First of all: Holy heatwave! Bake at your own risk! I was kind of wondering when New York City weather would pull its annual trick of mutating overnight into a festering hotbox of city smog, in turn whipping us into hapless victims of stench. I’m still racking my brain for that clean water-saving alternative to showering twice or thrice daily.
In the meantime, I can recommend a good way to spend a sultry Saturday: Governor’s Island. Even better yet — on one of the days that Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra will be playing the Jazz Age Lawn Party. This weekend marked the first two days of the annual concert (poor band, in their three-piece suits), and later on this September, there’ll be another full weekend. My friends and I were thrilled to learn that this year, in addition to Charleston lessons, vintage auto shows and flapper hat racks, the event would be featuring a pie recipe contest. All aboard the ferry!
fresh, crisp asparagus slices
crème fraîche and chèvre, the not-so-secret ingredients
alternating stalks and pastry for the lattice crust
There are few things that tug my heartstrings as much as the phrase “pie contest.” Not a pie-eating contest (though that memory sends a chill down my spine, too). Not a pie-in-your-face carnival something-or-other. A contest for the best amateur-baked pie is something I feel like I was brought up to do. I just love making pies. Especially surprising, un-ordinary ones. So it was a no-brainer for me to combine this passion with my recent love affair with asparagus.
I skipped the test round and took the risky route of bringing a pie I hadn’t tasted before to the contest. In it, I’d whipped up some crème fraîche with a log of chèvre; added a sprinkle of fresh chives, sauteed onion, a pinch of nutmeg, a squirt of lemon, an egg to bind it together, and folded in sliced fresh asparagus, raw and snappy. On top and bottom I baked a standard buttery pie crust and wove the lattice top with halved asparagus stalks. Somehow, I didn’t feel like this was very risky at all.
Plus, the worst-case scenario at the contest was that my friends and I would have a delicious addition to our already packed picnic basket.
a slice of the spread (front right: Karol’s winning “Ma’s Apple Pie”)
the judges eat, deliberate
Lady Liston, the contest hostess, offers a slice
the judges got the first taste (before even me!)
In the end, the pie contest worked out quite favorably for all: everyone on the island had the opportunity to try a slice of any pie on the table once the judges were finished with them. But for Karol and I, it was a most idyllic day. Of the three awards handed out in the contest, we each won one of them. Karol’s classic but over-achievingly perfect apple pie took the “Mom’s Best” award, and my pie took “Most Original.” The third category was cleverly titled “Hobo’s Choice,” an allusion to some folky saying about a hobo stealing a pie that was cooling on a windowsill because it looked so tempting. That award went to a lemon meringue pie baked by a lady named Alexandra.
We all won hats!
the pie winners, sporting new handmade hats
So, if a panel of six or so judges are any assurance, this “original” asparagus pie recipe makes a tasty meal/breakfast/lunch/dinner/dessert(?). And finally, after creeping around in the crowd waiting for pie slices, I finally got to snag a taste of it myself. In a word: Yum. I wish asparagus season never had to end.
Savory Asparagus Pie
(makes one 9″ pie)
for the filling:
1 large bunch asparagus, ends trimmed; reserve 4 good-looking long stalks and chop the rest to 1/2″ bias-cut slices
1 medium onion, chopped
8 oz. crème fraîche
3.5 oz. chèvre goat cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
2 teaspoons lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon butter
for the crust:
10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut to cubes
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cold water
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
Make the crust: Combine the flour, sugar and salt. Cut in butter with a pastry cutter (or pulse in a food processor) until mixture resembles fine crumbs with the butter chunks no larger than a pea. Add a little bit of the cold water at a time until mixture just clumps together in a ball. Shape dough with your hands into one large ball and another ball about 1/4 its size. Cover with plastic and chill for 30 minutes (or up to overnight).
Heat a heavy-bottomed pan with 1 tablespoon of butter on very low heat. Add the chopped onions, and let sweat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure they don’t brown. Once onions are translucent and just slightly caramelized, remove from heat and let cool. In a large bowl, combine the creme fraiche and chevre. Mix with a spatula to combine. Add the egg, and whisk mixture until fully blended. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg, chives and lemon juice. Add the chopped asparagus slices and the cooled onions and mix with spatula.
Roll out the large ball of chilled dough on a lightly floured surface, or on waxed/parchment paper. Transfer to the bottom of a greased 9″ pie pan. (If not using this immediately, cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roll the smaller ball of dough into a long, thin oval. Slice it into 6-8 strips for the lattice crust (can be any width you desire!). Slice the reserved good-looking asparagus stalks carefully into halves, lengthwise. Pour the asparagus filling into the pan with the bottom pie crust and smooth top with a spatula. Place one asparagus stalk lengthwise down the center. Lay a pastry strip down the center perpendicular to the asparagus. Lay another two asparagus stalks (alternating between the blunt end and the flower tip side by side) to the right and left of the pastry strip. Lay two pastry strips to the top and bottom of the asparagus stalks, gently tucking the middle part of the strip underneath the middle asparagus stalk to create a basketweave. Continue weaving in this manner until you reach the ends of the pie. Arrange any leftover pastry along the top of the pie’s edge and distribute pieces until the pastry edge is fairly even in bulk all around and well-integrated. Crimp or pinch edges in whichever manner you prefer. Brush top of pie with milk or egg wash (optional), and bake for about 40-45 minutes, or until top is just lightly browned. Let cool at least 10 minutes before serving.
(for 1 pie, about 8 servings)
1 bunch asparagus: $4.00
8 oz. crème fraîche: $3.49
3.5 oz. chèvre: $3.99
1 egg: $0.28
11 tablespoons butter: $1.38
1 onion: $0.25
1 tablespoon chives (from windowsill plant): $0.20
2 teaspoons lemon juice: $0.15
1 3/4 cups flour: $0.65
salt, pepper, nutmeg, sugar: $0.15
Eight brownie points: This pie is not light on cholesterol (nor is it, as you can see, on your wallet). But, when you’re trying to impress, these things are pushed to the side, no? Plus, it’s far from a total wash, nutritionally — it’s asparagus!
Seven maple leaves: Although I’ve been itching to try some of the goat cheese at the Greenmarket, they’re only open Saturdays, and I needed to make this pie on Friday. So I got some chevre and creme fraiche at Trader Joe’s. (I didn’t read the packages thoroughly, so I can’t say much to their environmental/animal friendliness.) Asparagus from the Greenmarket, has been in almost constant supply in my crisper for a while, and the onion and chive plant both came from the same source.