Homemade Pie: Too Good To Wait Until Thanksgiving

Easy as pie. Whoever first said that obviously had some extra time on her hands. Still, every year, autumn's apples and crisp air beckon even the busiest people to retreat to the kitchen, fire up the oven, and make like Martha Stewart.

Half the appeal is creating that sweet aroma, the olfactory equivalent of home and comfort. (It's been known to sell houses.)

Pie bakers fall into three categories, says Lisa Cherkasky, professional chef and co-author of ''The Artful Pie'' (Chapters, 1993): Those who rarely make pie because they are intimidated; those who take pride in it and do it often; and those who only make pies for special occasions.

At the crux: the crust.

Many people find making pie ''more threatening than preparing any other dessert,'' Richard Sax wrote in ''Classic Home Desserts'' (Chapters, 1994). ''It's making and rolling out the crust that gets the [anxiety] going.''

Notoriously temperamental, homemade crust demands time and delicate handling, not to mention counter space. Cookbooks advise: ''Keep everything cold,'' and ''beware of humid days.'' After mixing, refrigerating, rolling out, fitting, trimming, and crimping, the casual cook may wonder: Are there any guarantees that the consistency won't end up like tree bark or soggy crackers?

While seasoned bakers say ''Of course. It just takes practice,'' the fact is, Americans aren't making pie crusts the way they used to.

Time-strapped bakers are relying on prepared pie shells, foldout dough, or boxed mixes. According to the 1995 Better Homes and Gardens food-trends study, many Americans say that baking ''from scratch'' includes convenience products, such as cake mixes or ready-made pie crusts.

Grandma might shake her rolling pin in disapproval. But when you have only two hours between little Johnny's soccer game and dinner, such conveniences are less ''cheating'' than they are practical.

Still many a pie connoisseur warns of sacrificing flavor for shortcuts; what makes a pie taste good is its homemade crust, they say.

Just ask State Rep. Patricia Walrath (D) of Massachusetts. As a judge for the Middlesex County 4-H Fair pie contest, she says that crust accounts for more than 50 percent of total points (including appearance, texture, and flavor). ''If it tastes blah - if it's this thick thing that doesn't flake - it spoils the whole pie,'' she says.

Representative Walrath, who says she bakes about 100 pies a year, is well-known for her wildberry pies. In fact, one of her blackberry pies sold for $60 at a recent arts-alliance auction. She figures a good pie might even have some political clout.

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