Something happened halfway through the second strip of pie crust I was braiding. A serene energy washed over me, calmness radiating to my flour-caked hands, to my feet sore from hours of standing in the same spot on the kitchen tile, to streaks of raw pie crust in my hair. It had been a bit of a journey, getting to this point, but now that I was here? Nothing but straight-up tranquility.
So it goes with crafting pie crust into decorative doodads — most of the chemistry and math required of all baking projects is done, and now you can play. After topping three different pies with different shapes and lattices and even cut-out letters, I learned a few things.
• First, you've got to be working with a solid dough. Because I had set out to test various recipes for homemade pie, I did not use storebought crust, so I can't speak to how those hold up to excessive molding and braiding and cutting. I would imagine pretty well, as they are mostly heavy on shortening, which yields a more pliable dough. (See Page 6E for a masterclass in pie crust.) But either way, from the grocery store or handmade moments before, the dough must be holding its shape and able to be rolled out relatively easily with little to no cracking or breaking. If this happens, try refrigerating the dough for 30 minutes and roll it out again. As much as possible, try not to overwork it, which will only cause it to break more.
• You absolutely have to be patient. A heavily decorated pie is not something you are going to whip up in an hour. Even if you're not making the crust from scratch, allot yourself at least 3 hours from start to when you take the pie out of the oven. This is where you've got to summon that tranquility.
• Don't skimp. You will probably need twice as much dough as you think, so buy plenty of flour and butter and keep extra of each on hand. If you want to get really dramatic, you may need more than that.
• Take a deep breath. Baking causes lots of things to shift, droop, sag — the pie you put in the oven may look slightly better than the pie you take out. That's okay. Try to anticipate that by not using any really thick pieces of crust, or layering the crust too heavily on top of itself. It won't cook, and it probably won't look good. In general, keep things clean and simple. And always brush your pie with a beaten egg before it goes in the oven — it's what gives it that crusty golden glow.
For each of the following pies, you should follow a general process:
1. Place your pie crust on a floured surface, and divide it into two equal halves. Put one half in the refrigerator while you roll out the second half into a large circle about ⅛-inch thickness. Gently lift the crust into a 9-inch pie pan and press down so it's flush against the pan. There should be plenty of crust overhang around the sides of the pan. Using kitchen shears or your hand, remove the excess crust, but make sure to leave enough so that it covers the outer lip of the pan. Press crust onto the lip; set excess crust aside.
2. Pour various pie fillings into the crust. When making decorative toppings, it's helpful if your filling is at least the same height as the top of the pan, if not a little mounded over. If the filling sits too low in the pan, the decorative crust may sink down into the filling upon baking. (Yes, this happened to me, and it wasn't pretty.)
3. Roll out the second piece of crust until you have a long rectangle. Then cut it into desired shapes and strips for decorating, using one of the following ideas. Once the crust designs are set, bake the pie according to recipe instructions.
First, cut crust into strips of equal width. They don't need to be exact to the millimeter, but they should be relatively the same size, between ¼ inch and ½ inch. Place three strips next to each other so that they are almost touching. Join the strips at the very top and pinch them together. Take the left-most strip and cross it over the middle strip, then take the right-most strip and cross it over what is now the middle strip; repeat until you have braided all the strips together. Now, you can do a few things. I think braids make a great border: Repeat this process three or four times to get enough braids to go all the way around the pie crust, then place the braids around the rim of the pie pan and gently press them to the existing edge of crust. You can also create a lattice with just braids instead of plain strips.
This is a classic pie topper, but you don't have to make it so straightforward. To make your lattice appear fancy with hardly any more effort, simply cut your strips into different sizes. Do some really wide ones, like 2-inch strips, some ½-inch strips, and everything in between. (Generally, super thin strips won't hold up during cooking.) Now, it's time to weave the lattice. Starting at the bottom of your pie, place all of your horizontal strips down. (Make sure you have enough overhang on the sides so that the strips aren't too stretched.) Fold back half of every other strip, then place one strip of dough perpendicular to those strips. Unfold the folded strips over the perpendicular strip. Fold back half of every other strip again, but do the ones you didn't do the first time. Place a second strip of dough perpendicular to those strips, unfold the folded strips over the perpendicular strip, and repeat the whole process until your pie is covered.
Do you find yourself chagrined that you don't get to bust out your cookie cutters more often? This is the pie topper for you! This kind of design works best on a non-fruit pie, a filling that is smoother and creamier and able to be spread out to create solid canvas. The method is simple: Roll out pie crust into a flat sheet, and use cookie cutters to cut out shapes. You can place them directly onto a smooth filling, or press them gently onto the border of the crust. Leaves work really well, as do hearts. Pro tip: Instead of baking the pie with the cutouts on it, you can also bake them separately (for about 7 minutes or so on a greased baking sheet, but keep an eye on them), then press them into the filling right when the pie comes out of the oven. Or, try the reverse: Roll your crust into a circle large enough to cover the pie, then cut out shapes, but instead of applying the shapes to the pie, cover the pie with the circle of crust, now festively adorned with cut outs.
This one is really similar to the idea of cut outs, except now you get to spell things. Fair warning: This is slightly addicting. You will want to spell out everything on your pie: PUMPKIN, WE LOVE PIE, NOM NOM. If you bake a lot, invest in some letter cookie cutters, whether small (I have some that are about 1-inch tall) or large. It's worth it for pies, cakes and more.
Okay, same deal with the cutouts, but this time stick with a simple shape like a heart or a circle. (Leaves work, too.) Whatever you choose, cut out about 15, and make sure they're not too thick; like an 1/8 inch if you have a ruler handy. Start arranging the cutouts in a pattern on top of your pie, overlapping them so that they cover the entire thing in a sort of cut-out crust.