Writer and hunter Michael R. Shea is back to share his tale of tackling an old family recipe. Not only does Mike make pie crust from scratch, his venison pie is the result of his most recent hunting trip.
My grandmother’s pies have been a fixture at Thanksgiving and Christmas since before I can remember. Pumpkin and pecan and pumpkin ice cream. Berry and apple and, maybe, a mincemeat. The dinner might be turkey or might be ham, but the pies are always there, reliable as my grandparents themselves.
Yet the filling always seems optional. What makes them special is the crust, Nan’s pie crust, that’s been warming on the counter this time of year for nearly four generations. The recipe has become family legend.
One year, an uncle tried to make the pies. He could not for the life of him make the crust work. He called my grandmother: “Ursula, this recipe is too wet! You must have copied it down wrong!” She would have none of it. “I did not copy it down wrong. It just takes common sense!” That uncle didn’t make it to too many more holidays. My aunt will cite other factors for the divorce, but it’s hard not to see them all foretold in pie crust.
A few weeks ago, I asked Nan for the recipe. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t do it.”
“Huh?” I was shocked.
“I’ll tell you how to make pie crust,” she said. “You go to the grocery store. Go to the dairy section. You’ll see cookie dough, biscuits and things. They’ll have pie crust there. Buy the Pillsbury. Just roll it out. It’s just as good and less hassle.”
“Okay, so is the recipe secret or something?”
“It’s very fussy. You don’t want to fuss with it.”
Nan’s pie crust recipe was either a) passed down through generations of Irish immigrants in Central Falls, Rhode Island or b) cut off the side of a Crisco can. No one is sure which. Yet Nan was sure that the recipe, in my hands, was doomed for failure. Love bound Nan to protect me from that.
The keeper of the family recipes, Aunt Michaela, was more optimistic. She emailed me:
Ursula’s Pie Crust
- 4 cups flour (regular white flour, not organic, not whole wheat…)
- 1 3/4 cups shortening
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup water (more if needed)
Fork first four ingredients together. Mix the next (last) three ingredients. Mix together gently. Refrigerate for a minimum of 15 minutes.
A few weeks later, Michaela sent me a baker’s mat and a huge black rolling pin. There was no turning back.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving I laid out my new tools and all the ingredients on the kitchen table. Everything, that is, except shortening. “Did you buy shortening?” I asked my girlfriend. “Was it on the list?” she asked. Ah yes, the list … that would have helped….
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving I laid out my new tools and all the ingredients on the kitchen table. Nan had called that morning with some final advice. “If it’s too dry, add water. If it’s too wet, add flour.” It seemed very Zen. My aunt emailed me again: “Remember, the key to a flaky and tender crust is not overworking it. It is not supposed to be smooth and homogenous.” The recipe, Michaela said, makes enough for two double-crust pies or four single-crust pies. This was all starting to feel important. I rolled up my sleeves.
Following the directions, I “forked” the flour, shortening, sugar and salt in my largest mixing bowl. The shortening did not want to cooperate with the flour, but I forked with purpose. If I failed here, I felt, it would prove something big. Messing up the legendary Shea family pie crust could be taken as not really being a Shea.
Failed pie crust would prove something big … adoption maybe, or a food-related learning disability, or—even better—switched at birth. Forking away, I could see it all: I wasn’t really a Shea, but a McElroy handed off to the wrong parent at hospital feeding time. There they were today, the McElroys, none of them foodies, sitting around a table in holiday wonder at the sheer brilliance of the biological Shea child’s magnificent pies.
I forked harder.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked my girlfriend, standing over the cranberry sauce simmering on the stove. “You’re getting flour everywhere.”
“Oh, sorry,” I muttered. “Sorry …”
Slowly, I poured the last three ingredients—vinegar, egg and water. I imagined this would help the dry mix absorb the shortening. It did not. The batter was clumpy: part wet, mostly dry. Maybe I should have fast poured, I thought. I’m not really a Shea. I always suspected it, but…. Just then a glow-green light materialized in the kitchen. Nan was there, all Obi Wan-like, a wooden spoon in hand: “If it’s too dry, add water.”
“I need more water!” I yelled.
The girlfriend jumped. “Why are you yelling?”
“I’m not yelling!” I yelled, moving the bowl under the tap. I gave it a healthy splash. Everything came together. It wasn’t “smooth and homogenous”—it still had a clumpy personality—but it was all one blob. A Shea of pie crust if I ever saw one.
I swaddled my baby blob in Saran wrap and put it in the refrigerator. My girlfriend wanted help with the other Thanksgiving fixings, but I needed to lay down….
Thanksgiving morning I unwrapped my pie crust blob. I cut it into quarters, then rolled them thin on my new baking mat. I lined two pie pans with crust and went about the filling—organic cinnamon pumpkin in one, venison and vegetables in another.
When the pies came out of the oven, I let them cool about six seconds before breaking off a piece of crust. It was crispy, a little moist, firm, and still very hot. I would definitely call it “tender and delicious.” My burnt tongue was my birthright. My family wasn’t going to divorce me after all.
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