I like strawberry pie, but most of the ones I have tasted are not really too good. Either they are too sweet, or taste of artificial ingredients, or both. And I don’t like cooked strawberries (unless it’s strawberry jam). This pie has several steps, but each step can be completed a day ahead of time – in fact, they have to be done ahead. You make a cooked custard, a baked single-crust pie shell, and then assemble the pie at the last.
This custard is the base for a chocolate cream pie, which I stole (and slightly tweaked) from Epicurious.
STRAWBERRY CREAM PIE
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 large egg yolks
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- the grated zest of one lemon
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Combine the cornstarch, sugar, and salt in a saucepan, and stir until they are thoroughly combined. Then add the egg yolks. Here you can see there are five yolks, not four – that’s what often happens when you use jumbo eggs, as they are often double-yolked. It won’t hurt anything.
After the yolks have been beaten into the dry ingredients, slowly add the first cup of milk, stirring as you pour. (Obviously I couldn’t pour, stir, and take the photos all at once here, so I opted for going really sloooowwwwwly, taking breaks and stirring in the milk in small increments.) Once the first cup of milk is incorporated, you can pour the rest of the milk in a bit faster.
Cook and stir the liquid over medium heat, using a wooden spoon or a whisk. Do not stop stirring. Egg yolks can suddenly turn to scrambled eggs if they are abandoned over heat.
When the mixture turns to custard, it will happen very fast and the mixture will thicken rapidly. Keep stirring, cook for another minute, then remove the pan from the heat.
Then stir in the vanilla, zest, and lemon juice. Scrape custard into a bowl, cover with waxed paper directly on the custard, and refrigerate until needed.
Next make the pie crust. I wish I had some magic trick to reveal so that pie crust would be magically easy to make, but the only trick I know is this: practice. My mother grew up in a time and place where pie was eaten at every meal, including breakfast, and she learned early on how to make pie crust. It was so ingrained in her that she regarded anyone who couldn’t make it as intentionally screwing it up. It took me many years and lots of practice to learn how to make a decent pie crust.
[A brief explanation of why certain steps are important: the butter (or other fat) must not be allowed to get soft or be completely incorporated into the flour. When the pie crust is baked, the sudden intensity of oven heat will cause the little cold bits of butter to expand and super-heat more than the flour that encases it. This will cause little fat pockets to form in the crust. When the crust is removed from the oven and allowed to cool, those pockets remain – which we call flaky pie crust.]
Here I have 1 1/2 cups unbleached flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl, to which I have added 6 tablespoons cold butter, cut in small pieces. It is very important that the butter (or other shortening) be kept as cold as possible.
I used a pastry blender to rapidly chop the butter into very small pieces. Two folks would work just as well. Do not use your hands to mash the butter up into small pieces, as the heat from your hands will soften the butter.
Begin to add ice water, bit by bit, and stir the water in thoroughly. It might take 1/4 cup, it might take 1/2 cup. Add small amounts of water at a time.
Gradually the mixture will begin to cling together. When most of the flour is incorporated, you can then use your hands very rapidly to mash the remaining flour into the dough. Then turn the dough onto a large sheet of waxed paper, fold the paper over the dough so it is completely enclosed, and put it in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
When ready to make the pie crust, first preheat the oven. For baking a single-crust pie, turn the oven to 425 F.
Smear a handful of flour on a clean, dry surface. A marble slab is ideal, but a countertop or breadboard or butcher block work just as well. Remove the dough from the refrigerator, discard the waxed paper, and pat the dough into a circle. Place it on the flour and kind of push it around so one side is dusted with flour, then flip it over and begin rolling it out.
Sometimes I use a wooden rolling pin, sometimes a marble rolling pin, and sometimes I use a bottle of cheap, crummy wine. Whatever you use, dust it with flour, then start to roll out the dough. Roll from the center of the dough toward the outer edges. Flip the dough over occasionally to make sure it doesn’t adhere to the surface. Don’t worry if it doesn’t turn into a perfect circle and instead looks like an outline of Pennsylvania. That can be fixed later. What you want is a very thin rolled-out crust.
When the dough is as rolled-out as you like, fold it in quarters and lift the quartered crust into your pie plate, then unfold it (this is lots easier than trying to transport a big circle of thin pie crust).
This is what my pie crust looked like. Flopped way over two edges with two wedges cut out. Not a problem. Go around the edge with a sharp knife and cut the excess overhang so there’s about 1 inch all the way around. This is what you’re going to patch with.
I cut a triangle out of the extra dough, wet the edges with ice water, and patched the hole.
If it ain’t perfect, don’t sweat it.
Using your fingers, crimp the edges of the dough if you like how it looks. If you don’t, just kind of prop the dough upwards, or decorate it with scraps of dough, M&Ms, chocolate chips, whatever blows your skirt up. (Tiny flags, sequins, or sparklers are probably not a good idea.) Then prick the raw dough all over with a fork. This will give the dough room to expand when the heat hits it.
Then stick the pie crust in the preheated oven for 10-15 minutes, or until it issomewhat puffed and browned. People sometimes lay a sheet of waxed paper, filled with dried beans or professionally manufactured “pie weights,” on top of the raw dough to minimize shrinkage and keep the crust from flopping over while baking. I used to do that but I don’t bother any more – it seems like more trouble than it’s worth to me for the results, plus then I have to put those damn baked dried beans somewhere until the next pie. But you may disagree, in which case be my guest.
As you can see, one edge did schlumph over (where I patched the crust), but it doesn’t bother me. Perfect pies are turned out in factories, not in home kitchens.
Let the pie crust cool completely. Then:
Fill with the custard and kind of smooth the top with a fork. Then top with strawberries, which you have hulled, washed, and carefully dried. You can stick the whole berries on top, like I did here (start from the outer edge) or slice the berries and arrange in a perfect circular pattern (start from the center so the concentric circles can overlap). Cut any extra berries into wedges and moosh them in too.
Strawberry cream pie.
Most commercial strawberry pies have a topping of some sort of glaze, either made from a packet of fake sugary ingredients or from melted jelly. This does preserve the look of the berries and makes it shiny and pretty, but I don’t really like the extra sweetness and fake tastes, so I prefer to leave the strawberries unpainted.
Keep pie covered in refrigerator. Fresh berries have a short life, so this should ideally be consumed within 2-3 days. Obviously other fresh, raw fruit can be substituted – berries, of course, but also thin slices of peaches, apricots, figs, etc. would make delicious cream pies.
A topping of freshly whipped sweetened cream would not go amiss, but sour cream with a sprinkle of brown sugar is even better.