Old diary entry inspires pie baking marathon



In researching what New England women were cooking in the 19th century, I have read a few diaries by farm women who recorded the work they accomplished indoors and out, the weather, their health concerns, visitors and family events.

The diary of Jane Briggs Smith Fiske (at the American Antiquarian Society) was a gold mine for learning how an educated woman from Plymouth, Mass., adjusted to life on a New Hampshire dairy farm after marriage. I was impressed by the amount of work she accomplished every day. Consider the following entry made on Saturday, Jan. 4, 1873. “Lovely day, not very cold … Cut sausage meat, made pickle [brine] for ham, and fifteen pies.”

Five is the most pies I have ever made in one day, so this sounded prodigious. I wondered if I could match her output in a single day and decided I would take up the challenge. A closer reading of her diary revealed that she had been cutting up and boiling meat for mincemeat for three days before she baked those pies, which must have all been mincemeat.

That was certainly part of her secret, to have the filling ready to go the day before baking. I don’t know how to dispose of 15 mincemeat pies in June or July, so that was clearly a nonstarter.

I warmed up for the baking challenge by testing recipes and practicing making pie pastry. The factor that sometimes tripped me up was the amount of water to add. Because flour absorbs water from the air, pastry requires more water in winter than in humid summer. With practice, I could feel when the dough was too dry and crumbly or so wet and sticky that extra flour was needed to roll it out.

Our great-grandmothers relied on feel more than exact measurements when baking. Old recipes often fail to specify the amount of flour needed, assuming the reader would know how much to add to make a “thin batter,” a “thick batter” or a “stiff dough.”

Making pie pastry became easy with practice. Mixing up four crusts at a time, I was able to roll out pastry for 15 pies, line the pie pans, trim, and flute the pastry, and wrap and stack the unbaked pie shells in the refrigerator. The technical challenge lay in making different kinds of filling and baking them all with only one oven. I prepared apple pie filling for two pies the night before as well as lemon filling for two Shaker lemon pies.

Making and spreading a topping on the apple pies took a little time. With the apple pies in the oven, I was ready to work on blueberries. That is where I really slowed down. My favorite blueberry pie recipe is finicky, requiring half the berries to be cooked to reduce the amount of moisture and apples to be peeled and grated for thickening. Then there was lemon juice to squeeze and dishes and countertops to wash.

After an hour in the oven, the apple pies came out and the lemon pies went in. Another hour and the lemon pies were done and the blueberry pies went in the oven. And that is when I lost my ambition. I had six lovely pies of three types but still nine unbaked pie crusts when I called it quits.

I could have made 15 mince pies ready for the oven using prepared mincemeat as Jane Fiske had done. But unlike Jane, I had only one oven and no neighbor’s daughter living in to help with household chores. I decided that 15 pie crusts and six finished pies was a respectable output for one day under my limitations. Then I read that the following year Jane Fiske had baked 30 mince pies one day. But even she admitted that she went to bed early and exhausted after her epic baking.

The following recipe makes a sweet but tart pie known as Ohio lemon or Shaker lemon pie. It was popular in the Midwest and in Shaker communities. When you bake this pie without a top crust, the lemon slices make an attractive design.

Pastry for one 9-inch Single Crust Pie
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Pastry for one 9-inch Single Crust Pie
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Ingredients
  • cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsps. sugar
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¼ cup vegetable shortening or lard
  • ¼ cup cold unsalted butter, ½ stick
  • ¼ cup ice water
Servings:
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Instructions
  1. Whisk the flour, sugar and salt together in a large bowl. Cut the butter into about 10 pieces. With a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter and shortening into the flour mixture until the largest pieces are the size of small peas. Drip most of the ice water around the mixture and stir with a fork until the mixture forms clumps.
  2. If you can gather the mixture together into a ball of dough that holds together, you have added enough liquid. If not, add another teaspoon of ice water. On a dry day, you may need to add 3 teaspoons more ice water to get a ball of dough that does not immediately fall apart. Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour.
  3. Roll out the chilled dough on a floured pastry cloth, board, or wax paper. Using a floured rolling pin, roll from the center out, changing direction to get a circle approximately 12 inches wide.
  4. Roll the pastry up on the rolling pin, unroll it over the pie pan. Lift the edges to ease the pastry into the pan and trim it to allow just a 1-inch overhang. Fold under the excess and flute the edge. Cover the crust with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 45 minutes.
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Shaker Lemon Pie (Or Ohio Lemon Pie)
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Shaker Lemon Pie (Or Ohio Lemon Pie)
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Ingredients
  • 2 lemons
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 Tbsps. melted butter
  • 1 Tbsps. sugar
  • 2 Tbsps. flour
  • 4 eggs well beaten
Servings:
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Instructions
  1. Slice the lemons very thin. Discard the ends and all seeds. Place in a large mixing bowl with the 2 cups sugar and stir gently. Cover and set aside for four hours or overnight.
  2. Prepare the pastry and refrigerate 1 hour. Roll it out, lay it in the pie plate, and crimp the edge. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
  3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  4. Whisk together the melted butter, sugar and flour and stir until all lumps disappear. Add the beaten eggs and stir well. Add the egg mixture to the lemons and stir gently to blend.
  5. Ladle the lemon mixture into the pie shell and place on a center oven rack. I usually put pies on a rimmed baking sheet covered with parchment to prevent oven spills. Bake 25 minutes.
  6. Turn the pie back to front, reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees and bake another 25 minutes. Allow to cool on a rack a couple of hours before serving.
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You don’t need to bake to have pies made from scratch for your Fourth of July picnic. Women from P.E.O. (Philanthropic Education Organization) will be selling homemade pies in front of Ellsworth’s Renys department store (171 High St.) on the morning of July 3, from 9 a.m. to noon. Ninety-eight percent of the proceeds will go to fund scholarships for women.

Merry Post

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