A pie is like any other animal: make it comfortable and, most of the time, it will do what you want it to do. I had always thought that in order to make a great pie, it should be in either a modern oven or a bake oven. Turns out, a pie can turn out just as good in a Dutch oven, too. One just has to know how to make it comfortable.
“Start off by making a good bed of coals for your oven to rest on,” says Susan Kelleher, one of Landis Valley’s interpretive staff, as she arranges a pile of wood in the far corner of the Tavern’s fireplace. She and fellow interpreter Tom Martin prefer sycamore and cherry, as they give off a nice smell. Walnut and elm are frowned upon, as they smoke. Tom strongly opposes the use of charcoal briquettes, as they give off an odor that blocks the taste of the food.
As I’ve taken the Open Hearth Cooking class at Summer Institute before, Susan trusts that I know how to make a pie from scratch (we did this a lot during the class and, I can say with all honesty, I am very comfortable with transferring the dough to the dish now). Visitors have just come in so she sends me to the back room to prepare my pie. I’m making a pumpkin pie today based on the recipe on the back of the Libby’s® solid pack pumpkin can; my only change is that I use pumpkin that I’ve baked and run through the food mill first, so I decrease the amount of condensed milk in the recipe. I prepare both filling and dough, roll said dough flat, and then, as I have just finished rolling my pie dough onto my pin, I stop. What type of dish do I put the pie in?
It turns out that I was right to question this part of the procedure; I should have questioned it before this point, though, to save me the hassle of keeping the dough from dropping off the pin as I dig out a dish. Susan points out that a clay or glass dish works best—do not use metal pie tins in the Dutch oven because your pie will scorch on the bottom. Good to note.
My pie is ready to bake at this point and I carefully bring it out in a beautiful redware dish. I can smell the spices and I can just imagine how it will taste when it’s done. Turns out, I should not have thought so far ahead. Susan smiles, stifles a laugh, and points out that I should have placed the dish into the oven before I poured the filling in. Also good to note for next time.
“Oh, well. It’s just all part of this cooking adventure,” I say to myself as I realize that I forgot to bring my oven mitts. Susan hands me a pair of leather squares like many tavern keepers used before oven mitts.
The Dutch oven, a 10-inch-wide cast-iron pot sitting on an iron trivet, rests on a bed of coals little wider than its bottom. It has a flat top to accommodate another layer of coals.
Carefully, I lift the Dutch oven from its bed and bring it away from the hot fireplace. Even more carefully, I slowly lower my pumpkin pie into the oven. I’m proud of myself. I only spilled a tiny bit and I didn’t burn myself. I replace the lid, pick up the oven, and set it back on the bed; it looks so comfy there.
“Now, put some coals on top,” Susan instructs. As I dig into her carefully tended fire, she says, “You keep the fire in the corner, pull some embers to put over and under the oven, and it cooks in much the same amount of time as a modern oven.” Okay, so it should be about 45 minutes for a pie this size.
“The coals on top help circulate the heat,” Susan says. “Pies need a high heat at first, so the embers on top help, but if you’re making a cake, don’t put a lot on top right away, or it won’t cook right.”
My pie rests comfortably on its bed of coals and so I can rest for a while, too. Susan informs me that this was a popular baking method, especially in colder weather when the heat used to bake would also heat the house a bit. Nowadays, the method is popular with campers, re-enactors, and the Boy Scouts of America.
As we talk, my eyes wander to the coals. Are they too cold? As if reading my thoughts and sensing that I’m getting overly eager, Susan cautions me to resist the urge to pull the embers away and replace them. They should be ready to change when not only do they not glow, but they also look dusty. Even that is not a perfect sign of cool embers, though, and Susan points out that it takes practice to be able to spot a bunch of dead coals.
Eventually, my patience pays off. Roughly 40 minutes later, I push the coals off the lid, lift it, and behold a beautiful little pie. Susan leans over and gently touches the top of the pie to test for doneness, feels resistance, and then gives me the go-ahead to take it out. This is much easier than putting it in, as I just reach in with my leather pot lifters and lift out my pie. It’s best to let it rest for a few hours before cutting it, so it will be ready to eat by tonight’s dinner. After wrapping the pie in a towel, I thank Susan profusely and then really thank her by cleaning up after myself before I leave.
Outside the Tavern, I lift the warm pie to my nose and savor this experience; it’s not every day your meal brings its own story to the table.
With the right fireplace or campfire and the right tools, anyone can do Dutch oven cooking. Both Susan and Tom recommend baking in a Dutch oven between 10” and 12” equipped with a flat top, a handle, and a trivet on the bottom. You can get them from the following Lancaster County retailers:
Redware pie plates are available at the Weathervane Museum Store. They are made by local craftspeople and are coated with a non-toxic finish, which makes them ideal for baking.
Baking pies in the Dutch oven opens up a whole new world of baking fun. For more information on Dutch oven cooking, check out the article, “Seven Secrets of Dutch Oven Cooking,” by Roger L. Beattie. Landis Valley’s Open Hearth Cooking class is coming up, too. For those who’ve taken the introductory course at Summer Institute, there are still some spaces left for the advanced course during Winter Institute. Click here for more information.