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Simon Hopkinson

Stove Notes

Damsons in September, apples in October, blueberries all year round: tips on baking fruit pies and crumbles

Simon Hopkinson | September/October 2011

I have always liked a nice bottom to a pie—particularly when it is made with fruit. The sweet, aromatic juices soak into the pastry base as it cooks, making a delicious contrast between the parts that tether the pie together. My mother, though, never bothered much with bottoms (apart from her wonderful cheese-and-onion pie, but that’s another story), preferring a deep-dish affair with just a pastry top. Her fruit pies were lovely, no doubt about that, but the fruit inside was always a touch sloppy, and these days the American way with filling appeals to me more than the kind I grew up with.

The American recipe mixes the fruit with white caster sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice and, cleverly, a touch of cornflour—a minimal thickening agent that serves as a cohesive dam to what is otherwise a river of fruit juice. (Make the famously fabulous American blueberry pie without it, and not only will the centre be sloppy but your oven base will be covered in burnt overflow from the sweet berry juices.) The mix is piled into a pastry-lined, loose-bottomed tart tin; before the pastry top is fixed into place, flakes of salted butter are distributed over the surface, which adds both richness and extra savour. A delicious pie.

Blueberries are an obvious choice for a fruit pie, as they taste of so little unless cooked until their fragrant juices are flowing. Indeed, most of the American cooks I know think that eating their national soft fruit raw is little short of the devil’s work. Gooseberries are a favourite alternative of mine, as are Bramley apples, rhubarb, plump apricots, plums, cherries or—finest of all—Lancashire damsons, picked towards the end of summer. Damson plums are not all the same. To experience a true damson, you need to look for the small, oval, pointy-ended kind, with plum-coloured skins so dark that they are almost black, and a yellow-green flesh within. Cook them in a pie, un-stoned: the faff of stoning them beforehand is tedious, and cooked stoned damsons just don’t have the same juiciness. But warn the recipients: you don’t want broken teeth at the table.

So to the equally important pastry. I have found, after many years of experimenting, that blending equal quantities of butter and lard (or vegetable shortening, if you’re vegetarian) with slightly less than double the quantity of plain flour and a pinch of salt, then binding it with a couple of tablespoons of iced water, makes the perfect pie pastry. I don’t add sugar, as the filling is usually quite sweet enough. However, to get a beautiful sparkling crust, after a brushing of beaten egg, it is essential to sugar the top crust lightly before the pie goes into the oven to bake. Incidentally, professional fruit-pie makers sometimes suggest that the bottom layer of pastry should be pre-cooked (a process known as blind baking) before the pie is filled, to help keep it crisp. I find that simply putting the pie tin on a pre-heated baking sheet is enough to guarantee the bottom cooks correctly.

Now here’s a final fruity thought. In moments of deepest cynicism, I have often wondered whether the origin of an English fruit crumble has more to do with the workings (or lack of them) of a lazy pastry cook, than the wizard idea of some inspired housewife of old. For a basic all-butter crumble mix is nothing more than sweet pastry crumbs before they have been bound with liquid, spooned over uncooked, lightly sweetened fruit and baked as a whole. The recent notion of cooking a crumble mix separately as a little crunchy disc, then perching it on top of a dish of fruit compote, is as crass an idea as I have ever heard. What is worse, the suggestion came from a misguided and, frankly, bewildered French cook. Does he not understand that one of the greatest joys of crumble is that gorgeous, gooey part where topping meets fruit? To rub salt into the wound, the name he chose is “Le Crumble”. Sacrilege.

SHOPPING LIST

Fillings Most of the fruits that you may like to use for pies and crumbles are at their best bought seasonally, from farmers’ markets. But blueberries are just fine bought from a supermarket. You hardly ever see them in farmers’ markets, for a start; and unlike strawberries, say, which taste terrible out of season, blueberries are a very well-behaved fruit that do well all year round.

Fat Use the best-quality butter you can afford both for the pastry and the flecks: Normandy butters in particular have a fine, creamy taste which will come through in the pastry. Plus these tend to contain no salt—or at least less than commercial mass-produced brands—which gives you more control over the finished pie.

Flour I use perfectly ordinary, plain white flour, because when it comes to pastry, it always works—and what would be the point of experimenting with artisan, organic or extra-strong flours when I already get the results I want?