ½-inch blade.
- Rimless Baking Sheets. A rimless baking sheet is my go-to when making pies. If I’m building a pie top off the pie, and want to move it to the refrigerator, I can slide the design, parchment paper and all, onto it without disturbing the design. It’s also large enough to hold a variety of cut-outs and decorations so I have fewer pans to juggle in and out of the refrigerator.
- Rolling Pin. I use the classic variety of rolling pin, called a Baker or American rolling pin. It has a cylindrical wood barrel that rotates around a rod, fitted with ball bearings, and a handle at each end. This is my personal favourite because it is comfortable to use and the ball bearings allow for smoother, longer rolls. It’s also the type that I’ve been using all my life so the one I feel most comfortable with.
- Ruler. An 18-inch, clear, plastic ruler is invaluable for everything from determining the width of lattice to setting a straight edge. Silicone Rolling Mat. These non-slip mats feature a handy imprint of circles in several different diameters and ruler markings up the sides to help you roll your pie dough to the correct size.
SMP: Do you have a favorite pie plate that yields the perfect pie crust?
HN: I think that, at the end of the day, the best pie plate for you is the one you reach for most often. I love affordable, dark metal plates because they conduct heat rapidly and consistently and give me a crisp, evenly browned crust. Glass pie plates are another good choice as they also conduct heat evenly with the added bonus of being able to see your bottom crust browning. I also love tart tins, especially ones with removable bottoms. They’re great for curd and fruit tarts but I also like to use them for pies. Yes, perhaps it’s a bit unconventional but you can bake a pie exactly the same way in a tart tin as you can a pie pan and you get the added bonus of having a variety of shapes to choose from … Plus really pretty fluted pastry edges to your pie!
SMP: Now, in my very not-studied mind, seems like there is always a bit of a debate on what type of fat to use in a pie crust. What is your go-to?
HN: Salted butters vary in their salt content. For that reason alone, I use unsalted butter because it allows me to control the salt content by adding it separately.
SMP: Butter is better, got it. Do you ever use Cream Cheese, Shortening, Lard or Coconut Oil (or any other secret ingredient) in your dough?
HN: I experiment with different types of pie dough all the time. My go-to is my All-Butter Pie Dough because it delivers the best combination of flakiness and flavour. I’m not a fan of shortening-only pie dough because it has no flavour (although it does deliver a lot of flakiness) unless its paired up with a really flavourfill filling like cranberry. I prefer to use shortening in a butter + shortening combo pie dough.
SMP: How thick do you roll out the base dough vs the topper?
HN: I tend to use ⅛-inch for both the top and the bottom layer. If the topper has a solid top and then decor like leaves or braids on top of it, I will roll the topper out as thinly as possible to make sure everything bakes evenly.
A handy tip for knowing if your pie dough is ⅛-inch thick is to stack two quarters on top of each other. That’s ⅛-inch.
SMP: How do you ensure the most beautiful golden color on your crust? Butter? Milk? Egg Wash? Sugar?
HN: I whisk together one egg yolk mixed with one teaspoon of hot water. Then I run it through a small strainer to remove the chalaza (or “stringy white things” as I like to call them). I end up with a beautiful, smooth glaze that I can apply evenly across my pie top. If I have time, I like to apply one thin layer of egg wash and then let it dry in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes and then apply one more layer before the pie goes into the oven.
The secret to an even golden colour is to apply it EVENLY and to take your time and and to get into all the nooks and crannies.
SMP: Blind Baking Crusts. Yes or no? And why?
HN: There are two types of blind bakes that I use — partial and full — and I use them in the traditional way. A partial blind bake is perfect for a pie with a filling that will go back into the oven to bake further (like a quiche). A full blind bake is used for cooked fillings like curds that do not require further baking. I know a lot of people swear by doing a partial blind bake for all their pies as a way of warding off a soggy bottomed pie and getting a crispy bottom but I find that to be very labour-intensive and not always practical.
The best way I know to prevent a soggy bottom is gently pre-cook your fillings on the stove (just until they begin to thicken) before adding them to the pie shell (cooled of course) and to freeze the pie before you bake it. That way, the filling doesn’t have time to seep into the crust before it has had a chance to bake.
