Saturday, April 15, 2017

Pie Pastry- The Right Technique for the Best Pie Crust

Pie is among my favorite desserts. A fresh berry pie in spring, fruit in the summer/fall and the cream varieties throughout the winter always hit the spot. Pie also seems to impress in ways that cakes do not. But as my mother used to say, making great pie pastry is something that comes best from experience, which means making pies regularly. She baked pie every week, and didn't have a food processor, yet her crusts were perfection!

Julian's Apple Pie with Lattice Pastry
This recipe is for pie dough, pie crust or pie pastry... all the names used for pie making. Don't confuse it with classic tart doughs, often just called 'pastry dough'. When people say pastry dough, they are likely talking about what the French call pâte sucrée and pâte sablée. While these are similar to a finished pie crust (what the French call (pâte brisée), pastry dough contains more sugar and incorporates eggs into the recipe. The mixing method and addition of egg to the batter makes this dough more forgiving than pie crust dough. When making pie crust dough, there is a delicate balance of fat, moisture and mixing method that must be followed in order to achieve optimal results, which is more time consuming than a pastry dough.

Like much in baking, practice and sticking to a strict recipe is required for pie crust success. After you make the pie pastry several times you get a feel for exactly the right consistency. You know when it's got just the right amount of water. And you know not to over-handle it. Pie fillings are relatively simple and have some wiggle room in making. Pie crust does not. You want a flaky, light crust and that doesn't happen by accident.

A good option if you don't make pies regularly.
You can purchase a perfectly good pie dough at the store. If you don't plan to make pies regularly, this may be your best choice.

Below I provide you with my preferred pie crust recipe and technique, which is largely that of the good chefs at Cook's Illustrated. It contains the 'secret ingredient'; vodka. This is not my mother's recipe. There’s a whole science to pie crust and the secret to making a good one lies in achieving the right ratio of flour, liquid and fat. Of course blending water and flour creates gluten, which toughens the dough. So, accordingly to Cook's Illustrated, using a hard liquor such as vodka--since 80 proof vodka is only 60% water, combines the dough but doesn’t contribute as much to gluten formation while leaving no unwanted flavor. It seems to work.

Choose The Type of Crust:  Determine the type of crust you want based on the filling of the pie. Flaky crusts are best for fruit pies. For cream or custard pies, a more dense crust is best (it won’t get moist as the pie sits). Flaky crusts are made by leaving larger pieces of fat in the crust – the size of macadamia nuts or smaller. These large pieces of fat begin to evaporate moisture when the pie goes into the oven, creating steam which forms pockets in the crust making it flaky.  More dense crusts are made by mixing the fat into smaller pieces -- the size of peas or smaller.

Butter vs. Shortening: The texture and flavor of your pie crust depends on the fat you use. Using butter (some or all) in your crust provides the most flavorful crust. However, butter melts easily when handling and makes your crust a bit more tough than if you use just shortening. In my go-to recipe below, I use a combination of vegetable shortening and butter. Most store bought crusts and likely those your mother made in the 50's or 60's use only vegetable shortening, as it provides the ultimate flaky almost cracker like crust. However, if you mother was from the 'old country', she knew that lard (fat from the abdomen of a pig that is rendered and clarified) makes an incredible pastry crust. It chills nicely and doesn’t break down under heat as quickly as butter and makes for a relatively flaky crust, more flavorful than vegetable shortening, but still not as good as butter.

Julian's Cherry Pie with Full Top Crust
Let me also give you a couple tips on baking the pie, which are just as important.

Baking Tips: Place your prepared crusts (homemade or store bought) in a glass Pyrex pie plate. Ceramic pie plates, lovely as they may be, do not give you the best results. Pre-heat your oven with a baking steel, ceramic pizza stone or cookie sheet on the bottom shelf. This is where you will bake your pie. The heat of the surface will help to brown and cook your crust so it comes out flaky on the bottom; not moist and gummy.  If you need to finish the pie in the broiler, move it up to the top shelf when you are ready for browning the top. Also, don't over-handle the dough. Your warm hands will melt the pockets of fat, which will take away from the flakiness. Refrigerate frequently if necessary to keep the dough cool. In the recipe below you'll note everything is marked as 'cold'. This does not mean room temperature. It means, refrigerated thoroughly before use.

Pie Pastry

Ingredients 

2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup cold vodka
1/4 cup cold water

In your food processor, pulse 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until dough just starts to collect in clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble large cottage cheese curds and there should be no un-coated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl. (Note if making crust for a cream or custard pie, process dough for 30 seconds to reduce the size of the clumps to not more than pea sized.)

Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Do not use your warm hands. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days. You can not rush this step. The dough must rest and chill, the longer the better up to 2 days.

When ready to make your pie, remove from refrigerator and generously sprinkle a work area with flour (I work directly on the cold marble counter top) and roll the dough out into discs. Roll from center to edges to make a 9-inch disk, rotating a quarter turn after each stroke, sprinkling additional flour underneath and on top as necessary to stop from sticking. Work quickly. Flip dough over and continue to roll, but not rotate, to form a 13-inch disk just under 1/8-inch thick. Fold into quarters, place the dough point in the center of your Pyrex pie plate and unfold to cover the entire plate or roll it onto your rolling pin and transfer to pie plate and unroll. 

To fit the dough, lift the edge of the dough with one (cool) hand and press dough into pan bottom with the other (cool) hand. Repeat around circumference until dough is fitted but not stretched. Trim excess overhanging dough about 1/2-inch past the lip of the pie plate.

For fruit and berry pies, which are baked with a filled, raw crust, tuck 1/2-inch of overhanging dough under so folded edge is flush with the edge of the pie plate.  Make a decorative edge by pinching together to make a ruffled edge.

For cream and custard pies, tuck 1/2-inch of overhanging dough under so folded edge is flush with the edge of the pie plate and use a flour coated fork pressing down along the rim to make a decorative edge. The fork edge helps stop it from sliding down during baking.

Refrigerate pie crust in the pie pan until firm, about another 30 minutes.

For double crust pies, unroll the second crust over the filling.  Moisten the bottom outside edge of the crust and pinch together the edges of the two crusts, folding any excess top crust under the edge of the bottom crust (to seal in the filling).  Make a decorative boarder by pinching it together with your fingers.

For pre-baking pie shells for cream/custard pies, prick the bottom and sides of the dough with a floured fork to allow steam to escape. Place parchment paper into the pricked raw crust and fill with ceramic pie weights or dry beans. This will help to insure the crust does not slide down the sides while baking. Pre-bake at 425F for 10 minutes, remove the weights and parchment and finish browning for 2-3 minutes more.

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