The chance coming together of two words sends Laura on a journey of exploration in pursuit of the meaning in Christmas encased in pastry.
by Laura Jean King on December 7, 2015
Christmas is a gorgeous time of year; packed with religion, decorations, songs, presents and food, this twelfth month of every calendar heralds in myriad old traditions as well as the opportunity to start a new one! Dear readers, I was hiding out in a famous little diner in Los Angeles recently and while ordering dessert, a waiter behind me announced the word “Christmas” just as my waitress said “pie” and in an instant I incredulously stated aloud:
I wanted the Christmas pie. Every naughty tastebud in my mouth wouldn’t rest until I had the definition of Christmas (at least this diner’s definition of Christmas) baked into a pie. After soothing my disappointment with the runner up boysenberry, my mind lit up like a festive tree about what Christmas pie should be. I started a hunt on the internet and came up with many answers: in England, Mince pie is en vogue this season. In the American South, Pecan pie is a bit of a staple… as well as anything with pumpkin, sweet potato, apple and berry. In another article from the west coast of the United States, a buttermilk coconut pie recipe popped up. All of these variations led me to one, true, answer as to what Christmas pie should be: whatever tastes like Christmas to you.
Before you try to extract some edible essence from the pine needles of your Christmas tree1 or put an entire shaker of cinnamon into a custard made out of eggnog and cornstarch, consider the possibility that for you, Christmas can be whatever you want it to be. To Christians, it’s a celebration to remember the day baby Jesus was born, to many others it is just a season of goodwill. Remember, too, that Jesus was born in the desert on straw and very well could have ordered up a date pie. It was a common fruit back then in that region… perhaps the pie part was less common… but the point is, Christmas has many commercial earmarks on it, but you can still create some lovely, unique traditions that are special to your family. For the purposes of this article, let’s explore the possibilities of pie.
Pies – since the dawn of time (well, the Egyptians anyway)
According to the American Pie Council (no I’m not kidding, that’s a real thing), the first pie recipe ever published was a rye-crusted goat cheese and honey pie. It sounds spectacular – especially if you throw in some kind of nuts.
Since the ancient Egyptians, pie has been in our world and they were predominantly made of meat. The earliest noted fruit pies showed up around the 1300s in Europe and Geoffrey Chaucer recorded the first known apple pie recipe in 1381; it included apples, obviously, but also figs and raisins and many spices- along with saffron! England’s Queen Elizabeth the first is credited to have come up with cherry pie (thank you dear queen, that is my personal favorite if I have one). Sweet and savory, single crust or two crust, hot or cold, pie has certainly gone through many iterations over the years.
This December, as my culinary foray, I would like to take an ancient dietary art and merge it with a beloved, twinkling celebration of birth… I would like to make a Christmas pie.
There are no rules in war and food. Though Christmas is rife with secular and religious traditions, these traditions are self-specific. It is up to you and your loved ones, dear reader, to decide what the epitome of Christmas is. It could be reindeer; make a reindeer meat pie (or if you don’t live in the utmost regions of caribou-infested North America, substitute venison). The children might be slightly horrified, but this could possibly be an educational experience for them… alternatively, you could just draw a reindeer on a pie with appropriately colored frosting and save them the reality for a few more years.
Let the imagination explode.
From the sweet…
If you’re busy and not quite a kitchen-centric genius, perhaps just elaborate on an old favorite. Take pumpkin pie for example: what if you covered it in a thick layer of homemade whipped cream (or even sans homemade) and have the kiddies decorate the top with various sprinkle designs? The whipped cream is a natural additive to pumpkin pie to begin with, shouldn’t affect the integrity of the pie filling, and the slight crunchiness of the sprinkles might be a welcome pop of texture to an otherwise smooth pie.
Apple pie – another traditional Christmas treat, could be altered by tinging the filling a lovely red or green. Wouldn’t that be a little Christmas surprise for the guests? If this isn’t your idea of fun, maybe just play with the crust. Besides popping a little food coloring in to make it a more jovial color, pretend the pie crust is Play-Doh. Make festive designs and place them strategically on top of other crust. With pumpkin pie you can actually place little crust cut-outs directly on the surface after the pie cooks and sets a bit and they won’t be swallowed up by the filling. Apple pie is usually more liquid and you may, at the very least, need to do a base cross-hatch design to sustain the small crusty decor. Use your best judgement; if your pie filling is wet and reminiscent of a bog or quicksand, little pieces of crust will inevitably be sunk and you will end up with a pie containing doughy blobs. Perhaps you could pass this off as dumplings if you’re clever, but it’s best to avoid this situation lest you upset the more sensitive individuals attending your Christmas soiree.
