As easy as pie? Who ever said pie was easy? Every one you make is a work of art.
PIES, piled high with fresh fruits, berries, rich pumpkin, or spicy apples have been cooling on American windowsills and on kitchen counters since early Colonial days. Although the expression ``as American as apple pie'' seems to denote some kind of originality, pies probably were not created in this country. But they have become an American specialty and are traditional at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
For some reason, many good cooks in this country have never baked a pie.
It seems a sad state of affairs that people who are not intimidated by a French recipe such as a souffl'e or quiche, or a lengthy method for making pasta, are simply afraid to make a pie. They are missing a truly fine eating and cooking experience.
Maida Heatter, known as America's first lady of desserts, is famous for her rich chocolate recipes, cheesecakes, and cinnammon crisp cookies. But when it comes to baking pies, she's full of praise for those who'll tackle them.
``A plain American pie is a work of art,'' she says. ``Every time you make one it is a challenge.
``When it turns out right you have accomplished something major of which you and your family and friends should be extremely proud.''
Although holiday time is busy for everybody, it might be just the time to accept Ms. Heatter's challenge and make a special pie for the season.
On the other hand, like cookbook authors Jane and Michael Stern you may want to keep pie-making simple.
``One year we made it from scratch and it was elegant, but nobody else really liked it,'' Mrs. Stern says.
``The next year we made it the old-fashioned way - with pumpkin filling from a can.''
There's a wide choice of filling for a holiday pie, although some are traditional in certain regions.
In early days the varieties were limited to supplies at hand, but dried fruit was always available to the thrifty homemaker. Throughout the winter there would be apple, mince, cranberry, pumpkin, and different kinds of custard and nut pies.
Blueberry pies were made from blueberries that had been ``put up'' in summer time. Mince pies were made either of venison or of raisins. If winters were cold, pies were made in great quantity and put out to freeze.
One 19th-century writer decided northern New England in this way:
``All the hill and country town houses were full of women who would be mortified if a visitor caught them without a pie in the house.''
This has not been true for many years, but certainly many families today would not go through the holidays without several different kinds of pies, homemade or otherwise.
The recipe on the next page comes from a new cookbook, ``The Hay Day Country Farm Cookbook'' by Maggie Stearns and Sallie Y. Williams (Atheneum, $19.95).
The book is a collection of recipes from the Westport, Conn., Hay Day Country Farm Markets. Pumpkin Pecan Pie 3 eggs 3/4 cup brown sugar 1/4 cup light cane syrup Pinch of salt 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1 cup light cream 11/2 cups pur'eed pumpkin 1/4 cup chopped pecans 1 unbaked deep-dish pie shell 1/4 cup pecan halves
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Beat eggs, brown sugar, and cane syrup together with a whisk. Beat in salt, spices, cream, pumpkins, and chopped pecans. Pour filling into pie shell. Bake at 400 degrees F. for 40 minutes, or until filling sets around edges.
Remove pie from oven and decorate with pecan halves. Cool thoroughly before serving.
To make pumpkin pur'ee, simmer cubed, peeled, seeded pumpkin in water until just tender; drain well, and pur'ee in food processor. Or you can just seed pumpkin, cut in large pieces, and bake with a little water for 11/2 hours at 375 degrees F., then scrape out flesh and pur'ee.
This lemon-meringue pie is from Martha Stewart's ``Pies and Tarts'' (Clarkson N. Potter, $18.95). Martha's Mile-High Lemon Meringue Pie 1 9-inch pate bris'ee pie shell, baked and cooled 11/4 cups granulated sugar 2/3 cup sifted cake flour Pinch of salt 11/2 cups water 5 egg yolks 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice 2 tablespoons grated lemon rind 1/2 stick unsalted butter, in small pieces Meringue 8 to 12 egg whites 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract Pinch of salt 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
To make filling, combine sugar, flour, salt, and water in a double boiler over simmering water, and cook 10 to 20 minutes, until mixture becomes very thick and almost translucent. Remove from heat and beat in egg yolks, one at a time, until thoroughly blended.
Return to heat and cook 6 to 7 minutes, stirring constantly, until thick and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice and rind. Whisk in butter, a piece at a time, and set aside to cool.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
To make meringue, beat egg whites until fluffy. Add cream of tartar, vanilla, and salt. Continue beating and add 1 tablespoon sugar to the mixture every minute. Beat for 7 and 8 minutes, until stiff peaks form. Pour cooled filling into pie shell. Mound meringue over filling in peaks as high as possible, making sure to cover the filling as completely to the edge of the pie shell as possible.
