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American Pie : The Slice of History

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nothing is more American than apple pie . . . unless maybe it’s pumpkin pie. Or mince or peach or cherry pie, come to think of it. Or key lime, pecan or lemon chiffon.

Nothing is more American than pie. A 19th Century cartoon showed Uncle Sam, with a bowl of succotash by his side, gleefully feasting on a huge wedge of pie (probably mincemeat, by the look of it) representing comfortable, reliable, unpretentious pleasure. “No foreign frippery here, thank golly,” his expression implied.

It has often been pointed out that apple pie goes back a long way in England and mince pie is straight out of medieval France. All true; still, we have made pie our own. France and England don’t know our kind of pie, with its vast range of generous fillings and the unique American flaky crust.

The ancient Romans sometimes covered birds or hams with dough to keep them from drying out as they baked, but that’s not the same thing as pie. Nor, really, are any of the little stuffed dumplings found in many parts of the world, from Chinese dim sum to Turkish boreks to Mexican tamales.

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Pie originated as a cold-climate food in medieval Europe. The essence of pie is that it’s baked in a substantial crust (in the Middle Ages, as today, the crust might even be baked separately). The old word for pie crust suggests just how substantial: coffyn , meaning a case or box.

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Some pies were baked in pie plates, but the grandest variety was the “raised” pie, baked in a free-standing coffyn whose edges rose in a thick wall of dough a couple of inches high. It could even be crenelated--adorned with square notches like the top of a castle wall. “Have great pie shells,” wrote the 14th Century French chef Taillevent, “and to make them higher, crenelate them, and reinforce them so that they can support the meat.” To make his pie look even more like a castle, he included a quartered chicken “in which to fix the banners of France and the nobles present.”

Such pies were still being made as late as the 17th Century. Shakespeare’s colleague Ben Jonson portrayed a master cook at work:

“He paints, he carves, he builds, he fortifies,

“Makes citadels of curious fowl and fish.

“Some he dry-ditches, some moats round with broths;

“Rears bulwark pies; and for his outer works

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“He raiseth ramparts of immortal crusts.”

Those “immortal crusts” were what many of these pies were all about. For centuries, pie was largely a way of preserving food, a sort of medieval equivalent of canning, except that the contents were nearly always meat. Often the crust itself was not even meant to be eaten, particularly in the case of game pies.

“Red Deer Venison, Wild-Boar, Gammons of Bacon, Swans, Elkes, Porpus and such like standing dishes, which must be kept long,” wrote the Elizabethan cookery writer Gervase Markham, “would be bak’d in a moyst, thick, tough, course and long-lasting crust, and therefore of all other your Rye paste is best for that purpose.” This tradition lasted a long time. In the 19th Century, kitchen deaconesses of the Shaker religious communities still distinguished between veal, lamb and turkey pies, made in a wheat flour crust, and venison pie in a rye crust.

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In Shakespeare’s time, some pies, particularly fruit pies, were meant to be eaten hot, while others would “come to the table more than once (yet not many days),” as Markham put it. “Standing” pies, continuing the medieval raised pie tradition, were huge and might be eaten from for up to three months. You’d cut a hole in the crust and take out what you wanted, then plug up the hole. When a standing pie came out of the oven, it was common to pour melted butter through a hole in the crust to hermetically seal the contents.

A tarte was usually smaller than a pie, though unlike the modern tart it might have a top crust, and might even be fried (“fry in deep fat until they are as hard as if cooked on the hearth,” says a 14th Century French recipe). A flathon or flawn (related to the word flat ) could be a pie with a meaty filling such as eels (with sugar, if you had any) or with a cream and egg filling. This explains the double meaning of flan today: a tart baked on a baking sheet (in a flan ring, instead of a pie pan) or a custard dessert.

For that matter, the word crustade originally meant anything cooked in a crust, but crustades so often contained cream and eggs that they gave us our word custard. Custard pie lovers can congratulate themselves on their taste for the genuine, original custard.

The English word “pie,” which first appears in writing at the beginning of the 14th Century, is assumed to be the same as the word “magpie.” Apart from chattering, magpies were proverbial for collecting odds and ends, hence the expression “a magpie’s nest,” meaning a miscellaneous mess.

