Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Pie Crust, Conquered.

Before this weekend, I cannot tell you how many times I tried to make pie crust and had it turn out crappy. It was tough and chewy, it shrank and slumped down into the pan, even with the weights in place. Eventually, I just gave up. I didn't make a lot of pies. When I had to, I used Pillsbury pie crust mix or those refrigerated ready made ones at Traders Joes. This summer though, with pie season looming - I decided it was time to finally, once and for all - master this essential baking skill.

Pie crust is one of those things that people think you have to be some sort of baking genius (or somebody's grandma) to make, but it's not actually all that difficult. The most important thing is not to be intimidated, and to understand why you are doing what you're doing. In baking that really is the key - the why, not the how.

So, how did I figure it out? I hauled out the Joy of Cooking, my favorite all-around go-to cookbook - and I followed their instructions step by step. Or at least, by looking at their step by step instructions, I figured out what I had been doing wrong all this time.
There are three essential steps to pie crust making - blending the butter and the flour mixture together, binding the dough with a little bit of water, and resting it for at least half an hour. During all of this time, it is essential that the dough stays chilled to keep the butter firm. The flaky, tender texture comes from having those butter bits melt in the oven - pushing the flour up and away.

Though the Joy of Cooking recipe called for a pastry blender, I decided to rub the butter into the flour by hand. The goal is to thoroughly coat the flour with the butter, leaving some larger pieces to create little pockets of steam. The rubbed-in butter gives the crust tenderness, while the bits of butter make it flaky. Your hands are the perfect tool for this - and it's fun.

The next step of the recipe calls for adding a small amount of ice water to the dough - just enough, not too much or the crust will be tough thanks to the formation of glutens, proteins in the flour. The just enough depends on a number of factors - the moisture already in the flour, the ambient moisture in the air, the water content of your butter, etc. Still, it all sounds trickier than it is. Just make yourself a little glass of ice water, and add a bit at a time until the dough holds together when pressed together. This is where I was going wrong all this time. I was just adding enough water so that it would come together in a ball on its own. I was also giving it a knead or two - what the French supposedly do, but I've now learned. Non. Do not try it. It will only make your crust tough.

When you've added the right amount of water, and the dough is willing to come together, but not so moist that it's sticky or smooth, take it out of your bowl, shape it into a flat disk, and wrap it in plastic. Refrigerate it for at least half an hour - or even longer. Then you're ready to roll it out. Before we get into the rolling and baking though, let's go ahead and look at the actual recipe. Here it is, as I modified it from the Joy of Cooking's original method:
Garden Dinner Party 6.12.10
Flaky Pastry Dough
adapted from the Joy of Cookingmakes two standard sized 9 inch crusts - enough for two single crust pies, or one double crust pie.

2 1/2 cups organic all purpose flour (measured with the scoop and level method)
1 Tablespoon granulated sugar (preferably bakers sugar or superfine)
1 generous teaspoon flaky sea salt, rubbed between your fingers
2 sticks of cold organic butter (The higher the butterfat content, the better. I use Strauss)

1/2 cup ice water plus 1-2 Tablespoons (you probably won't use it all)

To prepare the butter, slice it into 1/4 inch pieces, then dice crosswise until you have uniform pieces about 1/2 an inch square.

Place the flour, salt and sugar in a bowl and mix thoroughly with a whisk or fork.

Add the butter to the bowl and toss lightly to coat it with flour, then start flattening each piece between your fingers. Once you've flattened all the pieces, continue to pinch and rub the butter and flour together between your fingers - picking up plenty of flour to avoid any sticking or melting. As you work, periodically stir the dry flour up from the bottom of the bowl and toss the whole mixture lightly. Continue pinching and rubbing the butter and flour together and lightly tossing the mixture until you have a mixture that looks like coarse breadcrumbs with about 10% -15% pea-sized or smaller pieces. It should feel soft and light, not greasy or heavy.

