Emily’s Runaway Imagination is one of Beverly Cleary’s lesser-known works, and it takes place on a farm in the 1920s or thereabouts. One of the scenes I remember best is where Emily (a little girl with a big imagination) bakes custard pie for a church potluck. She’d previously overheard someone say that the secret to a light and flaky pie crust was adding “a generous pinch of baking powder” to it, and she’s eager to demonstrate her newfound pie crust prowess.
“Two and a half cups of flour,” directed Mama. “Some salt — not quite a teaspoonful. Let’s see, some lard. You’d better let me measure that.” Mama came into the pantry and deftly measured the lard out of the lard bucket. “Now Emily, take two knives and slash through the flour and lard until it is as fine as corn meal.” Emily started to slash. […]
Quickly Emily added a generous pinch of baking powder and then, not certain how big a generous pinch should be, added another generous pinch to make sure. Then she slashed and slashed and according to Mama’s directions, added water, just a little bit. “There are two secrets to making good pie crust,” said Mama. “Use very little water and handle the dough lightly.” Emily smiled to herself because she knew a third secret.
Unfortunately for Emily, once the pies come out of the oven, instead of the custard surface being “golden yellow and flecked with nutmeg,” the crust has risen to the top with the custard at the bottom. Her mother concludes that the custard filling was too liquidy to weigh the crust down (apples or raisins would apparently have worked better). No one wants to eat her “funny-looking” pie, until one of her neighbors remarks that the inversion will keep the crust from getting soggy… and then everyone digs in.
I always wondered as a kid if this would really happen if you added baking powder to a custard pie crust. Thinking about it now it doesn’t really make sense, since the custard would have no way of getting down through the bottom of the crust unless the crust had holes in it to let the custard flow through– without the holes even the puffiest crust would just end up pushing the extra custard over the top of the pan to spill on the oven floor. I could dock the crust, of course, but no one would dock a crust with big enough holes to let custard get through in any quantity– that’s just asking for the custard to leak and stick the crust to the pan.
I decided to give this food myth (if one can really call it that) the best possible chance of success by cutting a few 1″ circles out of the pie crust, allowing the custard plenty of space to run through and let the crust rise up to the top. I figured that if that didn’t work, nothing would.
Let’s see what happens!
“Light and Flaky” Pie Crust (enough for 1 pie, the book recipe makes 2)
1 1/4 cups flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 generous pinch baking powder (ended up being the equivalent of a slightly rounded 1/4 tsp.)
8 tbs. cold butter (or lard, but I didn’t have any)
2-3 tbs. cold water
1. Combine dry ingredients in your food processor and pulse to mix.
2. Cut butter into tablespoon-sized pieces and add to dry ingredients. Pulse in the processor until the mixture resembles cornmeal. (you could also use two knives, but it’ll take a lot longer)
3. Sprinkle 2 tbs. of the water over the mixture and continue to pulse just until the dough starts to come together. (handle the dough lightly!)
4. Add remaining water as necessary, 1 tsp. at a time, until dough holds together easily. (I did not need any extra water)
5. Form dough into a 6-inch disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for 20 minutes.
6. When ready to use, roll out dough into a large circle, cut several 1″ holes in the center, and line a deep-dish pie pan with it.
Custard Filling (1 pie)
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
2 1/2 cups milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Beat eggs, sugar, and salt in a bowl until light-colored and smooth.
3. Bring milk to a bare simmer in a saucepan (i.e., scald the milk). Remove from heat.
4. Ladle a few tablespoons of the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking it in to warm the eggs slightly. Repeat with another ladleful of milk, continuing until the two mixtures are combined. Whisk thoroughly.
5. Stir in vanilla extract, pour custard mixture over the pie crust, and sprinkle with nutmeg.
6. Bake in the bottom third of the oven for 30-35 minutes, or until a knife inserted just off-center comes out clean.
I can’t believe it, it actually worked! I admit that I didn’t think it would– I wonder how few holes I could get away with and still have it rise to the top? Of course, having the crust on top made it more difficult to test for doneness– instead of inserting a knife I just jiggled the pan until the pie looked mostly set. I think I may have slightly overbaked it– the custard was just a tad curdled, instead of smooth and creamy– but it was still reasonably good.
However, I will note that I didn’t much care for the texture of the pie crust– too crumbly (see Note 1. below). Also, despite the book’s claim that a crust on top wouldn’t get soggy, the crust here was plenty soggy after rising through the custard mixture and getting thoroughly soaked. I’ll stick with my standard recipe next time!
A “generous pinch” of baking powder:
- Rereading this section again as an adult with pastry-making experience, it’s clear to me that there’s no way this pie crust recipe would ever result in “flaky” pie crust. Flaky crust is made by steam escaping from thin layers of fat in the dough, which are created by rolling out large pieces of butter in the crust mixture. If you cut in your fat until it’s as fine as cornmeal you’ll never get those large pieces, and will therefore never get flaky pie crust. Tender pie crust, sure, but not flaky.
- I usually chill my pie dough before rolling it out, but I reduced the chilling time for two reasons. First, there’s no mention in the book of any chilling time before putting the filling into the crust, and it’s not like they had a huge refrigerator to just stick pie crust into to keep it cool. Second, the whole point of chilling pie crust (aside from giving the dough time to hydrate, which I tried to do with at least some chilling time) is to help it hold its shape in the oven, since the cold butter won’t get hot enough to melt or release steam until the flour structure is set. This is exactly what I didn’t want– I wanted the steam to escape as soon as possible, before the custard started to really thicken, so it would have a chance to rise up through the custard. And it did!!!
- The original book describes the custard as “buttercup-colored,” but mine was a much paler yellow. I’m going to assume that farm-raised chickens back then laid eggs with much more vibrant yolks (the same way they do now), which worked to make the custard brighter yellow. Either that or they used extra yolks or eggs for a thicker custard.