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It all starts with the dessert

Times Staff Writer

BEHOLD the pie, so perfect in its imperfection, the rustic pinnacle of the home cook’s art. Pie is personal, a little tricky, but surprisingly forgiving. Its flaws reveal soul. The crimped edge is a bit uneven, the crust perfectly flaky. The surface of the custard may be cracked, the vents on the double-crust unevenly spaced, but that’s the kind of beautiful imperfection a pastry chef, especially with all those years of training, could never reproduce. The pie has personality.

It must be eaten at just the right moment. Bake it the day before, and its crust becomes gluey and sodden. If it’s out of the oven too close to dinner, it doesn’t hold up enough to slice.

But make a couple of pies first thing in the morning and the flavors meld as they cool. There on the sill, they set the tone -- and unleash the aromas -- for Thanksgiving day.

You can flirt with huckleberry or chocolate cream, but on those occasions when you want to get back to the essence of the holiday, it has to be apple and pumpkin.

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The pumpkin tradition goes back to the Pilgrims -- OK, so it wasn’t pie; it was pumpkin baked in its own shell. The earliest recipe for pumpkin pie as we know it appeared in the first American cookbook, “American Cookery” by Amelia Simmons, as “pompkin” pudding in a crust.

You can get a head start the night before by making the pie dough and refrigerating it overnight. That gives you a sense of something accomplished, however small, and it gives the dough a chance to thoroughly chill and relax.

Pie dough is just flour, salt, butter and cold water, but with a few tricks you can easily transform them into the best crust you’ve ever had.

Use good cold butter, straight from the fridge. Combine it with the flour and salt using the tools nature gave you: your hands. Using just your fingertips, rub the flour into the pieces of butter until it’s thoroughly blended. As you do this, you’re creating layers of butter within the flour, which in turn create a flaky crust. Don’t use your entire hand; the warmth from your palms would cause the butter to melt.

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When the mixture is crumbly and there is no more flour loose in the bowl, toss in the cold water and mix it in with a fork just till the mixture forms a ball. Lightly pat it into a round disk (or two for a double crust). Shaping it in a perfect circle now makes it easier to roll out. Wrap it in plastic film before refrigerating.

Why not use a pastry cutter or even a food processor? Using your hands gives you more control to gather the flour and butter together. With a pastry cutter, butter tends to clump in large pieces while the flour strays to the edges. And with a food processor, it’s too easy to overwork the dough, resulting in a tough crust.

On Thanksgiving morning, prepare the filling for both the apple and pumpkin pies before rolling out the crust. Take the dough out of the refrigerator about half an hour before you’re ready to roll it out. The same rule in making pie dough applies to rolling it: Handle it only as much as it needs.

To that end, sprinkle just enough flour on the rolling surface to avoid sticking and work in long, smooth strokes, moving the dough a quarter-turn now and then to keep it round. To transfer it to the pie plate, gently fold it in quarters and center it on the pie plate and unfold.

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These pumpkin and apple pies are classic versions, wonderful as they are, but perfect, too, for riffing on. Add vanilla-scented quince to the apple for a rich and elegant variation, or add cranberries for sweet-tart pop. Pumpkin pie cries out now and then for the zing of fresh ginger, or you could dress it up with a crunchy hazelnut praline.

No wonder there’s always room for dessert at Thanksgiving.

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Classic pumpkin pie

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Total time: 1 hour, 10 minutes plus chilling time

Servings: 8

Crust

1 1/2 cups flour, plus more for rolling

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1 tablespoon sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) chilled butter, cut in pieces

1 egg yolk

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4 tablespoons ice water

1. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl and stir. Add the butter and blend it in with your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

2. Lightly beat the egg yolk and add the ice water. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture in the bowl and stir with a fork just until the dough comes together into a ball.(To make using a food processor, pulse the flour, sugar and salt to combine. Add the butter and pulse 4 or 5 times until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the egg yolk. Add the water, a tablespoon at a time, pulsing briefly until the dough forms a ball.) Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until firm, about 1 hour, or overnight.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and roll to a 13-inch circle. Fold the dough in quarters and center onto the pie plate; unfold and gently pat the dough onto the bottom and sides of the plate. Trim and flute the edges.

