LAMOINE — There may not be a more maligned ingredient in today’s health-conscious kitchens than Crisco.
The lard alternative was a staple in your grandmother’s dessert recipes, but it eventually fell out of favor with foodies when the term “trans fats” became as frightening as the words “jello mold.”
Crisco was reformulated recently to exclude the particularly harmful fats, but the blue can is a rare sight in modern pantries.
Tell that to Phyllis Mobraaten.
The health-conscious cook, who frequently cooks with produce from her many gardens, will never leave the ingredient out of her golden, flaky pie crusts. Ever.
“I’ve been using the same recipe for 47 years, and I’m not changing it,” she said one fall afternoon in her bright Lamoine kitchen. “I’m an organic foodie, but Crisco works. You’re not eating the whole pie, and you’re not eating pie every day.”
The simple crust recipe was handed down by Mobraaten’s mother-in-law, after an unfortunate potluck dinner long ago involving a delicious lemon meringue filling and a rock-hard pie crust.
Mobraaten recalled the dinner for young Jackson Laboratory employees, where she and her husband were new hires nearly 50 years ago. She made a pie. “It was this beautiful meringue and then I hear people’s knives hitting the plate, trying to cut the crust,” she said. To avoid this, she has used the “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook” crust recipe ever since.
Mobraaten still has the red, hard-cover cookbook her mother-in-law gave her, but knows the recipe like the back of her hand.
The recipe has only four ingredients: flour, salt, shortening and water. Besides Crisco, another ingredient she won’t go without is King Arthur brand white flour, which she swears by.
Since it is so simple and can be used for both sweets and savories, the recipe works overtime during the holidays.
To prevent the stress that can accompany entertaining, Mobraaten will make several crusts days or even weeks in advance of a holiday gathering and stick them in the freezer. She then fills the crusts with everything from apples from her garden, or eggs and bacon for a savory quiche.
“One Thanksgiving, I made 12 different pies,” Mobraaten said. These days, she doesn’t cater to every guest’s request, but says it’s easy to whip up pie or quiche fillings when the crusts are ready to go.
For pie filling, Mobraaten’s favorite is apple. She has a trick for that, too: Use three different types of apples to make the flavors in each bite more complex.
Mobraaten doesn’t like letting food go to waste. When making a single-crust pie, she uses cookie cutters to make shapes out of any leftover dough scraps. Her favorites are tiny bear and moose cookie cutters from Rooster Brother that she uses to decorate the top of the pie.
When it comes to filling those crusts with quiches, she looks to the master of French cooking.
“Julia Child is who inspired me to start cooking,” said Mobraaten. “An egg would roll off the counter and you’d hear it crack on the floor [during her TV cooking show]. She was so sloppy.”
The chapter on quiches in Mobraaten’s copy of “The Art of French Cooking” practically falls open on its own. The recipes for Quiche Lorraine and Quiche au Fromage de Gruyere (Swiss cheese quiche, if you want to be fancy about it), get a lot of use.
Back in her kitchen, Mobraaten had already baked an apple pie for a dinner party that night, and was teaching this novice baker her technique.
She deftly rolled the dough onto the floured tabletop, seamlessly flipped it into the pie pan and pinched the edges of the crust into perfect ripples as she has done hundreds of times. (This reporter’s dough was thin and cracked in places — it takes practice, she said.)
And although you couldn’t possibly describe Mobraaten’s cooking style as “sloppy,” she didn’t make it out of the kitchen without some flour on her nose, à la Julia Child.