Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie…
Have you ever wondered about that nursery rhyme and why someone would bake blackbirds into a pie?
Back in the day (let’s say the 15th century) song birds were thought to be a delicacy, and protected by Royal Law. It is said that in 1429 at the coronation of King Henry VI a peacock pie was served. Adorning the top of the peacock filled pie was a cooked peacock mounted in its’ skin. It was common for European Royal cooks to bake large bird-filled pies which were topped by large cooked birds to indentify its’ contents. Placing a bird on the top of the pie also was the sign of a fine pie. In pre-Victorian times this idea was adapted into the porcelain ornament we now know as “pie birds” which are placed in a pie to aid in the release of steam.
Now today, of course, we couldn’t imagine baking Tweety Bird in a pie, but we do still love our pies. According to market research from the NPD Group, Americans ordered up 12 million more slices of pie at restaurants in 2010 than they did in 2009. The year 2011 has even been designated as the Year of the Pie – although I strongly suspect our preferences are not for songbird pie but rather our tastes run more towards blueberry, cherry, or that all time favourite – apple pie.
I grew up in the Georgian Bay area which as you may, or may not know, is Ontario Apple Country. I have always loved going to the local orchards in the bay area to pick apples. I no longer live in Apple Country but still enjoy a trip to local orchards. Recently a local apple grower, Chudleigh’s, hosted a pie contest. While I was tempted to enter, family obligations kept me busy this past weekend and I was unable to participate. Not wanting to let my inspiration to go to waste, with Chudleigh’s in mind, I rolled up my sleeves and made the pie I would have entered into the contest, my Mom’s Apple Pie using my Granny’s Pastry recipe.
This recipe is not difficult to follow and the pastry is fool proof. It is as easy as… well…pie!
Granny’s Pastry Recipe
- 1lb. lard
- 5 cups of all purpose or cake and pastry flour
- 1 egg
- 1 tbl white vinegar
- 1/8 tsp. salt
- 1tbl white sugar
- Ice cold water
- Using a pastry blender, cut up lard into flour until the lard bits are the size of peas. (Note: do not cut lard bits up any smaller as it will overwork the pastry and reduce flakiness).
- Put the egg in a 1 cup measure, adding vinegar, salt, and sugar. Now mix with a small whisk or fork and add enough ice cold water to fill the measuring cup to the 1 cup demarcation.
- Pour the liquid over the lard and flour and, using your hands, blend it all together. Be careful to only blend the dough until everything is moistened and it is possible to form into a ball. If you over blend the dough you will overwork it and reduce the flakiness.
- For ease of use divide the dough in half and form into 2 balls. Wrap the balls in wax paper and place in fridge to chill for a minimum of 15 minutes.
This recipe yields enough for 2 x 10 inch double crust pies and 1 single crust pie. The pastry will keep in the fridge for 1 week.
If you wish you may prepare the pies and freeze in raw form, you may then bake as you wish, say when unexpected company drops by. I actually find that freezing the pie not only provides you with a lovely homemade dessert to be enjoyed later, it also improves the crust. Freezing the pie removes some of the moisture and therefore makes for a flakier crust.
Audrey’s Apple Pie Recipe
- ¾ – 1 cup of brown sugar
- 1-2 tbl flour
- ½ 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp. salt
- 4-5 cups of peeled, diced apples
- 1 tbl lemon juice
- 2 tbl butter
- Mix sugar, flour, cinnamon, & salt together and divide in half.
- Sprinkle half of this mixture over the bottom pie crust in pan.
- Place apples in the pie plate on top of the sugar mixture.
- Sprinkle the remainder of the sugar mixture over the apples.
- Sprinkle apples with lemon juice and dot with butter.
- Put top pastry layer over the apples, trim excess dough, flute the edges and prick with a fork or cut wholes to let the steam out.
- Place on lower shelf in an oven heated to 425 degrees and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and back for an additional 20 – 30 minutes.
When you make the pastry you will need a pastry cutter. It really makes cutting the lard easier. My favourite kind of cutter is the wire one as seen in the picture above. When you purchase you pastry cutter please note that you will need to spread the wire loops apart a bit otherwise you will ruin your pastry when you cut the lard in.
When it comes to pies, not all apples are created equal. Some apples are not suitable for cooking or baking and while other varieties can be cooked, they are not a good choice for pies. Granny Smith apples, while not my favourite for snacking or baking, are a very popular choice for pies. My favourite apple for pie is Idared, an old variety of apple which is not easily found today. Typically is it is harvested late September to mid October so look for it at this time if you wish to try it. Northen Spy would be my second choice for pie baking and it is harvested mid October and later into the fall. Whatever variety you decide you will want to keep in mind that the apples should not be too sweet and should be able to maintain some shape and not turn into applesauce when baked.
While the taste is the most important when it comes to pie, if you feel like “getting your Martha on”, you can make a fancy pie crust using pastry cutters (or plunger/cutters used for fondant in cake decorating). These cutters can be used to make and emboss cut-outs in the top crust. Alternately you could skip the solid top crust and use the cut-outs to layer either around the edge of the pie or disperse the cut-outs over the filling in an appealing pattern. These cutters can be found at William Sonoma and at other kitchen specialty stores. The Real Canadian Superstore has a great set of pastry cutters at a good price.
If baking a single crust pie which requires prebaking or that you “blind bake” the crust before adding the filling be sure to invest in some pie weights. These weights are placed over the crust before putting in the oven and will stop the crust from shrinking too much during baking.
Want to make smaller individual pies? Try using a pie pocket form. They are a great way to make stunning little pies. I recently found a great apple shaped pie pocket form at The Real Canadian Superstore; I have big plans for this little tool.
There are many types of pies: single crust, double crust and cobbler. Pies can be fruit filled, cream filled or even nut filled, but are not limited to dessert. Pie can also be savoury and yes, some still have bird fillings – chicken pot pie for instance. Pies can be filled with almost anything sweet or savoury. Use your imagination…but even now a pie filled with song birds still seems pretty unappealing to me.
Photos by Lyndsay Jenkinson