Cream together in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer:
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 stick butter, softened
When most people think "pie," they think about fruit. And to be fair, just about the only way to improve fresh fruit is to bake it. Just about the only way to improve pie is to put fruit in it. The two were quite possibly made for one another, and I was definitely made to consume pie. It's a match made in some celestial kitchen!
There really aren't too many pitfalls when it comes to putting fruit in a pie. You can make a killer pie with substandard fruit. Not that I recommend that, but should you find yourself in possession of mealy pears, rock-hard peaches, bitter blackberries, or cottony strawberries, you know what to do with them. The same goes for pie crust. A store bought pie crust, while mediocre, is made almost fabulous by the addition of fruit.
Just imagine what wonders you could work with homemade crust and superb fruit.
Making a fruit pie that cuts into neat slices is fairly difficult. Fruit has a high water content, and during the baking process, the fruit juices combine with the sugar to create a thick--but runny--syrup that tends to be unruly on the plate. This does not bother me. I simply add a scoop of ice cream or a spoonful of soft whipped cream, and the whole affair turns into a lusciously goopy mess.
I say this because many home bakers are discouraged by runny pies. I say phooey. A good pie is a runny pie. Sure, you can add more cornstarch or cook the filling before piling it into the crust, but there's nothing wrong with a messy, sticky pie. Imperfection is something that should be embraced in home kitchens. It is a sign of something made in earnest.
Fruit pies are variable. You will get different results from ripe fruit, less ripe fruit, frozen fruit, and canned fruit. I personally do not like to use canned fruit in my pies. I dislike the taste of canned fruit and believe that when you make a pie, you should splurge a little on the fruit that goes into it. Frozen fruit, however, is a fine substitute for fresh, as it is flash frozen and tends to have even more flavor than "fresh" grocery store fruit.
If using frozen fruit, do not thaw before adding to the pie crust. Use twice the amount of thickener called for in the recipe, and keep in mind that you will have to bake a frozen-fruit-pie much longer than a fresh fruit pie. Start the pie in a 400˚F oven and bake for 50 minutes. Then, slide a baking sheet underneath the pie pan, lower the oven temperature to 350˚F, and bake until thick juices bubble through the vents in the upper crust, about 25 to 40 minutes more. Do not glaze the upper crust with sugar or egg, as the longer baking time would darken the top too quickly. You can, however, glaze the top for the last 30 minutes of baking.
Using all-purpose flour as a thickener will yield a more opaque filling, whereas using tapioca starch or arrowroot produces a clearer, smoother filling. Usually, about 1/4 cup of thickener is called for in a fresh fruit pie that uses 4 to 5 cups fresh fruit. A little lemon juice is typically added as well, to temper the sweetness of the filling. If you are working with very tart fruit, such as sour cherries or wild blackberries, you may not need to add any lemon juice at all. I almost always dot the pie filling with a couple tablespoons butter before topping with the upper crust. It never hurts and gives the pie a richer flavor.
Any further additions are totally up to you. Chopped nuts, grated or finely chopped citrus zest or peel, spices, and liqueurs are always welcome additions to pie, but you need to know when to use one rather than the other. For instance, I imagine a fresh blueberry pie would be spectacular with a healthy dose of lemon peel. Peach pie could do with some finely chopped candied ginger or ginger liqueur or perhaps the scrapings from a vanilla bean or two. Apple pie is, of course, classic with cinnamon, allspice, clove, and perhaps cardamom.
The peach pie below is about as simple as you can get. The recipe is straight from the Joy of Cooking and is about as classic as it gets. In short, this is what comes to mind when you think of peach pie. The addition of almond extract is intended to mimic the flavor of peach pits, which have a distinct almond flavor. In many old recipes for peach, apricot, or cherry pies, the pits are split open and baked in the pie because the nuts within the pits taste of almond. We now know that these pits contain trace amounts of cyanide, and while you'd have to consume a lot of peach pits for this to be harmful, most people just leave them out of their pies, if for no other reason than because biting down on something rock hard when you're enjoying a slice of pie is just plain unpleasant.
One recipe My All-Butter Pastry Dough
Roll out one half of the dough as instructed and line a 9-inch pie plate with it. Refrigerate the dough while you prepare the filling.
Preheat the oven to 425˚F.
Peel, pit, and slice 1/4-inch thick:
2 1/2 pounds ripe peaches
Combine in a bowl with:
1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar (taste the peaches to see how sweet they are before adding the larger amount of sugar--they may not need it)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour, tapioca starch, or arrowroot
(1/4 cup finely chopped candied ginger)
(Seeds from 1-2 vanilla beans)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
Let the filling stand at room temperature for 15 minutes to thicken slightly. Pour the filling into the bottom crust and dot with:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
Roll out the second dough round and place over the filling. Trim the dough, leaving 1 inch of overhang. Gently fold the overhang underneath the bottom crust so that the overhang is now between the pie pan and the bottom crust. This forms a good seal so that no juices escape out the sides. Now you can make a decorative edge, if you like. Cut a few slits in the top crust for steam to escape.
Lightly brush the top of the pie with:
Milk or cream
2 tablespoons sugar (granulated or turbinado--I used vanilla sugar)
Bake 30 minutes at 400˚F, then reduce the oven temperature to 350˚F and bake 30 minutes longer, or until thick juices are bubbling through the vents in the crust. Cool completely (or almost completely--who doesn't like a warm slice of pie?) on a rack.