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To see how medieval pies got their name, consider a 1450 recipe for “grete pyes”: beef, beef suet, capons, hens, both mallard and teal ducks, rabbits, woodcocks and large birds such as herons and storks, plus beef marrow, hard-cooked egg yolks, dates, raisins and prunes.

If that sounds like a terrible mess, remember that it was a standing pie. If you were going to be eating from it for weeks, the more flavorings, the merrier. The highly seasoned combination of meat, suet and dried fruit lives on, of course, in mince pie.

Pie recipes nearly always included meat or fish until the 15th Century, when we start to find recipes for pies filled with custard or fruit--nearly always dried fruit such as raisins and dates. It wasn’t until the 16th Century that fresh fruit became common in pie, perhaps because sugar was slowly becoming less expensive. Queen Elizabeth I’s pastry cooks often gave her quince or pear pies for New Year’s gifts.

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That’s how things stood when the American Colonies were established. Colonial recipe collections reflected this situation, mostly giving recipes for meat or mince pie. The first published American cookbook, Amelia Simmons’s “American Cookery” (1796), gave recipes for mince pie, chicken pie, stew pie and “sea pie” (meat with salt pork), as well as two apple pies.

At least mince pie and chicken pie have remained American favorites. In 1888, lumberjacks in a logging camp were described as eating mince pie three times a day. (The idea of pie for breakfast still hangs on in some places, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch country.)

Fruit pie, though, became the great American favorite. People experimented with all sorts of fruits and fruit combinations--even vegetables cooked like fruit. Pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie, originally made because people didn’t have bearing fruit trees, became favorites in their own right, although white potato pie seems to have disappeared, to nobody’s regret.

In Europe, the big medieval pies were giving way to delicate little tarts. Off in the New World, however, Americans continued the idea of a large filling, and even expanded it with the pot pie, cooked on the hearth in a pot or Dutch oven. But they changed the medieval crust, which had usually been just flour and water paste, perhaps stiffened with eggs. By shortening it with lard, they made it flaky and delicate--at least when fresh from the oven.

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Mostly that’s what they did, anyway. In some cold climates, particularly New England, pie remained a way of preserving food for a few days or even weeks. Mark Twain once gave a satirical recipe for New England apple pie: ". . . Construct a bullet-proof dough. . . . Toughen and kiln-dry it a couple of days. . . . Fill with stewed dried apple; aggravate with cloves, lemon peel and slabs of citron; add two portions of New Orleans sugar. Then solder on the lid and set in a safe place till it petrifies. Serve cold at breakfast and invite your enemy.”

But Twain was just in a mocking mood. He showed his real attitude toward pie in the same book (“A Tramp Abroad”) when, after months of travel in Europe, he compiled a homesick list of 70 American foods he planned to eat as soon as he got home. The list included, “Apple pie. Apple fritters. Apple puffs, Southern style. Peach cobbler. Peach pie. American mince pie. Squash pie. All sorts of American pastry.”

In the middle of the 19th Century, pie was unquestionably the country’s favorite dessert. It led the dessert lists on restaurant menus. Then it came under violent assault from the dietary reformers who multiplied after the Civil War.

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In 1866, Harper’s Magazine published an attack by C.W. Gesner. “We are fond of pies and tarts,” Gesner wrote. “We cry for pie when we are infants. Pie in countless varieties waits upon us through life. Pie kills us finally.

“We have apple pie, peach pie, rhubarb pie, pumpkin pie, plum pie, custard pie, oyster pie, lemon pie and hosts of other pies. Potatoes are diverted from their proper place as boiled or baked and made into a nice heavy crust for these pies, rendering them incapable of being acted on by the gastric juice as if they were sulphate of baryta, a chemical which boiling vitriol will hardly dissolve. . . . How can a person with a pound of green apples and fat dough in his stomach be at ease?”

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Today, it sounds as if Gesner was kind of going off the deep end about the pie of death, particularly that business about the potato crust. But the reformers succeeded in making people self-conscious about pie. “The Century Cookbook” (1895) considered it necessary to remark, “The American pie is perhaps the most ridiculed of dishes. It has, however, great popularity and undoubted merits. The mince pie, probably the most indigestible of all, is the one universally accepted as a treat, and seldom refused by the scoffer.”

