Monday, October 10, 2011

Thanks for the Memories

I think it's an age thing, at least it was for me, that as you get older, you begin to appreciate every little moment you spend with your family. It's especially true when it comes to spending time with parents and grandparents, since I've really come to the realization over the years that they won't be around forever. More than that, the traditions I grew up with and were ingrained by my family gatherings have been changing - slowly, gradually, but surely and without any hope of returning to the past.

Take our usual Thanksgiving dinner. Back "in the day" (i.e. when I was about 10-12, and even up 'til I was the ripe old age of 17), you could count on Thanksgiving to be heralded by hours of my mom's preparations. The day before, all the crusts of bread we saved in an old Ziploc would be laid out on beaten baking sheets to dry out overnight for my mom's famous stuffing (cooked inside the bird. Yes, I know the health and safety codes - but as she says, "nobody's died yet"). By noon on feast day (usually the Sunday of the long weekend) the bird would be stuffed, trussed and plunked into Mom's old black roaster (after she danced with it, of course!), when the real fun would start as the house began filling with all kinds of decadent smells. Cauliflower and broccoli would be steamed for far too long before the meal, and the storebought rolls would be haphazardly tossed into a tea towel-lined basket placed next to a cube of too-hard butter. Homemade cranberry sauce and green salad (the contribution of my maternal grandparents) and the world's most decadent mashed potatoes (from my paternal grandma) rounded out the table. Since my sister hated turkey (until very recently - she still abhors the rest of the Holiday fare), Mom would cook her a few chicken nuggets and some buttered pasta. The spread was always dug (rather, shoveled) into with gusto by everyone present. It was never a fancy production, and the breast meat was (as tradition demanded) chronically dry, but it was simply perfect for our family.

The crowning glory of it all was always pie. Each and every year, about a week before the big feast day, Mom and I would team up in the kitchen flanked by bags of just-picked apples, armed with a tiny, ancient plastic apple peeling machine and that year's apple wedger (we haven't managed to go a full year without breaking one on the Northern Spies). While I'd wheel through apple after apple, Mom would whip together her famous Crisco pie crust, effortlessly lining one of our 6 pie plates, and together we'd pile up the chunks of cinnamonny, unsweetened fruit as high as we dared. Three rounds of oven-sharing later (taking a whole day all told) and we'd have our bounty - one pie for Thanksgiving, one for the week leading up to it (we could never stay away from it for long!) and four for the freezer to pull out mid-winter. On Thanksgiving day, my mom's parents would bring Grandpa's favourite pumpkin pie too, so most people (except me, who detests pumpkin pie [shh!] and my sister, who hates any pie) could have a piece of each.

I always thought my mom's pie crust would be the be-all-end-all for me when it came to pastry making, but as luck would have it the consumerism world changed and Crisco modified it's recipe. Now, I know they did it to remove the trans fat. I know. But in making that tiny, seemingly insignificant modification, they severely messed with the behaviour of our beloved recipe. It still tasted fine, but it was always a little different than our old favourite.

So I searched for an answer. Something, anything, that would give me a foolproof, tender, easy-to-work-with pie crust without a whole lot of fuss and bother. And wouldn't you know it, I found the answer on a handwritten recipe card tucked away in the back of my mom's "black box" of recipes. It's my grandma's original mixture, likely passed down from a generation before. Although I doubt she makes it this way any more, along with the all-purpose flour, salt and a pinch of nutmeg, it stars one of the major animal fats still widely available in stores - lard.

Don't look at me like that - sure, it's not a vegetarian haven, or anything near health food, but lard makes one of the most tender and flakiest crusts on the planet. It's also cheaper and healthier than butter, containing less saturated fat, more monounsaturated fat and has no additives or impurities, like non-organic butter has (i.e. colour, antibiotics and hormones in cow feed). I upped the fibre in grandma's crust by using part spelt flour (you could use whole-wheat pastry flour instead) and added in the touch of vinegar my mom uses in her recipe, for no other reason than the fact that she did it, so there must be a reason it tasted so good. Used as the base for my own Thanksgiving contribution - apple butter pumpkin pie - I couldn't have been happier with the outcome. It just might have been better than Mom's... but don't let her hear you say that!

Most Tender Pie Crust
Makes 2 9" single crusts. Nutrition is per crust
1 ¼ cups flour (divided)
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp baking powder
1 tsp sea salt
5.8 oz (about 3/4 cup) lard
1/3 cup ice water
1 tbsp rice vinegar
  1. In a large bowl with a pastry blender, cut lard into flour and salt until particles are the size of small peas.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the remaining 1/4 cup flour, the water and the vinegar, whisk until smooth.
  3. Pour all at once into lard/flour mixture; stir with a fork just until the ingredients are combined.
  4. Divide dough in half, wrap each in plastic wrap and chill a minimum of 2 hours, preferably overnight (I tried skipping this once - don't!)
  5. Roll out and bake as your recipe directs.
Amount Per Crust
Calories: 1,206.0
Total Fat: 79.4 g
Cholesterol: 73.0 mg
Sodium: 1,167.5 mg
Total Carbs: 105.7 g
Dietary Fiber: 9.4 g
Protein: 18.5 g


  1. When it comes to flaky pastries, I believe that lard does have a rightful place. Your pie does look tasty and I am glad you found that black book. We all need to get back to our roots sometimes. Thanks for sharing this family treasure!

  2. I think that the vinegar has something to do with hydrating the flour or with coagulating some of the proteins in the flour ... not sure, though I know it's quite common.

    Wouldn't catch me eating the lard, though. Bleh!


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