Friday, 7 October 2011

Elephant No. 5: Blueberry Pie

I've been promising my husband for a couple of weeks now that I'd make him a blueberry pie, so it seemed like the thing to do for today's elephant.

The first pies appeared around 9500 B.C. in Ancient Egypt. These early pies were fairly simple, consisting of honey wrapped in a baked coating of ground wheat, oats or barley. They later developed into something more like a pastry, and are sometimes depicted on the walls of Ancient Egyptian tombs. Over the ensuing millennia, savoury fillings were developed, and a Sumerian tablet dated to roughly 2000 B.C. records the first-known recipe for chicken pie.

The earliest proper pie crust—consisting of flour, water and some sort of fat—seems to have been developed in Ancient Greece. By the time of the Roman Empire, pies took many different forms, including a type of cheesecake on a pie-crust base. Pies quickly became a staple food for travel, as the crust could contain and protect all manner of foods, from fruit to fish.

The first reference to pies in Great Britain occurs in the twelfth century A.D., although pie itself was likely an established food well before then. Beginning in medieval times, fillings became exotic and elaborate, including larks' tongues, swans, pigeons, oysters and eels. When Henry VI of England was crowned in 1429, a pie containing cooked peacock was served. Sitting atop the pie was the stuffed skin of the peacock, feathers and all. Royal cooks throughout Europe often placed a cooked bird on top of a pie to indicate its contents, and the ceramic "pie birds" sometimes placed in the centre of a pie as both steam vent and decoration are the direct descendants of these feathery carcasses.

One Italian cookbook of the sixteenth century even contained instructions for a pie containing live birds, perhaps giving rise to the first two verses of this familiar nursery rhyme:

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocketful of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing
Wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

I think I'll stick to fruit pie, thank you very much.

I truly loathe making pie crust, but thought it might be cheating if I bought the frozen kind, so I bit the bullet and made crust from scratch. As for blueberries, they're a bit out of season around here, making fresh blueberries both expensive and not terribly tasty. I picked up a couple of packages of good-quality frozen wild blueberries instead.

Blueberry pie usually has a lattice crust. I'm not sure if this is because it needs lots of vents for the steam to escape, or just because it looks pretty. Since lattice wouldn't serve my elephant-a-day purpose, I opted for a full top crust.

Here's the recipe, if you're in a pie-baking mood:

Double-Crust Blueberry Pie

2-1/2 cups (625 ml) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) salt
1/2 cup (125 ml) cold butter, cubed
1/2 cup (125 ml) cold lard, cubed
1/4 cup (60 ml) ice water (approx.)
3 tablespoons (45 ml) sour cream

In a large bowl, stir salt into flour. Using a pastry blender, cut in butter and lard until it looks like fine crumbs. You could also do this in a food processor, but I've found that a food processor makes the dough a bit tough. The main thing in pie crust, as in shortbread cookies, is to avoid overworking the dough.

Whisk water together with sour cream. Pour slowly over the flour and salt, tossing with a fork and adding a little more water if needed. You should end up with a dough that loosely holds together, but is sort of raggedy.

Divide the dough in half and flatten into two discs. Wrap and refrigerate for about 20–30 minutes. You can also refrigerate the dough for two or three days, or freeze it for up to a month. I find that dough that's too cold is a pain to roll out; but if it's not cold enough, it sticks to everything. (Did I mention that I loathe making pie crust?)

3/4 cup (375 ml) white sugar
3 tablespoons (45 ml) cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon (1 ml) salt
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) ground cinnamon
A dash of almond flavouring (1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon—optional)
4 cups (1 litre—600 g frozen) blueberries (fresh if possible; if using frozen, thaw and drain first)
1 tablespoon (15 ml) butter (to dot on fruit in bottom crust)

Mix together sugar, cornstarch, salt, cinnamon and almond flavouring and mix with blueberries. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 425˚F (220˚C).

Roll out one disc of pastry on a lightly floured surface to about 12 inches (30 cm) diameter (don't forget to also dust the rolling pin with flour). Line bottom of 9-inch pie (23 cm) pan with pastry. Trim around edge of pie plate.

Fill crust with blueberry mixture. Dot with tiny pinched-off pieces of the tablespoon of butter. This is to help the contents thicken as the cornstarch bonds with the fat in the butter. I've occasionally forgotten this step, which won't completely ruin your pie, but will make the insides a bit less solid.

Roll out second disc of pastry to about 10 inches (25 cm) diameter. Place on top of pie plate and trim around edge. Flute (pinch) pastry along edge. Some people brush water or egg along the edge of the bottom pie crust before adding the top and fluting, to make the two crusts stick together better, but I've never found that it makes a big difference, as long you pinch the edge properly.

To make it pretty, before baking I cut the elephant design into the top crust, brushed the surface with the yolk of one egg, and sprinkled the top with coarse white sugar (the sparkly kind you'd use to decorate Christmas cookies). Note that blueberries need lots of steam vents cut into the crust. I would normally also sprinkle the crust with sliced almonds (about two tablespoons), but the elephant design wouldn't show if I did that, so I left them off.

Bake pie on bottom rack of oven for about 40–50 minutes, or until crust is golden brown. Keep an eye on it, just in case. Mine cooked in just over 40 minutes, and if I'd left it in any longer, it would have been overdone. As you can see, the egg and sugar on the edge carmellized really fast.

Let cool on a rack if you have one—on the counter if not—for at least 20 minutes.

Serves about eight normal people, or one pie-glutton.

Elephant Fact of the Day
Elephants don't eat blueberries (although I'm sure they would if they could get them), but they do eat a fruit called marula, which is related to the mango. Because elephants are so fond of marula, African travel brochures often suggest that elephants get tipsy on the rotten, fermented marula they pluck off the ground.

A recent study, however, has put this myth to rest. Elephants don't eat the fruit that falls on the ground. Instead they pluck the fruit right off the tree, or shake the tree until fresh fruit falls. The fruit that the elephants do eat passes through their system too quickly to have time to ferment. And that's assuming that the elephant could eat enough marula to produce a whopping 7.1 gallons (27 litres) of fermented marula juice in its stomach. Since it takes 200 marula fruits to make one gallon, the elephant would have to ingest more than 1,400 marula fruits—all at the same time.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society

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