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In her 1902 cookbook, Sara Tyson Rorer, the cookery writer and doyenne of dietetics, flatly said, “All forms of so-called pie crust are to be condemned; for this reason, this (chapter) is necessarily small.” She gave only a couple of pate recipes, an English apple tart, a “hygienic pie” (apple slices or a pumpkin custard baked in biscuit dough) and “tartlets” made by covering crackers with jelly and meringue.

All to no avail. Americans have just gone on making pies--more kinds of pie than ever. We’ve had gelatin-filled pies and pudding-filled pies and “mock” pies based on crackers that imitate apple or mincemeat. And a lot of them are richer than ever, such as cream pies and chiffon pies. The latter are considered particularly unhealthful today because they’re lightened with raw beaten egg white, a potential source of food poisoning.

It sounds funny now, but cake escaped the 19th Century dietitians’ attacks. That’s because in the last century, the typical cake was unfrosted, something like a seed cake or banana bread. It’s lucky that the dietary reformers never lived to see the rich frostings modern cake lovers relish; they might have to eat their words and try to talk people into going back to the simple, wholesome pie.

If you asked people these days what their favorite pastry is, the largest number might name chocolate cake. But a homely brown crust bursting with fruit still has a special appeal to us. Chocolate may be majestic, but pie is personal.

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The combination of meat and fruit in this medieval pie has an obvious family resemblance to mincemeat, but it’s bound with an abundance of egg yolk, giving quite a different effect. From a manuscript in the British Library known as Harleian 479, dating from around 1420; recipe adapted from a version developed by David Friedman and Elizabeth Cook.

CHAWETTYS (15th-Century Meat Pie)

1 1/2 pounds pork or veal, cubed (about 3 cups)

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1 1/2 cups water

Pastry for 1 (8-inch) double pie crust

6 tablespoons chopped dates

6 tablespoons currants

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2 teaspoons salt

5 threads saffron

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

3/4 teaspoon black pepper

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1/2 teaspoon ground mace

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

3/4 cup red wine

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

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10 egg yolks

In saucepan simmer meat in water 20 minutes. Drain. Line 8-inch-square baking dish with pastry. In bowl combine meat, dates and currants. Place meat mixture into pastry-lined dish.

In bowl combine salt, saffron, ginger, pepper, mace, cloves, wine, vinegar and 9 egg yolks, reserving 1 yolk, and pour over. Cover with top crust, crimp well, make triangular cuts in center and fold tips back.

Beat reserved yolk (save egg whites for another use) and brush on crust. Bake at 375 degrees until crust is browned and meat is heated through, 25 to 30 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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Each of 6 servings contains about:

641 calories; 1,060 mg sodium; 512 mg cholesterol; 40 grams fat; 39 grams carbohydrates; 25 grams protein; 0.63 gram fiber.

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This refined version of an old American classic has a rich, flaky, meaty-tasting crust, thanks to its mixture of lard and chicken fat. The latter is a handy byproduct of the precooking of the chicken the day before. Make sure the chicken fat is good and cold when making the crust.

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SAVORY CHICKEN POT PIES

2 chicken breast halves

6 chicken thighs

Salt, pepper

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2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons oil

1 (3-pound 1 1/2-ounce) can chicken broth

1 small onion, cut into quarters

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1 stalk celery, cut into chunks

1 small carrot, peeled, cut into chunks

1/4 cup melted butter

1/4 cup flour

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2 tablespoons minced tarragon

1 cup pearl onions, peeled

1 medium potato, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch chunks

4 small carrots, cut into 1/2-inch diagonal slices (about 1 1/2 cups)

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2 cups broccoli florets

1 1/2 cups quartered button mushrooms

Rich Pastry Crust

2 egg yolks, beaten

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Season chicken parts to taste with salt and pepper. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and oil together in soup pot. Add chicken and brown. Add chicken broth, quartered onion, celery chunks and carrot chunks and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer until chicken is tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Let cool. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Next day, skim cold chicken fat off top of broth. Reserve 1/4 cup fat for making Rich Pastry Crust. (Keep reserved chicken fat in refrigerator.)

Heat broth and remove chicken. Skin and bone chicken parts. Discard skin and bones. Cut meat into 2-inch chunks and set aside.

Strain broth. Reduce over high heat to 3 cups. Combine 1/4 cup melted butter and flour in saucepan and gradually stir in broth. Bring to boil and boil 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in tarragon.

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Cook pearl onions, potato, sliced carrots and broccoli separately in boiling water until tender, 5 to 10 minutes each. Drain.

