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WHAT’S COOKIN’: Alice Maggio, piemaker

After graduating from Wesleyan, she worked as a baker for Four & Twenty Blackbirds, the well-regarded bakery that had just opened on Third Avenue in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

South Egremont — By day, Alice Maggio is the Local Currency Program Director at the Schumacher Center for New Economics. She also is the Executive Director of BerkShares, Inc. These positions involve a lot of grassroots work, which is very appealing to her.

But when she is not organizing for a stronger, more sustainable and equitable local economy, she makes pies. I mean, lots of pies. In fact, she has become so adept at pie making that she rarely uses a recipe, a feat of considerable magnitude to many cooks. Saying that it’s hard to pick a favorite pie since each pie has its moment in the year, she makes whatever she has in the kitchen, whatever strikes her fancy, or a specific pie upon request.

Maggio’s pie making is a family tradition — she says the first thing to know about making a pie is what a good pie looks and tastes like. Her own pies are informed by her mother Ellen’s pies; and Ellen’s are informed by Ellen’s grandmother’s pies.

Maggio got started as an uber-pie maker during her sophomore year at Wesleyan, when she made a pumpkin pie for a party. Pumpkin led to apple, and eventually to Brooklyn. After graduation, she worked as a baker for Four & Twenty Blackbirds, the well-regarded bakery that had just opened on Third Avenue in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

Although Maggio is knowledgeable about pie making, when she needs inspiration she often turns to the cookbook written by Melissa and Emily Elsen, owners of Four and Twenty Blackbirds. And like millions of other Americans, “The Joy of Cooking” is a go-to reference for her.

Mixing the ingredients for the piecrust, resulting in a 'cornmeal' consistency. Photo: Laurily Epstein
Mixing the ingredients for the piecrust, resulting in a ‘cornmeal’ consistency. Photo: Laurily Epstein

At this point, Maggio has baked enough pies to be able to wing it when necessary. But when it comes to pie baking, it pays to have the basics down pat. “Once you have a feel for it, you can improvise,” she explains, “but there are certain things, like the crust, where following a recipe is important.

When I watched her put a pie together, she chose a fruit pie to illustrate principles of pie making. “Fruit pies are pretty straightforward, but custard pies can be tricky, “ she says. Whichever type of pie you make, though, should have excellent ingredients. For example, she uses lard from North Plain Farm and high quality butter like Plugra or Kate’s whenever possible. “In crust, the butter is the star, so the better the quality the better the result.” When she’s really lucky, she scores some butter made from local milk.

Two discs of dough to be chilled, one for the bottom crust, one for the top. Photo: Laurily Epstein
Two discs of dough to be chilled, one for the bottom crust, one for the top. Photo: Laurily Epstein

The first task in making a pie is to prepare the pastry crust, sometimes known as pâté brisée. Homemade pie crusts take time, she admits, but they are not hard to make. They just require flour, sugar, salt, butter and/or lard or shortening, and water. For the crust you want to keep the fat (say, butter) cold as you cut it into the flour. The idea is to cut it in, rather than smoosh it in. Keeping this in mind will help you create a flaky crust. You know you are ready to add water and bring the dough together when the flour and butter mixture looks mostly like cornmeal, with some larger pea-sized pieces of butter scattered throughout.

The piecrust she uses most often comes from “The Joy of Cooking.” Its ingredients are:

Rolling the piecrust dough. Photo: Laurily Epstein
Rolling the piecrust dough. Photo: Laurily Epstein

1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour

¾ cup whole wheat flour

Salt

Sugar

2 sticks minus 1 Tablespoon butter

2 Tablespoons lard

Cold water, about ½ cup

Once you have brought the dough together, gently press the dough into disks, wrap them in saran wrap, and refrigerate for one-half hour. While the pie dough is refrigerated, make the filling. Maggio follows the “five finger rule,” which helps you remember all the essential elements you need for a fruit pie: fruit, lemon juice, sugar, salt, and thickener. A fruit pie is more like cooking than baking, Maggio explains, because once you understand the basic proportions and elements you can make adjustments, according to what fruit you are using.

Alice pours the mixture of apples into the pie crust. Photo: Laurily Epstein
Alice pours the mixture of apples into the pie crust. Photo: Laurily Epstein

Since there is a good chance that people will be thinking about making apple pies now with such beautiful apples readily available to us, Maggio points out some of her favorite varieties for pie making. Although many people like Granny Smith, Alice usually uses a combination of McIntosh and Cortlands. She also likes to throw in some Ida Reds because they turn the pie pink, “which is cute,” she says.

 

 

 

Preparing the pie for baking, finishing the top crust.
Preparing the pie for baking, finishing the top crust.

Ingredients for apple filling:

5-6 cups apples, peeled, cored and sliced

½ – ¾ cup white sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 – 1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

Bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes, and then place a baking sheet under it and bake for 30 minutes. You should be seeing the juices bubbling.

This may seem like a lot of work, and it certainly does take time. But now that apples are in season, it does seem a shame not to make the highest and best use of them, which says to me “Pie.” Bon appetit.

And voilà! The finished pie, fresh from the oven, and ready to serve (see à la mode below).
And voilà! The finished pie, fresh from the oven, and ready to serve (see à la mode below).

 

Here's a serving option: pie à la mode.
Here’s a serving option: pie à la mode.
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