If you’re more a fan of chilled pies, whipped cream and sprinkles and candy and frosting and pie crust cut-outs are all fair game. Chilled pies, to clarify, are normally single-crusted and therefore not a liability when applying something more damp like whipped cream and the filling is perfect for clinging to bits like sprinkles and candy. Whipped cream can be mixed with food coloring and would be great to create a 2-D snowman with (or be used for any snowy representation), and sprinkles are obviously very diverse. You can buy hordes of them cheaply online. The same goes for candy; Ju Ju Bees are fun… you could even do something creative by molding Starbursts into great shapes as a unique and flavored nougat-textured topping. Finely crushed peppermints can add zesty flavor to a more bland or chocolate pie. Since many chilled pies aren’t even baked, while you’re baking the crust in the oven, pop in a few crust cut-outs on a baking pan like cookies and save them for decorating. Crushed cookies can also make a delicious and easy topping… Oreos, Nilla wafers, short bread, sugar cookies… as the cliche says, “the possibilities are endless.”
Creme Brulee, while not a pie, could also serve as inspiration. If you want to create that crusty glaze of sugar on a single-crust pie (or on top of a pie crust by sugaring the top and putting it in a very hot oven for a short amount of time at the end of baking), you simply spread an even layer of sugar on top and use a brulee torch- there are other ways but I prefer this one for ease and even results- to caramelize the sugar. This could even be a great ornamental decoration if you torch the sugar on greased parchment paper or Silpat. Just put a layer of sugar inside a metal cookie cutter on top of one of those surfaces and caramelize it with the torch. This is a nice alternative to pie crust and frosting. Wherever your pie affinity lies, there are delectable decorating options awaiting you.
… to the meat
If sweet pies are not your fancy, there is the other half of the universe for you: savory pies. Like the aforementioned reindeer pie, you can include any meat, or vegetable or even fruit that you desire. Savory pies can also be single or two crusted (think quiche). I made a quiche last month out of sausage, mushrooms, onions and loads of spinach (of course with an egg base)… it was random and delicious. Quiches are defined by the eggs, but if you prefer a more creamy pie, think of chicken pot pies. The fun part about pie is, you can make it as tailored to your preferences as you wish. While the crust is an important part of a good pie, it is, at it’s core, a bland crust made primarily of a fat, a flour and water. The banquet is on the inside.
What about a beef pie? A classic version of beef pie hearkens back again to England. Traditionally known as Mince pie, it contains beef, spices, liquor and dried fruit. (Editors note: Traditionally mince pies were made with minced beef, but modern versions just contain fruit, spices and booze with the addition of some suet.) Liquor and dried fruit are interesting ways to add seasoning. The combination of acid (fruit) and fat (meat) is intoxicating. Think of orange duck. So what fruits or spirits remind you of Christmas? Tell it to me in a pie.
If you can’t get through the holidays without a nip of eggnog, think of the main components of egg nog: brandy, rum or bourbon and cinnamon and nutmeg (by the way, traditional eggnog could be a very natural lead in to a sweet custard pie of some sort…); put these flavors in a meat pie. Cranberry, fig, cherry, currant, orange, raisin and apple all reign supreme for the Christmas season (if you think “plum” is missing from that list, be surprised to hear that the storied Plum Pudding and Sugar Plums do not contain any actual plum). Don’t be worried that I’m about to hop back into sweet pies, I’m mentioning these more as garnishes and flavorings… the acidic nature of the fruit bringing out the flavors in the meat and other spices. On a side note, it might be fun to throw all of the Christmas fruits into a pie- just saying. Spices that are popular this time of year are ginger (gingerbread men… that spice is certainly versatile!), cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, rosemary, sage, mint (think mint jelly with lamb… that could be a pie idea! A mint-infused lamb broth…) and thyme. Before you start playing fast and loose with the spices, maybe research some common pairings. I have had a very good thyme stuffing in the past… thyme would be nice with turkey and cranberries. Or maybe cloves with orange and duck… and don’t forget the classic Christmas goose! If you enjoy Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, remember that goose is mentioned many times throughout the tale. That would be a fun way to eat the Christmas spirit!
Distilling your favorite parts of the Christmas holiday down into one pie is the quirky challenge ahead of me and possibly you, ladies and gentleman. If you manage to make something delicious and meaningful, you may just have a new, cherished tradition on your plate that can be passed down through your future offspring. You could one day be that great great grandma or grandpa who cooked up Rudolph or maybe made that boring apple pie come to life with a green filling, red crust and a shiny sugar glaze. Or you could just be heralding in a family activity of pie decorating, simply adding to the magic and warmth of your existing holiday baking traditions. Shake off your old perceptions of pie and let your version of Christmas permeate an often neglected, succulent medium of baking.
However, dear readers, if you don’t have a tenderness for pie, there is always cake! Merry Christmas!