Toss together cooked chicken, cooked vegetables and mushrooms. Stir in chicken-tarragon sauce. Divide into 4 (2-cup) oval casseroles.

Make Rich Pastry Crust. Divide dough in half and gather into 2 small flattened rounds. Roll first half on lightly floured board to 1/4-inch thick. Cut dough to fit tops of 2 casseroles, leaving enough dough to overhang edges by 1 inch. Repeat with second half of dough.

Brush edges of casseroles with egg yolk and place crusts atop casseroles. Flute edges. Make 4 triangular cuts in center of each crust and fold back tips of triangles. Brush crust with egg yolk (save egg whites for another use). Bake at 400 degrees until crust is golden brown and contents hot and bubbly, 20 to 30 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

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Each serving contains about:

1,364 calories; 3,243 mg sodium; 343 mg cholesterol; 91 grams fat; 78 grams carbohydrates; 57 grams protein; 1.09 grams fiber.

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Rich Pastry Crust

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2 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup lard

1/4 cup chicken fat, cold

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4 to 6 tablespoons cold water

Combine flour and salt. Cut in lard and reserved cold chicken fat until size of small peas. Add water by tablespoons, tossing with fork until all flour is moistened and dough forms ball.

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Recipes for cranberry-raisin pie, often known as Mock Cherry Pie, date from the late 19th Century. One of its appeals was that you could make it when no berries were in season, because cranberries keep well (that goes double, of course, for raisins). Another was that its taste does eerily mimic cherries, at least if you mix the fruit evenly. This recipe is adapted from the 1941 classic “Southern Cooking” by Mrs. S.R. Dull.

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MOCK CHERRY PIE

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

6 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 cups water

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1 1/2 cups halved cranberries

3/4 cup raisins

3 tablespoons butter

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

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Pastry for 1 (8-inch) double pie crust

1 tablespoon oil

In bowl mix sugar and flour. Bring water to boil in saucepan. Add flour mixture and return to boil, stirring to prevent lumps. Boil 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in cranberries, raisins, butter and vanilla.

Line 8-inch pie plate with pastry and brush with oil. Pour filling into pie shell and cover with top crust or lattice. Moisten edges of pastry and seal. Pierce top crust generously. Bake at 375 degrees 35 to 40 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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Each of 6 servings contains about:

655 calories; 259 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 31 grams fat; 92 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.68 gram fiber.

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Another handy pie that doesn’t depend on seasonal ingredients. The filling is intense and sweet-tart, like the traditional apricot-pineapple jam. It goes well with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

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APRICOT-PINEAPPLE PIE

1 1/2 cups dried apricots

1 1/2 cups water

6 tablespoons sugar

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1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

Salt

3 tablespoons butter

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Pastry for 1 (8-inch) double pie crust

With knife or kitchen shears, cut each apricot into quarters. Put apricots in saucepan, add water, bring to boil, cover and cook over medium heat 10 minutes. Add sugar and cook 5 minutes more. Drain, reserving 3/4 cup juice. Set apricots aside.

Drain crushed pineapple, reserving 1/4 cup juice. Set pineapple aside.

In mixing bowl, dissolve cornstarch in reserved pineapple juice. Add reserved apricot juice. Put mixed juices in saucepan, add dash salt and cook over medium heat until mixture thickens, stirring continually.

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Mix drained apricots and pineapple thoroughly. Mix with thickened juices and pour into unbaked pie shell. Dot with butter. Cover with top crust, crimp edges and pierce with fork. Bake at 400 degrees 25 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

546 calories; 299 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 29 grams fat; 70 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 1.21 grams fiber.

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A powerful variation on the traditional Southern pecan pie. It also goes well with a scoop of ice cream, but for the opposite reason--because it’s so sweet. From “A Taste of the South” by Terry Thompson (HP Books: 1988).

PEANUT PIE

3 eggs

1 cup dark corn syrup

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1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup peanut butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup salted peanuts

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Cream Cheese Pie Pastry, chilled

Whipped cream

Beat eggs, corn syrup, sugar, peanut butter and vanilla until smooth and thickened, about 4 minutes. Stir in peanuts and blend.

Roll out pastry to fit 9-inch pie pan. Pour in filling. Bake at 400 degrees 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until knife inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool completely before serving. Top each slice with whipped cream. Makes 8 servings.

