After decades of lurking unassumingly on windowsills and in bakery windows, pie has attracted a surprising amount of controversy in recent years. First came pie vs. cake, an Internet meme that began in a spirit of self-conscious frivolity but somehow morphed into a form of self-serious, breathtakingly stupid frivolity. Then came the monstrous pie-cake hybrid known as the Pumpple Cake, which swept through the food blogosphere a couple of years ago, horrifying all honest pie lovers along the way. Finally, a year ago, my colleague Nathan Heller wrote an astonishingly libelous takedown of pie in which he described a piece of fruit pie as “a miniature apocalypse of broken pastry parts and heat-blitzed fruit.”
With all due respect to Mr. Heller, I do wonder if perhaps he has never had good fruit pie. It is true that many pies are an unfortunate combination of gloppy, too-sweet fruit and cardboard-like, too-bland crust. But pie can easily be much, much better. All you have to do is forget about the double crust and put some streusel on it instead.
Because the problem with fruit pie is that the fruit often comes encased in far too much crust. Some misguided bakers throw an entire second crust on top of the fruit and cut a few slits in it to let the steam escape; other vain sticklers attempt a lattice crust, the most crazy-making, least rewarding culinary activity known to man. Granted, both of these top-crust methods look all right—unfortunately, they taste like nothing special. Face it: pie crust is not an exciting pastry. It contains only flour, fat, and salt, and its purpose is primarily architectural: to provide a solid foundation for pie filling. And so to smother fruit with an extra batch of pie crust as though it’s some kind of gastronomic pièce de résistance is to miss the point entirely.
Streusel, by contrast, is everything you want on top of your pie: sweet, spicy, crunchy, cookie-like. Streusel is the German crumble topping made of flour (or, better, rolled oats), butter, sugar, nuts, and cinnamon or other spices. The English strew comes from the same root, and that is what you do with streusel: strew it on top of whatever you’re baking so that it turns golden brown and crisp in the oven, like granola, only sweeter and more buttery.
With streusel, you are pretty much guaranteed a wonderful pie every time. But there are few other things to keep in mind when making pie on the Fourth of July or any other festive summer occasion. First, reports of pie crust’s difficulty have been greatly exaggerated: It takes just a few minutes to make the dough and another few minutes to roll it out. (Most of the time you will invest in your pie crust will be refrigerating it in between these two steps; cold dough is easier to roll out.) There is no reason not to make your own pie crust unless you are a wuss.
Second, you can put virtually any stone fruit (peaches, plums, nectarines, cherries) or berry in a streusel-topped pie. But the ideal filling is a combination of peaches and raspberries, and I suspect Warrant would have called its most famous song “Peach-Raspberry Pie” if that phrase contained fewer syllables. Fresh peaches are a bit of a hassle to prepare for pie—you have to blanch them in boiling water, which loosens their skin, and then you have to peel and slice them—but frozen peaches are indistinguishable from fresh in the final product.
Third, ice cream is not a bad idea. Mr. Heller has such an ugly way of describing the appearance of pie à la mode that I won’t even quote it here. But any reasonable person—anyone who has tasted good fruit pie—knows that the only thing that can improve it is a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Peach and Raspberry Pie With Oat Streusel Topping
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Time: 1¼ to 1½ hours, partially unattended
1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out the pie crust
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) cold unsalted butter
½ teaspoon salt
1 pound frozen sliced peaches, thawed, or 1½ pounds fresh peaches
1 cup frozen raspberries, thawed, or fresh raspberries
½ cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ cup rolled oats
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup chopped pecans
1. Heat the oven to 375°F. Put 1 cup of the flour, 6 tablespoons of the butter, and the salt in a medium bowl; blend with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add 2 tablespoons cold water and stir until the mixture forms a ball. (If the mixture is too crumbly, add an additional 1 tablespoon cold water.) Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you prepare the filling and topping.
2. If you’re using fresh peaches, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cut a small X in the flower (non-stem) end of each peach. Add the peaches to the boiling water and cook for 1 minute, then remove and rinse with cold water. Peel and slice the peaches.
3. Put the peaches, raspberries, powdered sugar, and lemon juice in a large bowl with ¼ cup of the flour and ½ teaspoon of the cinnamon. Stir gently to combine.
4. Put the oats, brown sugar, and pecans in a medium bowl with the remaining ¼ cup flour, 6 tablespoons butter, and ½ teaspoon cinnamon. Blend with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
5. Unwrap the dough and place it on a lightly floured surface. With a rolling pin, roll out the dough until it’s approximately 11 inches in diameter. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie plate; trim any dough that hangs over the edges of the plate and discard the scraps. Transfer the peach mixture to the crust, and sprinkle the oat mixture over the peach mixture. Bake the pie until the topping and edges are golden brown, 40 to 45 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature. (Store leftover pie in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few days.)