Making strawberry pie

I subscribe to Cook’s Illustrated because I think its website, America’s Test Kitchen, offers the best cooking and baking advice you can get.

Recipes from a wide range of cookbooks and publications are compared and tested. Instructions are given in steps. Photos go beyond the display of an attractive finished product. In fact, most photos show key steps in the process, so the cook can see what’s expected at every stage. Subtle differences that make or break the outcome are clearly and accurately delineated.

You can expect to see photos, too, of disasters – what happens when you bake at the wrong temperature, when you don’t use the correct amount of ingredients or when you fail to correctly fold, beat, whip or whatever.

This week’s America’s Test Kitchen offered a recipe for a diner-style strawberry pie. The word “diner- style” caught my eye. Oscars in the Town Plaza is Durango’s diner that has the corner on pies, yet I cannot recall ever ordering a slice, despite their reputation. I did take myself back to a slice of perfect blueberry pie I had many years ago in a Midwest diner at the peak of blueberry season. I assumed the pie was good because the berries were fresh. This week’s strawberry pie recipe challenged me on that long-held assumption.

Indeed it’s strawberry season in parts of the Southwest. For the next month or so, berries will be at peak flavor, although most we taste are from California. Maybe the one reason to crank up the oven in 80-degree temperatures is so that you can enjoy a berry pie.

America’s Test Kitchen’s pie recipe did not feature fresh berries exclusively. The recipe explained why you cook down a box of frozen berries, add sugar, lemon and gelatin and thicken until you can measure exactly two cups. The technique was similar to making jam, yet the recipe explained that berries typically are low in pectin. Adding some high-pectin citrus not only helped bring out the fragrance and flavor of the berries, it contributed to the texture that made for a good slice.

Now I got it. How many great-tasting but watery slices of pie had I consumed in the last few decades? Pie baking contests are won with neat, clean slices. Cook’s Illustrated shows novice bakers exactly how to achieve that. Forget buying that gooey, red-dye tinted glop in a plastic bag, sold right next to the fresh berries. You can have the real deal for half the price and three times the quality.

Fresh taste came from the fresh berries, but concentrated flavors came from the reduction of macerated frozen berries. Just as reductions are the basis for so many great sauces and gravies, reductions work in pies, too, to amp up the taste.

The original 2009 recipe is from Cook’s Country: “Icebox Strawberry Pie.” Cook’s Illustrated merely tested it against others and proclaimed it good enough to pass along to people like me. I appreciate being able to trust a recipe and know that if I follow it exactly, it will be a winner.

Check it out: www.americastestkitchen.com. Type in “Icebox Strawberry Pie.”

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