Sweet and savoury. Crusty and soft. One filling or many. A crash course on a favourite dish.

Why do they say ‘as easy as pie’? And at the same time that the test of a good cook is a really good pie, whose crisp golden crust ‘literally melts in your mouth’? I’ve found that the harder I try, the harder is the result: the pie crust, instead of being so tender that it crumbles at the mere touch of a fork, is like a rock that I could use as a missile against passing enemies. They must be the same people who say the world’s best cooks are men and, at the same time, that though no one remembers the genius who first invented the pie, nobody ever forgets the woman who bakes a perfect one.

The other point that’s perplexing is the provenance of the dish and its name. If someone were to wag their finger at me and demand to know where pies come from, where their name comes from, I’d probably start blathering about France and its traditions of baking; the word’s derivation from ‘pastry’ and its possibly common history with pizza and pita. Some sources do say that a ‘piehus’, a bakery, is how it all started, and that in Medieval Latin ‘pia’ meant pie or pastry.

But also that the word pica, magpie, could be the source. And Alan Davidson, who knows all there is to know about food, supports this: “… the magpie collects a variety of things, and it was an essential feature of early pies that they contained a variety of ingredients… But nowadays one can have pies with only one important ingredient, e.g. the Scotch pie which contains just minced meat; a chicken pie; an apple pie, etc.” There are and were pies and pies. Early pies had pastry tops, but modern ones can have something else, like mashed potato on Shepherd’s Pie, or even be topless.

Pies have been made for years, even in the classical world, and in Arab cookery (though these, made with olive oil, are flatter). Pies are indigenous to North and Central Europe, and though they have been introduced almost the world over, they have made their home in North America. The name for these classic British and American pies, though English, has even been adopted by the French. A pie can be sweet or savoury — with just a bottom crust of pastry, just a top crust, or an all-enclosing crust containing the filling. The pastry used can be shortcrust or puff.

I asked my friend Tina Singh for a crash course in pastry. She’s my go-to person for all things related to baking; she not only bakes dream cakes and pies to order, she’s the Cake Fairy who arrives at my doorstep with freshly baked goodies whenever I have a craving or a need. She explained that there are three main kinds. Puff pastry, flaky layers of dough separated by fat — the kind we have in “patties” or curry puffs, and on chicken pies. Choux, a very light pastry used for beignets, éclairs and profiteroles, in which pastry is puffed by steam rather than a raising agent. And shortcrust, the base for tarts, quiches and pies, which is a crumbly pastry made with unleavened flour, fat and a little water.

The instructions to bake perfect shortcrust pies are detailed and unlimited, but a couple of things are crucial. Bakeware should be heat-resistant glass pie plates or dull finish aluminium pans. The fat (shortening, margarine or butter) should be chilled and cut in with a pastry blender or two knives, just until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs; overworking toughens the texture. Water, also chilled, must never exceed the recommended quantity. The pastry shell must be baked “blind” for a while before adding the filling.

Tina’s Apple Pie

Pastry

350 g flour

175 g butter

12 1/4 tsp chilled water

Filling

450g crunchy apples

75g caster sugar

2 1/2 tbsp flour

5 1/2 tsp lemon juice

1/4 tsp cinnamon powder

15g butter

For the pastry case

Preheat oven to 190°C. Lightly grease a 7-inch pie dish.

In a large bowl, sift the flour and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Pour in the water and knead gently into a ball; wrap dough-ball in cling film and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll out three fourths of the dough onto a lightly floured metal plate. Refrigerate the rest. Lift the rolled-out dough with the help of the rolling pin and line the pie dish with the dough. Bake blind (prick with a fork, cover with greased foil, half fill with beans and bake for 10-15 minutes, until pastry has set). Remove from oven, place on a wire rack and lift out foil and beans.

Place the baking sheet in the oven and raise the temperature to 220°C. For the filling In a small bowl stir caster sugar, flour, lemon juice and cinnamon powder until well combined. Set aside. Wash apples; peel and slice thinly. Arrange apple slices in the pie dish in a concentric ring. Sprinkle sugar mixture over the slices.

Repeat, alternating apples and sugar mixture, until apple slices are used up, ending with sugar mixture. Dot with butter.

Roll remaining dough out on to lightly floured surface, lift with the help of the rolling pin and place to cover the pie dish. With a sharp knife cut vents out of the top layers in any design of your choice. Place pie on baking sheet in the oven and bake until golden brown.

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