The Life of Pie

If anyone had told me, after an exhausting week of work, that I would be spending a precious Sunday learning how to make different types of pie crust, I would have said no. However, in a moment of pure, impulsive, how-many-new-things-can-I-cram-into-my-brain, New York whimsy, I found myself signing up anyway.

Despite the fact that the clocks had done their annual “spring forward” in the wee hours of that particular Sunday, I was off to the The JCC in Manhattan @ 76th & Amsterdam to learn all about the joys of pie dough.

There, in the The Patti Gelman Culinary Arts Center — the spacious and thoughtfully appointed kitchen where The JCC’s many culinary classes are held — eight (mostly) beginners in the pie-baking arts gathered around the substantial “island” for the Perfect Pie Dough Workshop with Chef John Scoff.

Chef John, an accomplished South Carolina and New York chef and instructor-about-town, began by introducing us to the fundamentals: how to select ingredients, make a basic pie dough and a pâte sucrée (sweet pastry dough), mixing and rolling techniques, blind baking (also known as pre-baking or par-baking), lining pie plates, tart dishes and individual ramekins, pricking crusts before baking, using pie weights … and so on.

Our well-equipped kitchen came with all the fixins’ we would need already laid out, along with that day’s wonderful JCC volunteer, Rachel, who more than assisted (i.e., helped with anything we needed and, most importantly, did the cleaning up after us along the way). They pretty much thought of everything — even plastic containers were provided for take-home.

So after Chef John’s formal lesson and Q & A, we split into teams, with each to make two pies. Mine chose a blueberry pie with the basic dough, and a fruit tart with the pâte sucrée.

Now I have to admit that I am not really a big fan of fruit pies in general, nor the often-tasteless crusts that go with them for that matter. Occasionally, perhaps, but usually if I am going to succumb to all that sugar, carbs, and calories, I much prefer creamier, denser fillings that call for graham cracker crusts. Though I do really love savory pies, so it was great that the basic dough we learned will work well for those, too.

That being said, I was excited to make the blueberry on my own, mainly because my inner artist wanted to give its “lattice-top” a go (cutting and laying down strips of dough in a “woven” pattern). My teammates made the fruit tart with pâte sucrée, strawberries, blackberries and a vanilla pastry cream, splitting a long vanilla bean for a more intense flavor.

Others made a sour cream apple with walnut streusel topping (basic dough), lemon meringue (basic dough), individual tartes tatin with apples and caramel (pâte sucrée), and a winter fruit crostata (made without a dish, using a variation on both dough recipes and shaping it free-form into a rustic-looking kind of “box” for the filling of apples, prunes and brandy).

Finally, after measuring and dicing and chopping and mixing and kneading and rolling and lining and pricking, our masterpieces went into multiple ovens. About an hour later, when all were done and looking GORGEOUS, the class went to town on a whole lot of truly scrumptious pies — which were even more scrumptious because we had proudly made them ourselves.

And while the fruit tart was way up there as my favorite of the day — as well as being the prettiest, in my opinion — the ultimate surprise for me actually turned out to be the lemon meringue. However, this perfectly sweet, tangy, lemony-creamy pie served warm was a revelation! It was sooooo good that I am looking forward to making it and the fruit tart all by myself. PDQ!

So to sum up the extent of my knowledge for all you would-be, first-time, pie crust makers … From what I now understand about pie dough … the less you “mess” with it, the flakier and better it will be. Paramount in the process is keeping the butter very cold and handling it as little as possible (there are varying results when using all butter, or part butter and part shortening; my team chose to go with all butter, though I believe that adding shortening is supposed to make for flakier crusts. Of course, I might only be recalling “Minnie” from “The Help” reverentially extolling the many virtues of Crisco, but I think shortening would be worth a try the next time).

Indeed, when it comes to making pie dough, you want a kind of “in and out” technique: mix it, knead it four or five times — only just enough, shape it into one disk or two (a double batch for pies with crusts on bottom and top), wrap it in plastic and get it into the refrigerator immediately — before getting started on the filling. When the filling is ready, roll the dough out carefully … always from the center outward … flattening a little at a time, pulling it up slowly while wrapping it directly around the rolling pin to transfer over the pie dish, where you then set it down and press gently around the walls, trimming the excess with a knife or tucking it in. Chef John also recommends making a double recipe, because if not used, dough freezes well and can be readily available for your next pie. And another tip: marble seems to be the best surface for flouring and rolling dough because it’s cool and smooooth (and I especially loved flinging that flour onto the marble in what I am calling a kind of modified “Opie” technique of skipping rocks on a Mayberry lake!).

Really, it was just that easy and so much fun that it will now put an end to frozen pie crust for my fresh tomato tart this summer (that is to say, Craig Claiborne’s Fresh Tomato Tart), not to mention how much healthier homemade will be without all the added what-nots. But first, I foresee some hearty pot pies until tomato season in my very near future. Mmmm. Goodbye, Marie! (Though I still miss your coconut crème and exceptional French apple from when I lived in Los Angeles, if it’s any consolation.)

And, so, folks … If you haven’t been to The JCC in Manhattan, you owe yourself a visit. I was so impressed that I even stopped by the Membership desk later to take a tour. Currently in its 11th year, this whole building remains a true destination “it” spot on the Upper West Side. Whether as a member, or a non-member taking a single class, there is so much to do … seven days a week. From events and classes of all kinds, including arts and crafts, fashion design, film screenings, lectures, spiritual and self-help workshops, children and family activities … to its well-equipped gym and swimming pool (one of the few, really long pools in the city — at 25 meters, or “half-Olympic size” — as it was described; they didn’t have to tell me … I took one look and felt a “cosmic shiver” as I flashed back to way too many crack-of-dawn swim team practices; though after all that pie, I would have happily taken a few laps right then!) And so much more.

I really was so hooked on the experience that I began searching the catalog for my next Sunday cooking class (amongst so many other enticing pursuits) on the spot. Come to think of it … it kinda puts a whole new twist on Sunday School. And a delicious one at that.

For more information about The JCC in Manhattan at 76th and Amsterdam, please visit

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