Despite the old-fashioned expression, making a pie from scratch intimidates many. It is another culinary skill that has atrophied in our culture over the years, a casualty of convenience and frozen food technology.
The saddest part about this is that most folks today clearly have no idea what good pie tastes like. We’ve become so detached from the original that we’ve come to accept and even enjoy these gritty, tasteless wedges that are put before us just because they’re sweet and huge and pretty.
I say no more bad pie! Luckily, making amazing pie from scratch is actually pretty simple when you understand a few key principles.
Good pie starts with good crust. The ingredient list is short: flour, fat, sugar, salt, water. I’ve played around with different formulas like adding vodka and buttermilk, but I always come back to the original. It is important that the ingredients are cold, and you must work quickly once you start, especially in hot weather. Cold fat is worked into the flour until it is incorporated but pea-sized lumps of remain. This step is critical to achieving a tender, flaky crust – when the little pieces of fat melt as the crust bakes, they create little pockets of flaky goodness. The same principle applies when making biscuit or scone dough. A food processor is excellent for making pie dough, but it can also be done by hand.
I use a mixture of butter and unhydrogenated natural lard when making pies. Butter is a harder fat and gives excellent flavor and flakiness, while the lard provides tenderness. Unhydrogenated lard is available from local farmers such as Triple S Farms (www.triplesfarms.com) and at Humphrey’s Market (15th and Laurel).
Shape the pie dough into a flat disc, which will make it easier to roll out, then wrap in plastic wrap or parchment paper and allow it to rest in the refrigerator for a full 30 minutes before attempting to roll it out. I wasted a lot of time and ruined many pies in my early days by trying to work the dough right after I made it. The resting time is essential to let the water fully absorb into the flour, and working it too soon will invariably result in a sticky mess. The dough freezes beautifully and will keep for 3-6 months in the freezer when well wrapped.
When it’s time to roll out your pie, place a large sheet of parchment paper on the counter and lightly dust it with flour. Place your dough on the floured parchment and dust it lightly with a little more flour. Don’t overdo it – working in too much flour can dry out the crust and make it tough. Dust a rolling pin with flour (a washed wine bottle will work if you don’t have a rolling pin), then roll away from you, applying very light pressure. Rotate the dough clockwise as you roll to create a uniform-ish 12-inch circle (for a 9-inch pie). It took me years to be able to roll out a good circle. Don’t worry, your odd-shaped creation will still work. When you’re done rolling, place the rolling pin on the side of the dough circle closest to you and use the paper to roll the dough onto the pin. Have your pie plate ready and unroll the dough off of the pin and into the pie plate. You may need to gently scoot the pie dough into position if it didn’t land centered in the pie plate.
Pie dough is actually pretty forgiving. You do want to avoid handling it as much as possible, as the heat from your hands can melt the fat lumps and result in a tougher crust. It can, however, be patched. If you have a tear or need to repair a hole, simply paint the edges of the damaged area lightly with cold water to act as glue, then overlap the torn sides or use a dough trimming to patch the hole.
There are many techniques for crimping the edges of a pie crust. I like to roll up the excess dough along the edge of the pie plate, then use my thumb and pointer fingers to shape it into the classic crimp. A fork can also be used to shape the edges. My preferred way of shaping fruit pies these days is to make a galette-style pie with no crimping required. The excess pie dough is loosely folded over the top of the mounded up fruit, for a beautiful (and easy) rustic look.
If you are making a single crust pie, it is always better to blind bake the crust when you can. This works especially well with custard-type pies, such as pumpkin. Blind baking precooks the crust before it is baked with filling to ensure a brown, crispy crust. Prick the bottom of the crust with a fork. Spray a piece of foil or parchment with cooking spray, then lay it oiled side down over your rolled-out pie dough. Fill the parchment with dried beans or rice, then transfer it to a preheated 425-degree oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the pie crust from the oven, carefully lift off the parchment or foil and return the crust to the oven for an additional 5 minutes of baking.
A thin metal pie plate is best. Those thick ceramic pie plates are pretty, but you want the pie crust to heat very fast when it goes into the hot oven, so that the little fat pockets you worked so hard to create stay intact. A thin metal pie plate will conduct heat faster and give you a crisper, browner crust. The disposable aluminum plates actually work quite well.
There are many recipes for pie filling and this crust recipe will work well for any of them. It is also perfect for making quiche or individual hand pies – homemade Pop Tarts anyone? I always like to brush the top of my pies with egg wash, then sprinkle with coarse sugar before baking for a golden finish and sparkle.
Páte Brisée aka Classic Pie Dough
- 2 ½ cups flour (I like to use 2 cups all-purpose and ½ cup whole wheat for flavor)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 cup cold butter (or use ½ cup butter and ½ cup lard), cut into ½-inch cubes
- ½ cup ice-cold water
To make using a food processor, combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of the machine and process briefly to combine. Turn off the machine and add the butter cubes. Do two 1-second pulses to distribute the butter in the flour, then, with the machine running, quickly pour in the cold water. Let machine run until the dough forms a rough ball and you hear a slight change in the sound as the machine runs, about 15 seconds. The dough should not be wet or sticky; be careful not to process more than 30 seconds. To test, squeeze a small amount together – if it is crumbly and does not hold together, add more cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time.
To make by hand, work the fat into the flour using a fork or pastry cutter until it’s well-distributed, but not fully incorporated. Larger, pea-sized pieces of butter should be scattered throughout the mixture. Slowly pour in the cold water while tossing lightly with a fork. Stop adding water when the dough starts to come together, and squeeze a bit between your fingers. If it holds together easily without crumbling, it’s ready. If it has dry spots, or pieces break off easily, add a bit more water until it’s totally cohesive.
Divide the dough into two discs and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling out. Dough can be frozen for 3-6 months. Allow to thaw in the fridge overnight. Do not attempt to thaw in the microwave.
Contact Ashley Glatz at Ashley@realcuisine.net.