How to pull off the perfect pie

Look, baking a pie is hard work.

Alicia Hinze knows that — and it’s why she loves them. Hinze is the pastry chef behind The Buttered Tin, a breakfast restaurant and bakery in Lowertown and Northeast Minneapolis.

Alicia Hinze is a baker and owner of the Buttered Tin, the St. Paul bakery and cafe in Lowertown. (Pioneer Press: Chris Polydoroff)

“They’re tedious; they’re meticulous,” she said. “There’s a lot that goes into a pie. So when someone makes a pie for you, it means there’s love there. They must really love you.”

Even so, pie doesn’t always get the reputation it deserves. Maybe it feels like something your grandmother would make, not you — and it doesn’t help that plenty of store-bought pies can be schlocky and saccharine.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, local pie experts say: Well-made pie can be creative and expressive and tell stories of generations, and it should be celebrated.

Author Rose McGee, who bakes pies to facilitate community healing through her organization Sweet Potato Comfort Pie, has also lent her recipe to public school lunchrooms. Occasionally, she’ll stop by to chat with the kids over a slice.

One year, McGee said, “one little girl said, ‘No, I can’t eat this pie! I only eat my grandmama’s pie.’”

In honor of Pi Day — March 14, or 3.14, the first digits of the mathematical constant — this year, we checked in with several top-notch pie bakers around St. Paul and the Twin Cities to help us make fun and successful pies at home.

How to get the crispiest, flakiest crust

A cherry pie made by Sarah Millfelt of Milly’s Kitchen Madness, a bakery subscription company in Stillwater, bears a cutout of David Bowie. To achieve a firm texture in her cherry pie, Millfelt strains the filling and cooks down the juices in a saucepan until they’re thick, then re-adds the mixture to the fruit. (Photo courtesy Sarah Millfelt)

Know your ratios: A good pie dough is roughly a 3-2-1 ratio of flour to butter to water. “That’s really all you need to know to make a good pie dough,” said Rachel Anderson, owner of Vikings & Goddesses Pie Company on Marshall and Cleveland avenues.

Use frozen butter: “Cold is your friend with pie crust,” said Emily Lauer, who runs the pop-up bakery Fruit & Grain. Her secret: Instead of a true lamination process, which creates airy layers in pastries like croissants, she freezes her butter and shreds it with a cheese grater. But even if you opt for a more traditional process, make sure your butter stays in firm pieces rather than softening in the dough. “I love rolling out the dough and seeing all that chunky butter in the crust, and knowing it’s going to turn out to be super flaky, browned goodness,” Hinze said.

Buy a scale: We all think we know how to measure a cup of flour, but the reality is that weight is more accurate than volume, Lauer said. Find a cheap scale; no need to get fancy. “It’ll make your baking in general so much better, but for sure your pie crusts,” she said.

Skip the vodka: Some bakers swear by using chilled vodka in their pie doughs to keep things cold and halt the production of gluten, which could make the crust tough. If that works for you, great, Hinze said, but she prefers good old ice water. “It’s the fat and the flour that’s going to create the bubbles and flakiness, not the water or vodka, which just stops the gluten from forming,” she said. “I don’t buy into that.”

Blind-bake the crust: Some recipes call for partially baking the crust empty, before adding the filling, even if the pie will be baked again. This technique is worth doing all the time, our local experts said, because it creates crispy edges and helps avoid raw, soggy bottoms. “That’s a really big red flag if this is not step one of your recipe,” Anderson said. Some stores sell pie weights to prevent the crust from puffing up in the oven, but you can simply lay down parchment paper and pour in some dried beans, Lauer said.

How to make a perfect filling

Rose McGee, the founder of Sweet Potato Comfort Pies, carries four homemade sweet potato pies to the food volunteer tent at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis on Tuesday, May 25, 2021. (Mary Divine / Pioneer Press)

Let the main ingredients shine: If she’s eating a sweet potato pie, McGee said, she wants to be able to taste the sweet potato. It’s not a pumpkin pie, so put away the allspice and pumpkin pie spice blend. Similarly, Hinze said, apple pies should taste like apples, so don’t go crazy with cinnamon and sugar. “There’s something to being true to the authenticity of the pie,” McGee said. “If you’re calling it a sweet potato pie, then it’s sweet potato pie!”

Cook out the cornstarch: Fruit-based pies often call for a thickening agent like cornstarch, which helps avoid runny fillings — but if the pie is underbaked, the result will be grainy and unpleasant, Anderson said. “If the cornstarch hasn’t been cooked out, (you’ll notice) a little more of a cloudy color, and the cornstarch sticks to your teeth a bit,” she said.

Sarah Millfelt, owner of Milly’s Kitchen Madness & Bakes, poses with a box of her desserts in her backyard in Stillwater on July 11, 2023. Millfelt, the former director of the Northern Clay Center, launched the business three years ago as a cottage bakery, so everything is made in her home kitchen. (Jared Kaufman / Pioneer Press)

Use the “pie gel” trick: Here’s a secret from Sarah Millfelt, who runs a Stillwater-based bakery subscription box called Milly’s Kitchen Madness, for well-set cherry pies. After adding sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice or other ingredients to the cherries, strain them, but don’t discard the juices. Cherries go into the crust, and the liquid goes into a saucepan to reduce. Then, pour the thickened cherry sauce back into the pie before it hits the oven to nail that rich texture. “It’s an extra step, extra pots and pans you have to wash, but, oh, it’s so spectacular,” she said.

How to finish strong

Crimp it: For hand pies or full-size double-crust pies, clean edges aren’t just for looks. A well-crimped edge is key to keeping the filling inside. “If you press down on it and there’s a tiny bit of filling (oozing out), it’s going to burst open a hole,” Anderson said.

Curb your sweet tooth: “I don’t want to bite into a pie and it’s a sugar bomb,” Hinze said. If you’re using a naturally sweeter crust, like one made from graham crackers, for example, she recommends toning down the sugar in your filling to compensate. And if your pie has two crusts — one on the bottom and another over the filling — resist the urge to sprinkle sugar on top.

Practice, practice, practice: Pie is hard, Hinze said. Even when you follow the recipe step by step, pulling the finished dessert out of the oven can still feel like a reality check. “You make it, pop it in the oven, wait hours, and are like, ‘Aw, man! It didn’t turn out. That sucks, that was half my day!” she said — but it’s worth it to try again.

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