Drizzle the half cup of ice water over the mixture all at once, and using a spatula or large wooden spoon, stir the water into the mixture and start to gather it together - it will start to form small balls about an inch across. Stir just enough to incorporate the water evenly. When you feel like the water has been absorbed, gather the mixture together gently with your hands and push down on it. If it seems dry or crumbly and falls apart easily, add a tiny bit more water and mix it in lightly with your hand. The finished product should seem rough and a bit dry - but it should hold together reasonably well. Don't add too much water or overwork the dough though. If it gets sticky or elastic, you have formed glutens and your crust will be tough. *Note* - if you are doubling this recipe, you may not need exactly twice the amount of water - it's not necessarily going to take twice as much to get the flour moist enough. I'd pour in 1/2 to 3/4 cup, then go by feel from there.

Gather the finished dough into two equally sized pieces, flatten them gently into disks about 1 1/2 inches thick, and refrigerate for at least thirty minutes.

Now let's talk about the rolling and the baking. The key here, I think - is patience. It may take a while for your dough to soften enough to roll. On the other hand, if it's warm in the kitchen - it might get too soft, and you might have to wait for it to chill down to start again. It's just the way it goes, and you'll never be sorry you spent the extra time to get it right.

Rolling the dough is pretty straightforward. You want the dough to be chilled but pliable - if it's too cold it will be hard to roll evenly, and will be prone to cracking and breaking. If it's too warm, you'll lose your nice chunks of butter in there, and it will stick badly. When you can bend your flattened disk without breaking it - it's ready.

Put a small amount of flour on your smooth surface (too much is better than too little, especially if you're just starting out) and start rolling from the center out to the edges, trying to maintain an even round shape. Try to push the dough away from the center, out toward the edges, rather than pushing down. Dust excess flour off of the top of the dough, and check continuously to make sure it's not sticking - a spatula is good for this. Flip it over once or twice while rolling to evenly distribute the flour on both sides, dusting off the excess on top as you roll. (Otherwise you'll have a ton on one side and none on the other.)

When it's a little thicker than 1/4 inch, check to see if it will fill out your pan. (For half of this recipe, stick with a plain, 9 inch metal pie pan - most ceramic and glass pans are larger or deeper than that and you'll need more dough.) To transfer the dough, lay it across your rolling pin and set it in the pan. You shouldn't have to stretch it to cover the edges, but you might have to trim it to fit. If it isn't perfectly shaped, can use a little water to pinch some trimmed pieces in to fill in patches (I had to do this with both of mine.) Forming a decorative edge is a bit beyond what we're doing here - but you can push in with one finger on one side and pinch on the other side to create a ruffled edge, or use a fork to create a pattern. There are some good examples and illustrations in the Joy of Cooking if you have a copy.

If you're baking the crust right away for filling, put the finished crust in the fridge for another half hour before baking, and start preheating your oven to 400 degrees.

If you are baking a filled two crust pie, you can just use the chilled prepared crust as directed in your recipe.

To blind bake the crust for filling later, place the crust on a baking sheet, line it with foil - making sure the edges are covered when the foil is flat against the crust, and fill it with beans or ceramic pie weights - pushing them to the edges. (I used weights.) Bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, until the edges start to turn golden. Remove the weights and the foil, prick the crust all over with a fork to prevent puffing, and bake another 10 minutes - until it turns a nice deep golden brown. Cool on a rack for at least thirty minutes or so. When the crust is cool, it's ready for filling.

I did Lemon Meringue and German Chocolate pies - pictured above. The Lemon Meringue recipe from the Joy of Cooking and is sublime. (I used their Soft Meringue method No. 1 and it worked perfectly.) The German Chocolate recipe was good too, but the recipe needs a little work. It was too dark, and just tasted like pudding - I was hoping for something with a little more of a buttery flavor - like the pie they used to serve at Furr's Cafeterias (and maybe they still do.) When I figure it out, I'll let you know!


  1. You've inspired me to tackle and hopefully, conquer my fear of pie crusts. Great helpful hints! The pies look delicious.

  2. Darlene - I am so glad - I hope it works for you!

  3. My mother makes amazing pie crust. I grew up in England, where just about everybody made it. I never could master it though, mine was always too sticky. Finally gave up and buy the 'already made' :) Glad you figured it out though, LOL.

  4. Yay, perfect pie crust! I adore pies and I'm not scared of the crust but you know what my biggest summer fear is? The grill. I need to get over it, pronto! I'm dying to make grilled beets with goat cheese but I'm too scared of the actual grill.

  5. And I was like drooling over the photo. The photo was beautiful.

  6. Would you share the recipe for those gorgeous pies in the pictures?