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Filling and assembly

1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons milk

2 tablespoons butter

2 eggs

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1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin

1/2 cup plus 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

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1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 tablespoon milk for brushing on pie crust

1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Heat the milk just until hot but not simmering. Remove from heat and add the butter. Set aside.

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2. Lightly beat the eggs. Add the pumpkin, sugar, salt and spices. Stir until completely blended. Stir in the hot milk mixture.

3. Brush the fluted edge of the pie crust with milk. Pour the filling into the pie shell.

4. Bake 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake an additional 35 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Serve with whipped cream.

Each serving: 326 calories; 6 grams protein; 43 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 15 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 113 mg. cholesterol; 222 mg. sodium.

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Variations

Pumpkin-ginger pie: Reduce the cinnamon and nutmeg to one-fourth teaspoon each. Omit the ground ginger and stir in 2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger root. Serve with ginger whipped cream made by whipping 1 cup heavy cream to form soft peaks and adding 1 tablespoon sifted powdered sugar and one-fourth teaspoon vanilla. Grate a 2-inch piece of ginger onto a piece of cheesecloth. Twist the cloth and squeeze out 2 teaspoons ginger juice (obtained when grating fresh ginger). Just before serving, stir the juice into the whipped cream.

Pumpkin-hazelnut pie: Make the classic pie. Cool to room temperature. Toss together one-half cup toasted chopped hazelnuts, 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar, a pinch of salt and 2 tablespoons melted butter. Sprinkle the mixture evenly on the top of the pie. Put the pie on a baking tray and cover the edges of the crust with aluminum foil. Place it under the broiler until the nuts begin to brown, 2 to 3 minutes.

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Classic apple pie

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes plus chilling time

Servings: 8

Crust

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2 cups flour, plus more for rolling

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup cold butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut up

4 tablespoons ice water

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1. Combine the flour and salt in a bowl. Add the butter, and using your fingertips, blend it in until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

2. Add the ice water and stir with a fork just until the mixture comes together into a ball.

3. Divide the pastry dough in half and flatten into two disks. Cover each with plastic wrap and chill until firm, about 1 hour, or overnight.

Filling and assembly

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3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup flour

1 tablespoon cinnamon

8 cups Granny Smith apple slices (about 7 to 8 apples, peeled, quartered, seeded and sliced 1/4 -inch thick)

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2 tablespoons butter ( 1/4 stick), cut into small pieces

1 tablespoon milk

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the sugar, flour and cinnamon. Pour the sugar mixture over the apples and stir to coat evenly.

2. Roll one disk of the pastry dough on a floured board into a 14-inch circle. Fold the dough into quarters, center it on the pie plate, unfold and gently pat the dough into the bottom and sides of the plate.

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3. Spoon the apples into the pastry-lined pie plate. Dot with butter.

4. Roll the remaining dough into a 14-inch circle. Make slits in the middle. Fold the dough into quarters, center on top of the pie and unfold. Trim, seal and flute the edges. Brush the surface of the crust with milk.

5. Bake until the crust is golden brown and juices bubble, about 45 to 55 minutes.

Each serving: 432 calories; 4 grams protein; 60 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 20 grams fat; 13 grams saturated fat; 53 mg. cholesterol; 295 mg. sodium.

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Variations

Apple-quince pie: Quarter 3 peeled, seeded quince, and cut the quince into quarter-inch slices. Poach the quince 15 minutes in a simple syrup (2 cups water, 1 cup sugar and one-half vanilla bean split and seeded). Cool, drain and discard the vanilla bean. Gently toss the quince with 4 apples, peeled and sliced. Continue with the basic recipe, reducing the sugar to one-half cup and stirring into the flour, one-half teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg and 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Omit cinnamon.

Apple-cranberry pie: Toss the apples with 1 cup coarsely chopped cranberries. Reduce the cinnamon to 2 teaspoons and stir in 1 teaspoon grated orange peel.


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