SMP: 1/8″ dough, check. Nooks and crannies with the egg wash, check. But what about forming the dough. Is there a trick to getting each ornament or decorative piece to hold its shape?
HN: The key to successful decorating is to keep your pie dough chilled. It should feel firm and cool before you start cutting, latticing or braiding. If your dough warms up as you use it, slide it onto a cookie sheet and return it to the refrigerator for about 5 minutes. A cold piece of dough will reward you with straight strips of lattice, less sticking and cleaner edges to your cuts outs. After your decorations are cut, keep them in the refrigerator until you need them. Because they’ve been kept chilled, they’ll be much less likely to rip, tear and flop.
SMP: I noticed that your pies all tend to differ in terms of the amount of coverage that they provide to the filling. Is your topper design dictated by the type of pie filling you are using?
HN: It’s more in the bake times. I want the filling and the top to be baked at the same speed, both finished at the same time. Every pie is different but it has gotten to the point where I know what will bake in the time I have in the oven, thus what type of top to use.
SMP: Do you generally bake your toppers separately or on top of the pie? Seems like tricky business to transfer a pie topper onto a pie!
HN: 90% of the time, I bake my toppers on top of the pie. For some, like pumpkin pies, I will bake the toppers separately and then place them on the pie. The main issue you have to deal with when you do this is shrinkage and distortion. I also make my pie toppers about 10% bigger than I normally would to account for the inevitable shrinkage you will get in the oven. On the odd occasion where it is too big for the pie when it comes out of the oven, I run a vegetable peeler GENTLY around the edges of the top to thin it out. This takes a bit of practice and a lot of bravery so might not be something everyone would want to tackle.
A good tip for preventing shrinking and distortion in a pie topper is to freeze the topper before you place it in the oven. The shape and decorations tend not to distort when they are frozen because the dough has already started to ‘set’ before it has a time to distort.
SMP: Your designs look as gorgeous after the bake as before. Perhaps even more so. How do you get that entirely even, perfectly golden hue without burning the smaller pieces?
HN: If you are making a highly-decorative pie, the last thing you want to see is all your hard work go down the drain if it burns in the oven. Once my pie goes in the oven, I watch it like a hawk! I set a time to go off every 15 minutes during the baking phase so I can cover any pieces that are beginning to brown too quickly with little bits of foil. Yes, it does mean staying near the oven but is time well spent when you end up with a beautiful, evenly browned pie.
SMP: Do you have a good rule of thumb for baking times?
HN: I think people underestimate how long you can leave a pie in the oven. The golden rule is “until the fruit bubbles in the middle” but I’ve seen many people pull it at the first sign of browning. Leave it in there until you are happy with the colour. It’s very difficult to overbake a pie (unless you forget about it all together).
SMP: In the hurry and rush of Thanksgiving, many people tend to bake their pies a few days in before the holiday. How far in advance can you make a pie and still have taste as fresh and delicious as the day it was made?
HN: For the freshest results, I suggest baking the pie on the day you are going to serve it but allow at least three hours for the filling to set before serving it. One of the most common complaints that people have is a runny filling but nine times out of ten it can be avoided if you give the filling time to set.
If time is an issue, you can also freeze a baked pie (just make sure you double wrap it in saran first) in advance. It will easily keep in the freezer for 3 months. When it’s time to defrost, leave it in the refrigerator overnight and then crisp it up in a 350F oven for about 15 minutes. You’ll have a hard time separating it from a freshly baked pie.
all photos by James Brand
SMP: We are talking a lot about best Covid practices for this holiday and hand pies / individual pies might be just the ticket. Are there any tips you have to ensure a delicious individual bake?
HN: Hand pies and individual tarts are perfect for the times we live in. My tips for success include not overfilling the pies (1-2 tbsp of filling goes a long way), and thoroughly sealing the edges. You’ll also get a lot less leaking if you create a vent in each hand pie so steam has somewhere to go other than out the sides of your hand pie.