Sooner or later, one of the kids in your life is going to ask you the question you’ve been dreading for years.
“Where do pies come from?”
If your own pie-making experience is limited to some clumsy fumbling in ninth-grade home ec class, you’ll probably try to get away with a very vague answer, like, “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” or, “The store.” But with Thanksgiving coming, I think it’s time we had a talk about an especially sensitive subject: The crust. More specifically, tips and tricks for making great pastry, even if you’ve never succeeded before.
Pie in the sky
Commercially-produced crusts tend to come in two flavors: Chemical, and Bulletproof. There’s a decent chance you think of it as nothing more than a vehicle for the filling. But a good crust is a thing to behold — a toasty golden counterpoint to the sweet filling. It should be feather-light and very flaky; slightly salty, and tender enough to shatter under your fork.
That’s a tall order, and I don’t blame you if you’re skittish. In fact, a lot of people think making pastry from scratch sounds about as fun and relaxing as going to a junior high dance — it tends to evoke the same heady mix of desperate need for approval and sheer terror.
“You should talk about the pressure,” my sister, an excellent baker, told me. “Like how we all want to act like it’s no big deal, but really, it’s a scary disaster.”
“We all want to think we’re Martha Stewart while making a pie,” my cousin, another brilliant baker, replied. “But in reality, you have spilled the flour like, five times, and the dog is licking it, rolling in it and tracking it through the house.”
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Full of hot water
One of my earliest memories is of my mother showing me how to roll out the crust for a peach pie. I’ve baked a hell of a lot of pies since then, most of which relied on a standard formula of “cutting” fat into flour, then blending in ice water one spoonful at a time. I got good at it and began using an ultra-rich, ultra-finicky old Joy of Cooking recipe for pie pastry “cockaigne,” a French word which the authors of the 1964 edition interpreted to mean “anything that would impress the ladies at your Tupperware party.”
The traditional method can make great crust, but it’s a pain, and everything from temperature of your kitchen to the alignment of the planets can make it fall apart. During a recent bout of insomnia, I remembered that I’d once tried another old Joy of Cooking recipe, for “hot water pie crust,” with sort of astounding results. I found a couple recipes on the Internet, tinkered with them, and once again, was kind of blown away. It produced a near-perfect crust, in about half the usual time.
It shouldn’t work. Tradition dictates that the success of your pie pastry hinges on three things: Keeping the fat absolutely cold at all times, using minimal water, and mixing the dough as little as possible. Hot water crust, however, boldly spits in the eye of convention by blending all the fat into an emulsion with plenty of water and vigorous mixing. And, against all expectations, it produces a fantastic crust that’s so easy that even a man can make it — my Beloved, who has never made pie, test-drove the recipe for me, with brilliant results.
Words of wisdom
You don’t have to be the seventh son of a seventh son or sell your soul to the Devil to make good pie. Although it probably wouldn’t hurt, there are a few less drastic measures you can take to increase your chances of success, and decrease your chances of turning your kitchen into a Jackson Pollock painting:
If your dough won’t hold together, it’s probably too dry. Try adding a splash of vodka instead of water. It doesn’t form gluten when mixed with flour, so it will give you a more workable dough without making your crust get tough. The alcohol cooks off.
If it feels “mushy” and keeps falling apart, stick it in the fridge and check it every 10 minutes.
Lard is better than shortening, but either will work well. Real butter on the other hand, is non-negotiable. You cannot make good crust with margarine.
“All butter” crust sounds nice, but butter has a lot of water in it, so it makes for tough, heavy crust. A 50/50 mix of fats produces the best balance of good flavor and flaky texture.
If you plan to do this again, get yourself a “pie cloth” and sleeve for your rolling pin. Just like a baseball player’s lucky socks, pie cloths should never be washed. The more fat and flour they absorb, the better they work. Store them in the freezer between uses.
You can also roll dough out between two big pieces of waxed paper or parchment paper. If you don’t have any, just roll it out on a clean, cool, floured surface.
Use a light touch — the less you handle your pie crust, the more tender it will be.
Keep a glass of ice-water handy, in case you need to make emergency repairs. If something tears, use a little water to wet the edges of the dough, “patch” it with a scrap, and lightly run over it with the rolling pin.
There are many ways to “crimp” the crust, but the easiest it just to press the tines of a fork into the dough. For extra points, you can brush the crust with egg wash and sprinkle a little sugar on it. This gives it a nice golden varnish, but really isn’t necessary.
You can double the recipe, wrap discs of dough in plastic, and freeze them until you need them. Just pull them out of the freezer and let them thaw until the dough is pliable enough to roll.
Makes enough for one double-crust 8” or 9” pie, or two single-crust pies.
7 tbs. Lard or vegetable shortening
7 tbs. Real butter
¼ c. Boiling water
1 tbs. Milk
2 ¼ c. All-purpose flour
½ tsp. Salt
1 tsp. Sugar (optional)
Cut the fats into chunks, and put them in a mixing bowl with the milk. Pour in the boiling water.
Start your electric mixer on low to keep the liquid from splattering all over your shirt. Gradually increase the speed to high.
At first it will seem like a hot mess that is never going to come together. Keep blending. After two or three minutes, it will resemble mayonnaise. Keep going until it looks like soft whipped cream — about five minutes in all.
Turn the mixer off. Add the dry ingredients, and mix on low. Stop as soon as the dough forms a clump in the middle of the bowl.
Turn the dough out onto a clean, floured surface. Gently pat it into a ball. Cut it in half, and put one half in the fridge.
Gently shape the dough into a flat, round disc, and fix any cracks around the edges. Starting in the center, press the rolling pin down lightly, and roll out toward the edge. Pick up it up, and go back to the center. You want to move the rolling pin like the hand of a clock, making slightly overlapping passes, so the dough will stretch more or less evenly in all directions.
Set a pie plate on top of the dough. Cut a circle, leaving a margin of about 1 ½ inches all the way around the plate. Set the plate next to the dough. Set the rolling pin on the dough just below the middle of the circle. Lift up the bottom edge, and drape it over the rolling pin. Lift the pin up, and transfer the dough to the plate. Scoot it until it’s centered, then gently press it into place.
For a single-crust pie: Tuck the edges of the dough under to form the rim, trimming off any excess as needed.
For a double-crust pie: Run a knife around the plate to trim the bottom crust. Moisten the rim of the crust with a little ice water. Pour in the filling.
Roll out the top round, making it about an inch bigger than the pie plate. Drape it over the top and center it, as before.
Tuck the top crust under the edge of the bottom crust. Cut a couple slits in the center to vent the pie. Crimp the edges.