Good, Better, & Best Pie Cookbooks: Art of the Pie, Pies & Tarts, and Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Lemon Meringue based on Art of the Pie

Lemon Meringue based on Art of the Pie

Testing multiple recipes for the same type of pie yields insights that would be lost on one-off endeavors.  For example, the amount of sugar added to egg whites is a major factor in whether and how they stiffen for meringue.  

In my cookbook review series, I test three pie books at the same time, focusing on one or two types of pies, and always trying the crust recipes.  You get to know which of these three books is most worth your time.

 

  • Good = Don't buy it.  In fact, you don't even need to bring it home.  Peruse it at a bookstore and get some ideas.
  • Better = Check it out of the library and make several recipes.
  • Best = Add this to your personal Pie Library immediately.

Good

The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book by Emily and Melissa Elsen

I was excited to finally dig into this cookbook because of all the buzz about the Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop in Brooklyn.  Wild ginger strawberry!  Chamomile buttermilk custard!  Pear anise!  What lovely flavor combinations!  What potential!

Unfortunately, the recipes themselves didn't stand up.  Let's talk about the crust recipe first.  Emily and Melissa recommend adding vinegar to the crust and insist on one's making it by hand.  I followed their all-butter crust recipe dutifully, and....it came out horrible.  Literally the worst crust I’ve ever made.  It was tough and brittle and, amazingly, given the amount of butter in it, had no flavor.  How did this happen?  I’m blaming the instructions to add the water/vinegar mixture 2 tablespoons at a time and mix with a spatula.  After 25 tablespoons, it seemed obvious to me that the dough was overworked.  (My method is to add at least half of the water you'll need up front, and then start adding 2 tablespoons at a time.  That cuts down the mixing time.)

To fill this crust, I used the Cranberry Sage pie recipe.  The crust didn’t pop with flavor: the sage didn’t come through, and the cranberry skins were tough. The filling wasn't a disaster, but it wasn't delicious.

I'm loathe to say it, but we didn't finish this pie at my house.  And, while I had planned to try a couple other recipes from the book, I'm actually scared of what might happen.  This is a great book to get inspiration from, but stop there and put it back on the shelf.

Better

Pies and Tarts by Kristina Petersen Migoya

This gem from The Culinary Institute of America is scientific and precise.  It explains basic techniques, and includes helpful technical information, such as a chart on seasonal availability of fruits, pictures of different egg glazes, and protein percentages of common supermarket flours.  That might be a little beyond what a first-time pie baker needs to know, but on the other hand, you might be the kind of person who likes to launch into a recipe with too much information, not too little.  Either way, this cookbook is a solid resource for both a new and experienced pie baker.

The all-butter crust came out too tough for the same reasons as Four and Twenty Blackbird's did: the recipe recommends adding the water 1-2 tablespoons at a time.  This just makes for too much mixing, which is death to flakiness.

I made the Lemon Meringue pie to accompany the all-butter crust.  The lemon filling ingredient ratios and procedure was accurate to a T.  For the meringue, the The “Swiss” method is cumbersome for a home cook.  HOWEVER, the result is scrumptious.  More like marshmallow than meringue, and in a good way.  Be careful putting your meringue under the broiler.  It needs only a minute or two -- stand there and watch it.

I also made the Pecan Pie and Custard Pie from this book.  I have struggled to find reliable recipes for these two simple, ubiquitous pies; Migoya's recipes are solid.  The Pecan Pie came out caramelly and crunchy.  The Custard Pie was rich and smooth.

Best

Art of the Pie by Kate McDermott

You should read this book whether you're a pie enthusiast or not.  Kate is a storyteller and pie is her muse.  Her voice is homey, yet profound.  You will learn about yourself as you read of Kate's journeys and experiences.  Add to your personal illumination that this is a good cookbook, with some unique recipes that will add value to your repertoire.

