After thoroughly detailing what I define as pie, the next logical step is to talk about how to care for and handle a pie after its made.
I have some hard rules and then some general guidelines for dealing with pie in the time between when it comes out of the oven and when it gets to my pie hole. Breaking the hard rules, I feel, always reduces the quality and enjoyment derived from eating pie, while disregarding the general guidelines may or may not reduced quality and enjoyment depending on the pie and situation. Reduce does not mean negate here: I will still enjoy a pie even if all the rules and guidelines have been broken, but I try my hardest to follow the rules and guidelines to optimize quality and enjoyment. These rules and guidelines apply to fruit and custard pies, though I’ll address how they relate to meat/savory pies. And there really aren’t that many…
So first, The Rules
Eat pie when its fresh. And by fresh, I mean between 4 or 6 to 24 hours from removal from the oven. This is the optimum pie window. 4 to 6 hours is required cooling time, and 24 hours marks the point past which crust degradation usually becomes too great. Once a pie (fruit or custard) comes out of the oven, it needs to cool enough that the filling sets. When a pie comes out of the oven, the filling is very runny, but the thickener or custard should be completely cooked. As the filling cools, if there is enough thickener or protein and it is completely cooked, the filling will solidify. Depending on the ambient temperature, this usually takes around 4 to 6 hours, maybe 2 hours if its the middle of winter and you set your thermostat as low as we do. Exceptions include meat/savory pies. Meat pies should still be eaten fresh from the oven, but when I make savory pies, I usually partially or fully cook the filling and gravy such that when the pie comes out of the oven, it can be eaten after a much shorter amount of cooling time (doesn’t requires as much solidifying). Maybe 20-30 minutes, instead of hours. Just long enough for the filling to be cool enough to eat. If you wait any longer than that and the filling cools below good eating temperature, then we eat the pie at room temperature because the next two rules start to confound things. The 24 hour cut off depends more on ambient humidity than temperature, so this cut off might shrink in a humid summer, but it doesn’t get humid in Canberra ever so I haven’t had to deal with this in a few years.
Do not place in the refrigerator. Just don’t do it! Refrigeration will soften a crust. I know some people swear by refrigeration to keep pie crust from getting too soft in very humid climates, and I agree that this will work, but as I mentioned, I haven’t had to worry about humidity related to baking in a few years. I also acknowledge that it isn’t always feasible to time pie eating so precisely with baking, and if a meat and/or custard pie isn’t going to get eaten right away, not everyone is as happy as I am to gamble leaving meat and/or custard at optimum microbe breeding temperature for hours (I rarely cook meat anymore, so, in my experience I think that if the pie is consumed within 24 hours, pie going off shouldn’t be an issue; I don’t worry about it, but it is always a possibility). So there are good reasons to refrigerate a pie, but a refrigerated pie crust will be less flaky that a freshly baked pie crust. I go to extra lengths to manage the bake and consumption timing as well a proportions, so I can avoid refrigeration and not compromise the pie crust.
Do not microwave. Microwaving is worse for pie crust texture than refrigeration. The motivation behind microwaving a pie is usually to manage filling temperature, since a fruit filling that has a nice texture at room temperature can get too thick or gummy when too cold or not everyone likes room temperature savory filling. But if a pie isn’t refrigerating and room temperature savory filling is tolerable, I don’t think microwaving, and the concomitant crust softening, is needed.
All of these Rules impact crust texture, and to me, crust texture is a pivotal part of good pie: the contrast between soft filling and flaky, crisp crust is such a beautiful part of pie! Waiting too long before eating and refrigerating or microwaving pie will soften the crust. A little soft, I can handle; too soft and the texture of the filling and crust become too close to each other and the contrast is lost. The solution is to eat the pie, and eat all of it, as soon as the filling is set.
And then, The Guidelines
Try not to over accessorize, especially with fruit pie. Ice cream, caramel sauce, crumbly nut toppings; they’re too much. Many fruits, plain custard, pumpkin, they are delicate flavors and are easily overwhelmed by the strong flavors of such embellishments. I will occasionally break this Guideline by putting unsweetened, whipped cream on top of pecan or pumpkin pie, just a little to help cut the sweetness of the pie, but that’s it. Otherwise, the delicacy of the filling, which should be the main flavor, could be compromised. Liquid-y toppings can soften pie crust; and crunchy toppings can hide true crust texture (good or not).
Remember the coffee. I love coffee, and there is something magical about the combination of coffee and baked goods. Oh, those grain-based carbohydrates, how I love them with a cup of black coffee! I break this Guideline a lot since I don’t sleep well if I drink coffee after 2 pm but I still consume a lot of pie after 2 pm. In those cases, I prioritize sleep over maximum pie enjoyment. But if breakfast still falls within the optimum pie window, I happily will finish a pie the next day with my morning coffee. That’s why breakfast pie is the best!
And that’s it. How to keep crust and filling at their best and maximize pie enjoyment (if you enjoy the things about pie that I enjoy, that is). We’re right in the middle of the amazing summer fruit season here. Mangoes from the northern parts of Australia, and locally, stone fruit. Cherries, peaches, plums, nectarines. Its very exciting, especially when considering pie. I made my first ever peach pies in the last two years and my first ever cherry pie last year. I’d never made either before because peaches and cherries are expensive in Minnesota and good peaches especially are really hard to find. I was so, so amazed by the first peach I ate right from the tree!
My Great Grandma Katie was famous for making cherry pie, but I’d never made cherry pie before, fresh or otherwise, until last year. Unfortunately, I only had the chance to make the one cherry pie, and the filling didn’t turn out as spectacularly was it could have (too runny, not enough cherry flavor). So this year, its time to try again with more thickener and tarter cherries. Pie on!