Bake about 10 minutes, or until meringue is golden brown. Cool at room temperature for at least 3 hours before cutting. Do not refrigerate.
Note: Cake flour is essential for the filling to thicken properly. Raspberry-Pear Pie 15-ounce package prepared pie crusts 1 teaspoon flour 1/4 cup sugar 2 tablespoons cornstarch 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 10-ounce pkg frozen raspberries, thawed and drained 1/2 cup reserved raspberry liquid 2 tablespoons margarine or butter 1 tablespoon lemon juice 5 cups sliced, peeled pears 1/2 cup powdered sugar 2 to 3 tablespoons milk
Prepare pie crust according to directions for two-crust pie. Heat oven to 400 degrees F.
In large saucepan, combine sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir in raspberry liquid. Cook over medium heat until mixture thickens. Remove from heat. Add margarine and lemon juice. Stir until margarine is melted. Fold in drained raspberries and pears.
Turn mixture into pie crust-lined pan. Top with second crust and flute. Cut slits in several places. Bake at 400 degrees F. for 40 to 50 minutes or until crust is golden brown. Cool.
In small bowl, blend sugar and milk for glaze until smooth. Drizzle over top of cooled pie. Serves 8.
Tip: Before placing top crust over fruit, use small cookie cutters to make decorative cutouts instead of slits. Place cutouts on top of crust and bake.
Cover edge of pie crust with strip of aluminum foil during last 10 to 15 minutes of baking to prevent over-browning. Kentucky Banana Cream Pie 1/3 cup cornstarch 2/3 cup sugar 3 cups milk, scalded 3 eggs, separated 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 large banana, peeled and sliced 1 baked 9-inch pie shell 2 tablespoons sugar
Combine cornstarch, 2/3 cup sugar, and salt in top of double boiler; mix well. Gradually add milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, just until thickened.
Beat egg yolks until thick and lemon colored. Stir 1/4 of hot mixture into yolks; add to remaining hot mixture, stirring constantly. Cook 2 minutes more until thick and bubbly. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and butter.
Place banana slices in pastry shell. Pour filling over top.
Beat egg whites at room temperature, until soft peaks form.
Gradually add 2 tablespoons sugar, and continue beating until stiff peaks form. Spread meringue over filling, sealing to the edge of the pastry. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 5 minutes or until meringue is golden brown.
Serve warm or chilled. Old-Fashioned Apricot Pie 4 to 5 cups cooked apricots 11/4 to 11/2 cups sugar 3 to 4 tablespoons flour 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1 to 2 tablespoons butter Pastry for two-crust pie
Prepare pastry and roll out bottom crust. Fit into pie pan and trim edges. Roll out top crust and cut into long strips for crisscross crust, if desired.
Prepare fruit and mix with sugar, flour, and spices. Turn into crust and dot with butter. Moisten edge of bottom crust, place top crust on it, and cut slits to allow steam to escape (or crisscross strips, if desired). Trim crust and and crimp edges.
Bake in 450-degree F. oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F. and bake 25 to 35 minutes longer. Do not overbake. Pie will continue to cook when out of oven. Cool on pie rack. Apple Mince Pie Pastry for 9-inch pie 1/4 cup all purpose flour 1/3 cup sugar 1/8 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon margarine or butter 1/4 cup water 2 tablespoons red cinnamon candies 1 18-ounce jar prepared mincemeat 3 tart apples
Heat oven to 425 degrees F. Prepare pastry. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons flour in pastry-lined pie plate. Mix remaining flour, sugar, salt, and margarine until crumbly. Heat water and cinnamon candies, stirring until candies are dissolved. Spread mincemeat on pastry.
Pare apples and cut into quarters, then in wedges about 1/2-inch on outer side. Cover mincemeat with 2 overlapping circles of apples, sprinkle with sugar mixture. Spoon cinnamon syrup over top, moistening as much sugar as possible. Cover edge with 2 to 3 strips aluminum foil to prevent overbrowning. Remove foil during last 15 minutes of baking. Bake until crust is golden brown, 40 to 50 minutes.
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.