Kate has several recipes for gluten-free pie crust -- something I haven't seen in any other pie cookbook.  Being gluten-intolerant herself means Kate pays particular attention to the nuances of working with alternate flours, and has even developed a homemade flour blend.  I tested the butter and shortening gluten-free recipe and it was not only sufficient to the task, but actually preferred by my taste testers over a regular crust for Lemon Meringue Pie.  Even so, I recommend making a gluten-free pie crust only if you are forced to.  Challenging is too mild a word for the process.

Lemon Meringue Remix

Lemon Meringue Remix

Kate's Lemon Meringue pie recipe is easy to follow.  The meringue recipe is much simpler (but also less spectacular) than Pies and Tarts's.  I used my stand mixer on low for 8 minutes, then on medium for another 5 minutes in order to achieve soft peaks.  The result was a satisfactory pie that my family preferred to Pies and Tart's;  I liked the latter for the silkier, tangier lemon filling.  In my final test, I used the Pies and Tart's lemon filling recipe with Art of the Pie's gluten-free crust and meringue recipe.

The Sour Cherry Pie came out lip-smacking good.  I used frozen sour cherries, just as hard to find as fresh, but no less flavorful. 

I also tried a savory pie, the Cottage Pie.  It was excellent!  The kids loved it.  The addition of grated carrot to the ground beef meant that the kids got a serving of vegetables and didn’t even know it.  Awesome!  

I highly recommend The Art of Pie for the stories, but would tweak almost every recipe.  For example:

  • Omit nutmeg for all fruit pies except apple.
  • Don't put meringue on a hot lemon filling.  It doesn't help with shrinkage or weeping.  Be patient and let it cool.
  • Add milk to the potatoes in the Cottage Pie so that they aren't too dry.

Buy The Art of the Pie for the heart, and check Pies and Tarts out of the library for the technique.

Petsi Pies

Photo by Bryan Ennis

Photo by Bryan Ennis

Petsi Pies is the only bakery in the Boston area dedicated to pies, so it’s a natural first stop for a pie lover.  I’ve been sampling pies here for nine years, and it’s a significant stop on my pie journey: an underwhelming blueberry slice at Petsi Pies in 2008 launched my eternal search and personal challenge for better pie.

Today, I tried six slices at Petsi’s Putnam Avenue cafe. The overall takeaway is that Petsi Pies doesn’t seem to care about their crust.  Petsi’s crusts don’t offer anything more to their pies than a slab of crumbly cardboard would.  They aren't flaky or tender, they aren’t a little salty, and they certainly aren’t buttery.  In my world, this means Petsi Pies is off the list.  The crust is essential and, if it’s not right, there’s no use wasting premium dollars for a less than premium pie.  That said, there were a few winners in the fillings category, and Petsi’s is a definitive step up from a grocery store pie.  The tasting notes below rank from best to worst.

Chocolate Bourbon Pecan
Bitter, booze, and sweet achieve perfection in this pie.  Though the chocolate filling is more grainy than creamy, the flavors are just right, and the crunchy pecans and chocolate drizzle on top provide textural balance.

Browned Butter Pecan
Golden and caramelly, the filling below a crust of perfectly crunchy soft pecans truly satisfies.  It is sweet, but not cloying.  The whole slice has a glossy glow you can’t resist.

Cherry Crumb
If you like sour and tangy, this is the pie for you. Petsi’s cherry pie stands apart from others in that the cherries have a fresher texture and taste (but not appearance), and the filling lacks that goopy, sugary glop found in most cherry pies.  Not for everyone, but I liked it.

Salted Caramel Apple
The bit of salt in this pie distinguishes it, giving the otherwise bland filling a little pop.

Classic Apple
Despite the fresh apple taste, this double-crust pie is uninteresting.  No distinguishable spices provide flavor, and the usual disappointing crust is doubly so.

Blueberry
This is the first slice I had years ago and, sad to say, it has not improved.  The berries lack flavor – they are neither fresh, nor tart, nor sweet.