Mine is a pie family.
When I was growing up, Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving were the occasions for big family get-togethers, of which none would be complete without pie. Many pies.
While my mom and her sisters would divide and conquer the turkey or ham dinner, rotating houses and side dishes for each holiday, my grandmother, or mémé (mim for short), was always in charge of pie.
There was the traditional savoury French-Canadian favourite, tourtière, along with at least 3 sweet varieties, which may have included pumpkin, lemon meringue, cherry and apple.
I could never choose just one. Thankfully, when it came to pies my stomach was a bottomless pit, so I would eat a slice of each. No kidding. Maybe even two of the lemon meringue.
Once I went off to university, I started cooking for myself and I wanted to start contributing to holiday dinners.
My first effort was the Christmas of 2000. A simple, traditional, apple pie.
I didn’t grow up in a house where either of my parents was an enthusiastic cook. Both worked full time, and while we all appreciated a good meal, it was the 80s, so there was an abundance of quick and easy convenience foods on rotation at home.
My fondness for processed cheese, cloyingly sweet jarred tomato sauce and oven-crisp fish sticks with loads of ketchup remain.
All this to say, I had no clue how to make pastry, or apple pie filling, let alone an entire apple pie.
So I called Mim, because back then, the internet was just hitting its mainstream stride and I would have never thought to outsource such an important recipe to an internet stranger. My, how times have changed!
Mémé patiently guided me through the steps to making a pastry dough with vegetable shortening, all while cautioning me to use the correct apples, “no, not red delicious, Erin”.
I still remember the feeling of that first successful attempt so vividly. I felt an incredible sense of pride when one of my aunts told me how beautiful it looked and after tasting it, how great the pastry turned out; ‘Pastry is not easy!’ she said.
Fast forward more than 15 years and apple pies are one of my most practised and favourite desserts. I’ve even enjoyed the accolades of being a winner in our annual apple pie contest at work.
Over the years I’ve tested a number of filling and pastry recipes. For the filling, I find the biggest factor is the type of apple used. I’ve had success with many varieties (Cortland, Gala, Golden Delicious), but my all-time, unquestionable favourite is Honeycrisp.
I’ve also learned that pastry is in fact, the easiest part of pie making (despite what my aunt thought). The less you fuss, the more tender and flakey it becomes.
One of my new favourites is canola oil pastry. I love the idea of using a Canadian-produced, heart-healthy oil in a recipe that’s just as easy as traditionally made pie dough. Using frozen canola oil is a genius kitchen hack and after a quick zip in the food processor, the dough is ready to go right away. Bonus: using canola oil also makes this pie vegan-friendly; an option I’m finding is more and more in demand these days.
Do you have a traditional holiday favourite that you’ve always shied away from making? Let’s make this holiday season the year to be brave! I’m going to tackle tortière this year, how about you?
Erin MacGregor, RD, PHEc. Co-Founder HowToEat.ca