Chocolate Pie with a Leaf Lard Crust

I have been in a period of pie paralysis. I find pie crusts intimidating, really. That is why so many of my pies involve graham cracker crusts. But I am so in love with the idea of pie that I really want to be great at it. I want to spin around my kitchen with a zippy little apron on, with flour in my hair, pulling a beautiful double crusted affair out of the oven at just the precise moment. I have been pretty content with the fantasy.

I’m quite excited because I have found a pie crust that has made me want to re-start my serious pie work.  It is a crust recipe that was settled on after a great deal of delicious research by Seattle culinary notable, Jon Rowley and his former wife, Kate McDermott. Though I have been following, and chatting with Jon on Twitter for ages, I did not realize until a few days ago that he had been married to Kate McDermott, whom I also began to follow recently. Jon is someone I end up quoting every time the words “salmon” or “oysters” leave my mouth. They worked together for several years on a pie recipe that yielded this crust. I have been talking to Jon about the Quintessential American Apple Pie that has been the subject of his attention for several years. In a few weeks, I hope to show you that pie. He has spent a great deal of time describing it to me. And, I will try to re-create it, or at least a close approximation of it (since I do not live in the heirloom apple capital of the universe). The story of the pie is fascinating. For now, though, you can start playing with the crust preparation for that estimable pie, with this fantastic chocolate pie recipe.

I’m starting to think the Northwest has a disproportionate share of the world’s food talent and certainly some of the nicest food experts around. It is like Texas, but with a lot more rain…and squid…and heirloom apples.

Approaching this recipe, I found myself extremely excited about making a crust the honest and original way…with lard. These days when you come across a recipe that uses rendered pig fat you will find it called “leaf lard” which, the first time I saw the term, I assumed was some exotic plant based ingredient that I wasn’t cool enough to have encountered yet. In fact, the “leaf” bit refers to the anatomical area from which the fat is rendered. I am just barely young enough that my entire life of baking involves the “blue can” and we have sanitized our brains and bodies from the idea of lard, which is frankly a little odd when you think about it. But, my mother clearly remembers her own father rendering pig fat at their home, and looked back on it as a man’s post-depression-era exercise in frugality. My mom is a bona fide health nut and is a little grossed out by the memory. I, a sort of new school admirer of the old school traditions, find it to be, in a word…bad-to-the-bone in the most excellent way.

I have read that lard is actually better for you than butter, and I think I can say with confidence that it is more beneficial than the “blue can.” Let me be blunt. I am not a scientist and the science of fats is complex. But suffice to say that because a fat is saturated does not mean it is a trans-fat. And fat that has NOT been hydrogenated may not be great for you, but it is not evil, either. Many assert that there are actually benefits associated with the moderate consumption of natural fats, which I strongly believe. What is the take-home point from this…1) pie isn’t health food so what are you worried about? 2) I use the “blue can“ on occasion. And, 3) there is no basis for being “grossed out” by the use of leaf lard or, generally speaking, pig lard in a pie crust. Our grandmothers did it. Our great grandmothers did it. And frankly, I like the ethic of using what is usable on an animal. Enough about that.

I really worried that I was going to have a hard time finding leaf lard in Dallas, Texas. But it helps to have good friends and I knew where to start…which turned out to be where the search ended. I dropped an email to Karl Kuby, Jr., the proprietor of the family owned German restaurant, butcher shop and grocery, Kuby’s, asking him if he knew where I could put my hands on some leaf lard. I should have known they would something close. They do…freezer section…and in good German tradition, it is called Schweineschmaltz. I love the name Schweineschmalz. It doesn’t put the pig in a dress, so to speak. It celebrates the piggy goodness of the fat. In case you are wondering, using lard in a pie, does not make the pie taste like bacon or ham….at all. So do yourself a favor, call your reputable butcher and track down some leaf lard. It made the best pie crust I have ever made in my life, and a rather well behaved one (the crust, not me), too. (See note for a good source for lard and other information on obtaining it.) 
If you cannot find leaf lard, and you do not want to order it, feel free to use an equal amount of shortening. This chocolate pie filling recipe is adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s The Best Recipe. The whipped cream is merely whipping cream sweetened with confectioner’s sugar, to taste. And the chocolate sprinkles are from the King Arthur Baking Catalog (the ones I bought several months ago are similar to these). This recipe makes enough for 2 crusts or one double crust. This is a one crust pie. You will need to think long and hard about what to do with your other crust, but I bet your neighbor could give you a hint (make 2 and give one away, perhaps).

The Crust:

2-½ cups all purpose flour (King Arthur is recommended…red bag)
½ teaspoon salt
8 Tablespoons butter (Kerrygold is recommended…European butters have a relatively higher fat content…very nice)
8 Tablespoons leaf lard (really…try it if you can find it)
Very cold water

1. Measure the flour and salt into a bowl and put it in the freezer to chill. Cut up the butter and lard and return it to the refrigerator until you are ready to begin. Prepare a small bowl of ice water, being careful that you don’t actually measure any ice into your flour when the time comes. Jon even keeps his flour, butter and lard in the freezer. I will try that next time. But the main point is that you want cold ingredients, you want cold hands, and you want to work fast.