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Each serving contains about:

583 calories; 118 mg sodium; 122 mg cholesterol; 34 grams fat; 62 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams protein; 1.38 grams fiber.

Cream Cheese Pastry

1 cup pastry flour

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1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes

Salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 (3-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature

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Combine flour, butter, dash salt, sugar and cream cheese in food processor and process with steel blade until smooth. Turn out dough onto work surface and gather together. Gently knead 3 or 4 times to form smooth ball. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour before rolling.

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It’s traditional to “dunk” shoo-fly pie (like all other Pennsylvania Dutch pies) as you eat it--in milk, coffee or whatever else you’re drinking. From “Pennsylvania Dutch Cook Book of Fine Old Recipes” (Culinary Arts Press: Reading, Pa. 1960). Our Pennsylvania Dutch informant, Mildred Simpson, recommends Bre’r Rabbit brand dark molasses, though it’s not always available in this area.

MOLASSES SHOO-FLY CAKE

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(Molasses Crumb Pie)

Boiling Water Pie Crust

3/4 cup flour

1/2 cup brown sugar, packed

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1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

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1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons shortening

1/2 cup dark molasses

3/4 cup boiling water

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1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 egg yolk, well beaten

Line 9-inch pie pan with Boiling Water Pie Crust.

In bowl mix flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and salt. Cut in shortening with pastry blender or knives until mixture is coarse crumbs. Set aside.

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Combine molasses, boiling water, baking soda and egg yolk (save egg white for another use). Sprinkle spiced crumbs on bottom of pie crust, cover with layer of molasses mixture and alternate layers until finished, ending with crumb layer. Bake at 450 degrees 10 minutes, reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until firm, about 20 minutes longer. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

362 calories; 321 mg sodium; 34 mg cholesterol; 17 grams fat; 49 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.1 gram fiber.

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Boiling Water Pie Crust

1 1/2 cups sifted flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup shortening

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1/4 cup boiling water, about

Sift flour and salt into mixer bowl. Cut in shortening until evenly blended.

Slowly add water and mix until ingredients just hold together. Press together, turn onto lightly floured board, and roll into circle 1/8-inch thick.

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Because of its Thanksgiving associations, pumpkin has become the preeminent squash for pie-making. Many 19th-Century connoisseurs, however, insisted that other winter squashes had a more refined flavor. This recipe (Mabel Gray’s from “Yankee Magazine’s Great New England Recipes,” 1983) would also work with acorn and other squashes.

MOTHER’S SQUASH PIE

1 cup milk

1 to 1 1/2 cups mashed cooked butternut squash

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3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

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1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 small or 2 large eggs

1 (9-inch) pie shell

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Heat milk and squash together in double boiler. In bowl, mix sugar, flour, salt, ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon. Then add eggs. Beat well with rotary beater. Add mixture to milk and squash in double boiler. Stir together well. Do not boil.

Pour warm filling into pie shell. Bake at 400 degrees 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until pie sets, about 15 to 20 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each of 6 servings contains about:

428 calories; 349 mg sodium; 109 mg cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 54 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.53 gram fiber.

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Yes, you can put a streusel topping on a cream fruit pie, if you use enough of it. Pears go well with other fruits; pears and blueberries is a traditional combination, and plums, when available, are even better than figs.

STREUSEL CREAM PEAR AND FIG PIE

6 small fresh figs, peeled and quartered, or 6 small plums, peeled, seeded and quartered

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2 large pears, peeled and seeded, cut same size as fig quarters

1 (9-inch) pie shell

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

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Salt

1 egg

2 tablespoons whipping cream

1/2 cup flour

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1 cup brown sugar, packed

1/2 cup unsalted butter

Arrange fig and pear quarters in pie shell and sprinkle with granulated sugar, nutmeg and dash salt. In bowl beat egg and cream. Pour over fruit. In bowl mix flour, brown sugar and butter until crumbly. Sprinkle over pie. Bake at 400 degrees 25 to 35 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

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653 calories; 161 mg sodium; 84 mg cholesterol; 36 grams fat; 80 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 1.57 grams fiber.

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Tapestry place mats and fruit design place mat from Crossroads in South Pasadena.

Metal under-liner plate from Bristol Farm’s Cook ‘N’ Things in South Pasadena.

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