On January 23rd, Local Pickins, wrapped in scarves and a double layer of sweaters under our winter coats, braved icy Brooklyn environs to attend Pie Corps ‘Simple Savory Winter Pies’ class. We were welcomed to Pie Corps by owner-founders Cheryl Perry and Felipa Lopez, who offered each student, arriving rosy-cheeked with cold, aprons, decorative name tags, and warm, delicious miniature versions of the pies we would be making that night. While whetting our appetites with these tiny, spicy delights, they explained that the class, touted as an introduction to the art of savory pie making, would also provide lessons in basic cooking, dough handling, and meat preparation techniques.
We began by surveying our ingredients, artfully arranged on baking sheets according to which pie they would soon become the filling for. Perry and Lopez addressed every ingredient one-by-one, filling us in on the best way to prepare it as a component of each particular dish. They took particular care to go over certain cooking basics – for example, the way to cut an onion for saute – that they see people getting wrong over and over again, and that make a big difference to the flavor of the dish. After a super clear and articulate tutorial from Perry, we felt confident that we would never again end up with limp, watery onion slices for our saute or tasteless mashed potatoes . We also added some new methods for cleaning kale, preparing fennel bulbs, and adding salt to our culinary bags of tricks.
Feeling as though we would be master chefs in no time, and after a quick brush-up on our knife-handling skills, we set in on the actual cooking of the pie-fillings. Local Pickins settled in with the group of students working on a Lamb Curry Pie, which meant we got to hone our onion expertise with a quick chop, and then enjoy watching over (and occasionally stirring) a satisfying saute sizzle of onion, lamb, spices, potatoes, and just the littlest bit of cream. The resulting cooked spicy lamb and vegetable melange was more than edible sans crusty casing, and we had to stop ourselves from re-filling our sampling spoon so many times that our pie shell would have to go half-filled. The cooking atmosphere was low-key and cozy though, and our sampling was encouraged, as groups of students clustered around the kitchen huddled over pots and burners, browning meat, melting butter, and getting to know one another. Glancing around, we could see walnuts merrily crunching under chopping knives, potatoes boiling, and feta cheese crumbling. Filled with friendly faces, the class’ participants represented all age groups and types of people, from shy twenty-somethings to outgoing and opinionated foodie couples, some of whom appeared to be regular customers at Pie Corps retail shop.
After each group of students had finished preparing their respective filling, and the room was filled with the amazing scents of melty butter, spices, onion, and perfectly-browned beef and lamb, we set in on our next lesson: the art of pie dough. We began by mixing flour by hand with cold butter that was both shredded and chopped, squeezing and kneading the ingredients together. We added the other dry ingredients, mixing gently, with Perry and Lopez instructing us to stop before we thought we were done, while there were still clumps of butter, which would give our crust that delicious, coveted flakiness.
We then kneaded our dough into balls, careful not to handle it too much, and put it into Pie Corps industrial sized refrigerators, where our dough would harden and become easier to work with. In the classic Pie Corps fashion, though, where everything happened almost as seemlessly as if by magic, as soon as we bid farewell to our dough, pre-chilled replacements for it were whipped out of the refrigerator and presented to us for some dough-rolling practice. Never having rolled out pre-chilled pie dough, I was blown away by how much easier it was to handle than its warm, sometimes crumbly precursor. Likewise, Perry and Lopez’s suggestion to sandwich the dough pre-rolling between two pieces of saran wrap, so that it was in no danger of sticking to the rolling pin, added a surprising amount of ease. Each student rolled out their own dough, with plenty of individual attention from and humorous conversation with Perry and Lopez, and soon we had enough crusts to serve as tops and bottoms for our long-anticipated savory pies.
Excited by the promise of wine and a fresh from the oven pie dinner, we took on the final challenge: the arrangement and filling of the crusts. Placing the bottom crust in the pie pan and smoothing it flat required only the most basic finesse and abilities in hand-eye coordination, but once our pies were filled and ready to be topped off, a certain delicacy was required. Creating the perfect curly flourish around the edges of a pie requires a light hand and nimble fingers, and a good sense of what kind of design you’re going for. Like the classic pie look? You’ll probably be content to stick with a basic pinch-and-twirl around the edges of your pie, pinching all around the crust at intervals about a thumb’s width apart. Looking for something a bit more avant-garde? Why not make your pinches smaller, larger, or closer together? Why pinch at all – maybe all your crust needs is a quick twirl to create a nice line on the side of your pie! Whatever you chose, even if it doesn’t look good, its’ sure to taste delicious, so don’t fret too much. Or if you’re nervous about your dough handling skills, try a Shepherd’s Pie, topped with mashed potatoes rather than crust, a delightful substitution.
We put our topped-off pies into the ovens, and began the relaxing part of the night: sipping wine and being entertained by Perry and Lopez’s entertaining stories about their journeys as pie-makers, cooking teachers, and dog-owners. We weren’t surprised to learn that Perry had been teaching pie-making out of her apartment for years before she opened Pie Corps, given her ease and naturalness at the head of the classroom. Our teachers shared some of their industry secrets as well – such as saving and baking all their pie dough scraps, then grinding these baked tidbits up and combining them with melted butter, cacao, and other sweet spices to create the base for a homemade version of a graham cracker crust. Yum! Sooner than we expected, our pies were ready, and with grumbling stomachs we lay them out on the table and prepared to dig in. Our pies were aromatic, steaming, crumbly delights, perfectly cooked fillings within light and flakey crusts. Had we been able to put down our forks and knives, we would have patted ourselves heartily on the back. Pie making fame and glory, here we come – we’ll start by hosting our own pie-making party, with local ingredients and local friends in a cozy kitchen.