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Cooking (and Contemplating) New England

Summer Pies III: “Short Paste for Fruit Pies,” from Mrs. A. L. Webster’s The Improved Housewife (1844)

A Lard-de-Dard 19th Century Pie Crust

Bring Back Lard!
Here as promised is the crust we made to go with the peach-cum-pits pie we told you about in our last post. When we first made this shortcrust pastry, which was when we made it for the peach pie, we felt some trepidation about the addition of lard to the dough. We were novices at cooking with lard, and hadn't yet baked anything that included this—to us—new ingredient. Would the baked crust taste, um, piggy? On the other hand, we knew from our historical research that New Englanders had for a long time deployed lard in pie crusts to superb effect. The winning recipe in a 1939 New England apple pie contest called for a crust made with lard as the only type of fat. (Whereas Mrs. Webster’s Short Paste uses equal amounts of lard and butter.)

We made our version of Webster’s Short Paste with leaf lard, from the layer of fat around the kidneys of a hog. Leaf lard is considered the best type for cooking, especially baking. But you can make a perfectly fine pie crust with the hydrogenated lard that is often packaged in 1-pound boxes like butter and is sold in many supermarkets.

At any rate, our first bite of this crust made us into instant converts. Our notes on making it say it all: "This is the most delicious plain crust ever!" It is tender, yet substantial enough to hold up to the juiciness of fruit pies. So, as claimed by Mrs. Webster, it is excellent for fruit pies. It's also excellent for custards, vegetable pies, and meat pies. We just plain love it. Substitute ¼ teaspoon salt for the sugar in the following ingredients list when you are using it with a savory filling.

Makes 2 9-inch pie crusts

1 pound (4 cups) sifted all-purpose flour, plus 3-4 teaspoons, as needed
1 tablespoon sugar
6 ounces (¾ cup) lard
¼ cup cold milk
6 ounces (1½ sticks) chilled butter, cut into 1-inch pieces

How We Made It
We stirred the sugar into the flour and rubbed the lard in by hand until the mixture resembled breadcrumbs or coarse meal. Then we added the cold milk, about a tablespoon at a time, mixing it in with a wooden spoon, until the dough formed a loose ball.

Hands coated with flour, we gathered up the dough and placed it on a lightly-floured pastry cloth on a cutting board.

We rolled it out

and began adding the butter. We dotted the top of the dough with about a quarter of the butter, lightly floured the dough and our rolling pin, and rolled it out until this much butter was incorporated. We continued dotting the dough with butter, sprinkling on flour, and rolling quickly until all the butter was used up. At one point, the dough got a bit warm and the butter a bit soft, so we refrigerated both for about 10 minutes before continuing. Since for most fruit pies the crust should be fairly substantial, so that the fruit syrup doesn't bleed through the bottom as it bakes, we left the crust quite thick in the final rolling out, about half an inch.

We chilled our short paste for 30 minutes in the refrigerator, then filled it with our peaches and pits and baked away, with the results described in our previous post.

Webster’s original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 251.
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Summer Pies II: “Peach Pie,” from Mrs. A. L. Webster’s The Improved Housewife (1844)

A Peach of a Pie from the 1840s

It’s the Pits
Peaches in any form are one of summer’s greatest delights. That goes double for peaches in a pie, and doubled again for the peaches in this particular pie, for which we’re indebted to Mrs. A. L. Webster of Hartford, Connecticut. Webster’s The Improved Housewife first appeared in the 1840s, just as the American publishing industry was getting itself modernized and consolidated and was starting to issue cookbooks at a much faster and more furious rate. Webster’s book was extremely popular and was frequently revised and reissued.

What’s unique, or at least distinctive, about Webster’s recipe is that she says to use whole ripe peaches. In other words, the pie filling includes the peach pits. You can search high and low, but we bet you won’t find nowadays a pie plate deep enough for a bottom crust, whole peaches, and a top crust. We found one that was about a half an inch deeper than the pie plates that are most readily available. In this we could fit two layers of halved peaches-cum-pits.

But why go to such lengths to bake the pits along with the peaches? “The prussic acid of the stone imparts a most agreeable flavor to the pie,” Webster explains. But take care. This “agreeable flavor” is actually imparted by . . . cyanide! Yes, you heard us right—cyanide. One medical authority of Webster’s day informs us that the use “in cookery” of ingredients containing cyanide was becoming “a favorite instrument of suicide.”

No real need to worry though. The agreeable essence from a few measly peach pits isn’t going to kill you. We ourselves dispatched many pieces of peach-and-pit pie with great gusto, although the pits themselves we of course forebore to ingest, pushing them aside as we proceeded. We’re still here to tell the tale, and so are the friends and family members to whom we fed this splendid creation.

Makes 1 9-inch deep(er)-dish pie

2 9-inch pie crusts
7 peaches, washed, halved, and the pits retained
Sugar, enough to strew thickly over two layers of peach halves
2-3 tablespoons water
Flour, enough to sprinkle over two layers of peach halves

How We Made It
We preheated the oven to 450°, then lined our pie plate with one of the crusts.

We put 7 of the 14 peach halves, including the pits, pit side down, all around the bottom crust,

and covered them with a generous amount of sugar and a small amount of water and flour.

Then we put the remaining 7 peach halves, pit cavity side down, on top of the first 7 and covered them as well with a generous amount of sugar and a small amount of water and flour.

We covered our peach halves and pits with the top crust and pinched the bottom and top crusts together with a fork.

No doubt you can see why we sometimes call this our “Tennis Ball Pie.” It was now ready for the oven. We baked it at 450° for 15 minutes, reduced the temperature to 375° and baked it for another 45 minutes, and finally, in order to turn the top crust nice and golden, increased the temperature to 400° and baked it for another 5 minutes.

We cooled the pie for 30 minutes on a wire rack, overcame our fear of cyanide poisoning and helped ourselves to a piece of pie that was a piece of pie to die for.

We urge you to watch for our next post, in which we’ll tell you about the crust we actually made as part of this culinary masterpiece. It’s also from Mrs. Webster’s Improved Housewife.

Webster’s original recipe, with commentary, can be found in Northern Hospitality, p. 317.
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