Homemade Blueberry Pie
New England in August is awash in blueberries, and you haven’t tasted blueberry pie until you’ve eaten one homemade with fresh, local fruit. I was fortunate enough to get my hands on an authentic classic Blueberry Pie recipe for inspiration, thanks to the new book Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England by Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald.
You would think that my love for history and food would mean I frequently borrow recipes from the past, but that’s not entirely true. The first time I got my hands on a vintage cookbook (a 1923 edition of the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking-School Cook Book) I cracked it open, eagerly skimmed the pages…and frowned.
Yes, there were recipes, but they were short and choppy with barely any direction. Just a few sentences per dish, with ingredients like “one yeast cake,” measurements like “a teacup of milk,” and instructions like “roast in a slow oven until golden.” Hmmm. Better put away my digital scale, measuring cups, spoons, and any hope of I had of knowing what temperature to preheat the oven.
While difficult to follow literally, these brainteaser recipes are terrific for historical inspiration, serving as valuable reminders of not only what folks were eating, but about the cooks themselves. An enormous amount of cookbooks today focus on starting with the basics, then teaching us “how to cook everything” with numbered steps and careful illustrations, leaving nothing left to chance. Good cooking has a lot to do with instinct and flexibility, something Stavely and Fitzgerald encourage by providing the recipes verbatim, but also adding their own commentary to put the recipe into historical context and fill in the gaps, often with a healthy dose of humor.
When the subject turns to pies in Part 2, Chapter 12, Stavely and Fitzgerald reveal that until the nineteenth century, consuming fresh fruit was actually considered unhealthy, so it was often used to make pies. It was important for all New England housewives to have a constant supply of pies, both sweet and savory, at the ready for her family and guests. More than just nourishment, a supply of pies was proof that “for yet another year, the family and its farm were thriving.”
I was delighted to adapt the recipes in Northern Hospitality for Blueberry Pie and its accompanying “No. 8 Tart or Pudding Paste” from the 1850 Practical Cook Book by Mrs. Bliss. The recipe is simplicity at its finest: fresh fruit, sugar, flour, butter, water, salt, and egg.
My sister and I had plans to pick local Massachusetts blueberries in early August, but alas the weather refused to cooperate, so we purchased them already-picked from the fruit farm instead. In-season is in-season no matter who does the picking.
This recipe is very simple and very much based in tradition, which is precisely why I like it. Not too sweet, the flavor of the peak bluberries is allowed to shine through, and for those that crave a little extra sweetness, a dollop of homemade whipped cream or a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream would no doubt make a nice addition.
If you enjoy New England’s culinary history, the evolution of cooking methods, or the challenge of adapting the past for the present, I encourage you to pick up Northern Hospitality! You won’t be disappointed.
Adapted from Northern Hospitality: Cooking By the Book in New England by Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald
For the No. 8 Tart or Pudding Paste
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, very cold
2 tsps. salt
½ cup cold water
For the Blueberry Filling
4 cups blueberries
2 Tbsp. sugar
1/8 cup all-purpose flour
For the Glaze
1 egg, beaten
- Preheat the oven to 425º and place a rack in the middle of the oven.
- In a large bowl, whisk together flour and salt. Add the butter and mix it into the flour using a pastry blender two knives. You can also use a food processor, but stop mixing when the butter is in pieces the size of peas.
- Slowly add the cold water, a little at a time, and mix until the dough just comes together. You may not need all of the water, or you may need a bit more.
- Remove the dough from the bowl and shape into 2 equal balls, flattened into discs. Wrap each in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.
- When ready, unwrap the dough and allow it to warm up for a minute or two. Lightly flour your surface, then roll one disc into a circle until its large enough to fit into the pie plate with an inch of overhang. Fold the dough into fourths, then place in the pie dish. Unfold and smooth into the dish, dressing the crust however you choose (crimping, fluting, or my favorite, just pressing into it with a fork).
- Fill with the blueberry filling, then roll out the remaining disc of dough and either cover the blueberries entirely, making sure to cut a few slits in the top crust for steam to escape, or cut out a variety of shapes to overlap and make a crust.
- Lightly brush the top crust with a beaten egg, then sprinkle with coarse sugar. Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 350º and bake for an additional 45-55 minutes. Keep an eye on the pie. If the crust begins to brown too quickly, tent the pie with foil. If the filling begins to bubble, you may also wish to place a baking sheet on the rack below the pie to catch any drips.
- Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool. Serve warm.
Please note: Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald have written two books together about New England food history: Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011); and America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking (University of North Carolina Press, 2004). They have also spoken about the subject at international conferences, at numerous historical societies, libraries, and museums, and to a variety of community and professional groups. Through lively presentations and sprightly give-and-take with their audiences, they bring the hidden history of New England foodways to light, along the way showing how a region’s food practices can illuminate its broader social and cultural history.