a blackberry pie for michaelmas + a perfect pie crust

Autumn arrived like it had a mind to. All summer my beloved PNW has been sweating a kind of long-drawn heat that these forests and lakes simply weren’t built for. Every morning was a frenetic celebration of sunshine, and I felt these prodding, guilting urge to live each bright hour to the fullest–outside, all day, go, more, savor–like some bacchanal of heat and light and ocean and dry earth.

Day seeped into day, then weeks, and I began to long for cloudy skies and the scent of rain and damp pavement. I yearned for cool mornings cloaked in fog, and I dreamed of curling up in sweaters, a stack of blankets and a mountain of books at my elbow. Then, all at once, it happened.

In the days leading up to the autumnal equinox, the heat slowly dissipated, the parched earth drank fresh rain, and on the day itself Autumn left no one in doubt she had returned to Seattle. She is always so graceful: a deep in-breath of cool evening when the fairgrounds have stilled and home-lights stir memories, calling all prodigals home.

All around, the secular world seems to be waking up. School’s begun and soccer season, and if you listen to the culture’s call, you might think summer was still singing its siren song, urging us to fill every waking moment with smiles and bustle and action…but if you listen closely to the wind in the trees, to the still small voice in the liturgy, to the dying of the leaves, you’ll hear a music that is altogether different: a melancholic descant, reminding us of the beauty in letting go.

This coming Friday marks the Feast of the Archangels, formerly known (in Britain, at least) as Michaelmas. It’s a day when we recall the might of heaven, the battle of good versus evil, and the surety that–even in the overwhelm, brokenness, and volatility of this life–God triumphs. It is a day when we recall that there are beings greater than ourselves, and they are fighting our battles right beside us, such weak and unworthy creatures as we are. It is a day when we recall the words, the sweet words of relief God spoke through the mouthpiece of a weary man, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.

On that day we look back on the plenty of summer: the days so full of sunlight and revelry that we almost began to take them for granted. On that day we remember that we are small–and that our God is great and gracious. On that day we celebrate the end of one season, the start of another, the knowledge that both these things and indeed all time is bound together with eternity, a thing we can dare to hope for because we hope in Christ.

There is an old legend that when Satan fell from Heaven, he tumbled into a bramble patch and cursed forever the blackberries that grew there. It’s considered bad luck to pick blackberries after Michaelmas Day, but it’s also traditional to serve blackberries on this day. In doing so, we recall that God is almighty, that evil has no place with him, and that all he has created is good–provided we use it rightly. So in honor of that allegorical anecdote, I share with you this recipe: a blackberry pie fit for angels + a perfect, flaky pie crust.

I can’t take credit for the crust; it was my grandmother’s recipe. She taught me to make it on Thanksgiving mornings, using no recipe, only memory and the feel of the dough in her fingertips. These days, I make it in a food processor, a device Grandma never used but I think would have approved of. She was always practical and, in later years,  a devotee of the electric can opener. It’s easy to whip up a day ahead, so getting a pie in the oven on feast day is less of a project and more of a pleasure.

The blackberry filling is scrumptious and jammy. I like mine on the tarter side, but if you use freshly picked wild berries like I do, you will need a bit more sugar. You could do a simple double-crust, but I love the way the jewel bright berries peek out through the latticework, and I use the scraps for leaves which seem to right this time of year. A sprinkling of sugar makes the whole thing sparkle, an extra special centerpiece for your Michaelmas Day table.

The Humble Baker’s Perfect Pie Crust

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons butter, chilled and cubed
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 -2/3 cups ice water

Combine the first 4 ingredients in the bowl of a food processor; pulse a few times until the mixture is sandy and there are no bits of butter or shortening larger than a pea. Slowly add in the ice water, pulsing, just until the dough comes together.

Divide dough in 2 portions and flatten into discs. Wrap both portions in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or up to 3 days.

A Blackberry Pie for Michaelmas

5 cups blackberries
1/2 – 3/4 cups sugar 
(depending on tartness of berries, see above note)
4 Tablespoons tapioca, ground with mortar and pestle or blitzed in food processor until fine
1/4 teaspoon almond extract

1 Perfect Pie Crust
1 egg yolk, blended with 1 Tablespoon water (for glazing)
1 Tablespoon sugar, preferably unrefined (for topping)

In a large bowl, combine the berries, sugar, tapioca, and almond extract. Set aside until ready to bake; refrigerate if you plan to leave the mixture for more than 15 minutes, up to 1 hour.

When ready to bake, set your dough portions on the counter to warm up slightly while you grease a 9″ pie dish. Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 400 degrees F.

On a lightly floured surface, with a floured rolling pin, roll out one portion of dough until it is approximately 11″ in diameter. Fold the dough halfway over the rolling pin to transfer it to the pie dish, unrolling the folded half midway across the pie dish so that it fits evenly. Trim overhang to 1/2 inch.

Spoon in filling, then repeat with the second portion of dough. Top your filling with the second crust, trim edges to 1 inch and fold edges over the bottom crust edge to seal. Flute edges as desired. Alternately, slice the dough into lattice pieces and weave over filling to create a latticework crust. Brush upper crust with egg mixture, dust with sugar.

Bake pie in center of oven for 30 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees F, and continue baking for an additional 30 minutes, until filling is bubbling. Cool at least 1 hour before serving.

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