Pie making a labor of love

MarÍana Stevenson, pie baker at the Meade County Senior Citizen’s Center, measures ice water into her pie crust mixture. The senior center sold pies as a fundraiser. All pies were to be ready for pickup by Wednesday. Pioneer photo by Deb Holland

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Whether you use butter, shortening, or oil in your pie crust, or sugar or honey in your pie filling, local bakers seem to agree on one secret ingredient in all their pies - love.

Tracy Ainslie of Sturgis was 14 when she made her first pie in her mom’s kitchen, alongside her grandma.

“She taught me everything I know about baking,” Ainslie said. 

The occasion for making the pie was that she was attending her first high school dance and had invited her date to a homemade dinner with her family beforehand.

“We enjoyed the evening and eventually became high school sweethearts, then college sweethearts,” she said. “We’ve been married now for 16 years and pies are still a great way to tell Daniel, and our four kids, I love you.”

Ainslie said that when she thinks about baking pies now with her children and when she made pies with her grandma all those years ago, her best advice is not about techniques with a pastry cutter or application of the perfect egg wash.

“It’s that the most important ingredient is love,” she said.

Robin Reinhold, with the help of her four daughters, recently made 16 pies for the annual Rainbow Bible Ranch Pie Auction fundraiser. 

“It is so fun to work together, learn together and produce good food together,” Reinhold said. 

Reinhold learned pie baking from her mom, Ellen Paulton.

“She is a wonderful pie baker. At 87, she is still baking pies. She even brought a homegrown strawberry rhubarb pie to our pie auction,” Reinhold said.

Reinhold doesn’t remember her first pie, but she does remember working and learning alongside her mom. She also commends the pie-baking prowess of her mother-in-law, the late Vicky Reinhold. 

“The pie crust recipe we use was hers. It’s one she had clipped from a newspaper shortly after she was married in 1956,” Reinhold said.

Reinhold breaks from conventional wisdom and uses oil in her crust rather than shortening or lard. 

“The use of ice water is important in the oil-based crust to make it nice and flaky. And, don’t overwork the crust,” she said.

Other tips Reinhold shares are to roll the crust between two sheets of parchment paper, and to keep the edges of the pie from over browning, use a pie shield, or, fashion your own shield from tin foil. Don’t put foil over the whole pie, just the edges.

Reinhold prefers to use honey instead of sugar in fruit pies such as apple or peach. She uses half the amount of honey as called for in sugar.

Meade County rancher Fred McPherson said the pies he makes are seasonal including rhubarb and apple.

“The key to making a good pie is to taste the fruit and adjust the sugar and flour depending on how juicy and sweet it is,” he said. 

Mariana Stevenson, the pie baker at the Meade County Senior Citizen’s Center, is particular about the type of apples she uses in her apple pies. It has to be the Granny Smith variety.

“I will not use anything else. That’s what grandma taught me to use. You get the real tartness and crispness from that. And when you mix it with your sugar and spices, you get a nice blend,” she said.

The Golden Delicious variety of apples are too “mushy” for Stevenson. Fuji apples don’t have a lot of flavor and the Honey Crisp variety are too sweet for apple pie, she said.

Stevenson used both butter and shortening in the pie crusts she made this week. She used ice water as the binder and mixed the ingredients in a food processor. 

“When I do this at home, I’m used to cutting it in with a hand cutter, but when I have to put out this many pies, I had to find a way to time manage a little bit better,” she said.

Coleen Keffeler, the culinary arts teacher at Sturgis Brown High School, said fresh shortening or lard makes for a great pie crust.

“I use Crisco. Don’t use the generic stuff because it’s different,” she said. 

When combining the flour with the shortening, Keffeler uses two forks or a pastry blender. She said to make sure the shortening is about pea-sized and covered with flour.

“Add the liquid a little at a time,” she said. “You can use milk or water. I like milk. I think it gives the crust a little bit browner color and a little bit better flavor.”

Then, wrap it up and let the crust rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, Keffeler said. 

“As you roll it out, make sure you use some flour on your mat so that it does not stick,” she said.

Always start rolling from the center of the pie dough outward. Come back to the center and continue to roll outward.

“Don’t overwork it. That’s how you end up with a tough pie crust,” she said.

All students who take culinary arts classes at SBHS learn to make a pie crust, Keffeler said. And she has found some common mistakes over the years.

Some students used warm water instead of ice-cold water or milk, and others rolled their crust too thin and it stuck to the work surface. And, students have forgotten to pierce the crust with a fork before baking the shell for a cream pie and they ended up with a big bubble in the center of the crust. 

Keffeler’s advice to pie bakers is to go with what you know. 

“If your mom or grandma had a recipe that you learned how to make, stick with that one,” she said.

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