It's As "Easy" as Pie?

     In summer when the peaches and the berries are in season, what better excuse can there be to make a pie? Apple and pumpkin pies are Thanksgiving classics and...well, there are pie fillings for all seasons. There is however, the important matter of the pie crust. Without it, you simply don’t have a pie, but certain bakers, even ones who think nothing of whipping out a Baked Alaska in an afternoon, view pie crust with such anxiety that you might as well tell them to play the violin in public and teach themselves as they go along.    

     Entire cookbooks have been devoted  to baking, so I won’t try to compete in a mere blog.  But here are a few things I’ve learned about producing that gold standard of baking—the delicate, flaky pie crust. I use the recipe and technique I learned from my mother who is an ace pie baker.

The dough proportions are:
2 ½ cups flour
1 tsp salt
12 TBs of shortening (I use Crisco) added in two batches of 6 Tbs.
4to 6 TBS ice water.  Pour a little water into a cup or bowl and let it get cold in the freezer.
*Vodka—see below.  (No, you don’t get to drink it yet.)

     No, this is not low-fat. If  I want to be healthy, I’ll eat broccoli. But I won’t futz around or compromise when it comes to making pie.

   For equipment, you’ll need a large mixing bowl, a pastry blender, a basic table fork, measuring cups and spoons. For rolling out, you’ll need a rolling pin, a pastry board or Silpat mat, a narrow spatula and of course, a pie pan or two. A pastry blender looks like this, and it’s my favorite tool for cutting shortening into flour. Buy one with blades rather than wires, it will be sturdier and work much better.

     First of all, don't let yourself get discouraged. Practice and persistence really do  matter in pie baking, and your 20th pie will be much better than your first. I’m at the stage when my pie crusts succeed more often than they fail, but I still have to concentrate when I make one. Secondly, pie dough benefits from cool temperatures, ingredients and cool work surfaces and hands.  So don’t turn on your oven until the crust is made.  Whenever you’re not mixing or rolling it out, let your pie dough chill in the refrigerator.

     Combine the flour and salt in your mixing bowl then add the first  6 Tbs of the shortening. Use  the pastry blender  in a back-to front rolling motion 2 or three times,  then reposition  it in  a new direction and repeat the rolling motion. Keep moving it all around the bowl until the flour and shortening mix is even and fairly fine, like coarse, damp beach sand. Scrape the pastry blender around the sides and bottom of the bowl every now and then to make sure everything gets well and evenly combined
     Add the next 6 Tbs of shortening, cutting them into the flour in the same way until the shortening blobs are about the size of peas. Again, scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl once in a while to make sure you haven’t missed any shortening or flour.

     Next, add the ice water 1 TB at a time, sprinkling it on while  using the fork to lightly combine it with the flour and shortening.  Once all the water is added, use your clean hands, fingers pressed  together, to gather the dough together as if it were a snowball you’re planning to throw. Work quickly but gently.  The paradox of  pie dough is that your hands are your  best tools at this stage, but the less you handle your dough, the better your finished pie crust will be. If the dough is still too dry and crumbly, add the secret weapon—*1 -2 TBS of vodka.  Vodka does not create gluten when combined with flour as water does, and the alcohol taste gets baked off, but it gives you that extra bit of moisture you might need to bring it all together.
    Shape the dough into a thick disk, wrap it in waxed paper, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out.  For a two crust pie, cut the dough into not quite equal halves and return the smaller portion to the refrigerator—that’s your top crust. Use plenty of flour on the board and rolling pin, and roll from the center outward, changing directions slightly with each pass.  When the dough circle is  much thinner and about an inch wider than the pie pan all around, curl one edge of your pie dough up around the rolling pin and keep rolling it up  as you use the spatula to free it from the pastry board  if it’s sticking anywhere. Move the pie pan into position underneath, then lower the rolling pin, and unroll the dough from around it. Move the dough in the pan until it covers the bottom and sides, and don’t worry if it tore a bit when you moved it.

     Go around the edge of your pie pan and trim off any excess dough with the edge of your spatula. Then with a little bit of water and your finger tip, use the trimmed dough to patch up any holes or cracks in the bottom and sides of the pie.  Beauty is unimportant in a bottom crust but you don’t want big cracks or holes  that can let the filling leak out. If you have your pie filling ready, go ahead and add it now, then put the pie in the refrigerator while you roll out the top crust. Use the same method with the rolling pin and spatula to position the top crust over the filling. Trim the edges, and patch the dough where needed. Then pinch the two crusts together. Crimp the edges by pushing down with your index and middle fingers on top,  using your thumb underneath to push the dough up  between them.

     Brush the top crust with a bit of milk or a bit of egg white, cut some pretty shapes with cookie cutters if you have extra dough to decorate it. And make a few decorative cuts in the top crust to let the steam escape. Bake according to your filling recipe directions.  For fruit pies, it’s good to have a cookie sheet on the rack below the pie pan to catch any drips.  It’s not too late to let the pie take one last cooling off in the fridge before baking. It lets the gluten relax and cold shortening and oven heat create  steam that makes for a flaky pie crust.

     Serve to your  family or guests, and accept their fawning praise graciously.  You deserve it, because you have just produced a real home-made PIE, crust and all.
For further pie lore and filling ideas here are some cook books from our collection you may find helpful:
  Pie It Forward


A Year of Pies

The Little Book of Pies and Tarts

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