2. With your hands, work the fats into the flour until you have little clumps ranging from small to pea size. Add water, by measuring in 8 Tablespoons of the cold water and mixing it in to the dough. Squeeze a handful of the dough and if it holds together easily, you are done. If not, sprinkle on tablespoons of cold water, one at a time. Squeeze again. If it holds together, you are finished. This is variable and dependent on how your particular bowl of dough is behaving. I used about 8 tablespoons and probably should have used 9. Pull the dough together and compress it into a ball. Divide the dough in half and pat the dough into two disks. Wrap them in plastic wrap and put the dough into the refrigerator to rest and chill for an hour, and up to 3 (you may chill a bit too during this period).

3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

4. With a floured rolling pin, roll out the crust into a circle about 2 inches bigger than your pie pan. Carefully transfer the dough to the pie pan and gently ease it into place (don’t stretch it). Trim the edges, leaving enough over-hang to make a nice edge and then shape the edge as you please using a fork or with your fingers to make a wavy sort of edge. Artist’s choice. At this point I recommend putting the pie pan back in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

5. Place parchment on top of the dough and fill the parchment gently with pie weights or with dried beans. Place the pan in the oven and bake it for about 20 minutes. Then gently remove the weights by lifting out the parchment and allow the crust to bake for approximately another 10 to 15 minutes or until it is a deep golden brown. Don’t come this far and let the crust burn. Pay loads of attention to it in the last 10 minutes.

6. Remove the crust from the oven and allow it to cool to room temperature.

The Filling:

½ cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
Dash of salt
5 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 cups milk
½ cup evaporated milk
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken up
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1-½ cups whipping cream
2 Tablespoons (approx.) confectioner’s sugar

1. Combine the sugar, cornstarch, cocoa and salt in a small saucepan.  Whisk in the egg yolks and then immediately, but gradually, whisk in the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until the mixture begins to simmer. This takes 7 to 8 minutes. Once the mixture simmers, cook for an additional minute, stirring constantly. Over the course of about 1 minute the mixture goes from thin to thick, and you will want to be stirring constantly when it “goes thick.” Remove the pan from the heat and add in the butter, bittersweet chocolate and vanilla. Stir the mixture until the chocolate is melted and thoroughly combined.

2. Now, you will want to pour this chocolate filling into a shallow dish to cool a bit. Another pie pan works great, but do NOT put it into the baked crust yet. Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the filling to prevent a skin from forming as it cools. Allow to cool for 20 to 30 minutes.

3. Now you can scrape the filling into the pie shell and smooth the surface. Again, place a piece of plastic wrap over the filling and place the pie in the refrigerator to cool thoroughly, about 4 hours.

4. When the pie is cooled, whip about 1-½ cups of whipping cream until medium peaks form. Add 2 Tablespoons of confectioner’s sugar (or to taste) and continue to whip until strong peaks form. Remove the plastic wrap from the chocolate pie and apply the whipped cream. If you choose to, you can add sprinkles on top, or shave off slivers from a chocolate bar with a vegetable peeler for a little touch of chocolate on top.

Eat eat eat!!! And let me know if you try the lard.

NOTE: I found it supremely gratifying to make the pie dough with my hands and not a food processor. Try it, enjoy it, feel it. The flour is so silky and cold. It is a unique experience. And, regarding Kuby’s…if you are wondering if I am biased, I am. I love the store. I love the food. I love the selections of German products. I love that Karl, Jr. has handpicked 5 rich European butters to carry in the cold case, along with just enough fresh produce and dairy goods. And, I love that they have a big case of prepared meals for those days when I am flat out too tired to cook. Try the twice baked potatoes. Suffice to say, that just because I’m openly biased and the Kuby’s are friends doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Go. I don’t buy the shweineschmaltz for pastry dough anymore as I have found several sources for pure leaf lard that I prefer, but you can’t beat Kuby’s for a million other things.

Jon’s website is called The Beautiful Taste.

Kate McDermott’s website is called The Art of Pie.

NOTE on LEAF LARD: another source of leaf lard which was strongly recommended by Jon and Kate, both, is Dietrich’s Meats in Krumsville, Pennsylvania. They do not take internet orders. But call them, send them a check, and they will send you beautiful, white, creamy leaf lard. Here I am saying it, this lard is beautiful. This takes some planning, but it keeps in the freezer for a year. Order some and try it. Update: If you are feeling ambitious and can find a source of fresh leaf lard (unrendered fat), you can render your own. See this post on Rendering Leaf Lard if you are up to the challenge.

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