“Easy as pie,” or so goes the saying. The thing about pie CRUST however, is that it is anything but easy. I learned to make pie from several remarkable women, including the baker at a café I worked at almost 20 years ago who said, “A baker’s best friend is her hands. Except for you…your hands are too hot.”
Heat is one enemy to the pie crust making process. So is over mixing. Another is time. You need time to make a good pie crust. And for many people, myself included, it can take a lot of time to learn how to make a good pie crust. In an effort to demystify pie making, I thought I’d once and for all write up my pie crust tips. And below is my favorite recipe for pie crust from Cook’s Illustrated magazine, and a recipe for berry pie.
Make the pie crust ahead. When possible, I make pie crust in double batches and store them in the fridge for up to three days or in the freezer for up to two months. Making a pie takes long enough as it is, and having the crust step out of the way is a big time saver. Just flatten the dough into a disk, about 8-10 inches in diameter, before you refrigerate or freeze it.
Make the entire pie ahead. I like to make pies an entire day ahead of serving them. This helps the juices set. It’s not always possible, but if you have time, make the pie ahead.
Keep your ingredients cold. Start with cold butter (and shortening or lard if you are using it), measure out what you will need, but cut it into smaller chunks and then freeze it for a few minutes while you measure out the flour, salt and sugar. Some people store their flour and mixing bowl in the fridge or freezer…but that seems like overkill. Unless of course you live in the desert.
Vodka. Step one: Take a shot of vodka. Step two: Put a shot of vodka in the dough. In all seriousness, the use of vodka in the recipe below, from Cook’s Illustrated magazine below, is genius. Using too much water in pie dough can result in a tough crust. By using vodka, Cook’s Illustrated figured out that the alcohol would evaporate, so you could add more liquid to the dough – making it easier to handle and roll out – but not so much that you’d end up with a tough crust. Genius.
Food processor vs by hand. I make my pie crust in the food processor. I KNOW! Yes, food processors generate heat. Yes, you can quickly overmix the dough. Having said those things though, I still think it’s worth the time savings to use a food processor. If you don’t have one, it’s easy to make pie crust with a pastry cutter. You won’t have to worry about overmixing if mixing by hand. You’ll probably get worn out before that happens. Oh, and this thing about cutting the fat (butter, shortening and/or lard) into the flour using two knives?! Really? I’ve tried it and think it’s complete bullshit. It’s like trying to eat spaghetti with a spoon. You’d have to be really hungry.
Roll the dough between layers of plastic wrap. This can prove challenging for some people. The reason I like it though, is that I don’t have to keep adding more and more flour to the board. It also makes it easier to transfer the rolled out crust into a pie plate.
Use a French-style rolling pin. I love my heavy marble rolling pin, but find it a little too heavy and unwieldy when rolling out pie crust. A French-style one with tapered ends is lightweight and easier to maneuver.
Rolling the dough. If the dough has been in the freezer, thaw it overnight in the fridge. Once out of the fridge, set it out on the counter 20-30 minutes before you are ready to roll. To roll it out, start in the center and roll out towards the edges. Some people like to roll from the center to 12 o’clock and then rotate the disk with each roll. Both ways are fine – practice and see what you like. Just take care to not overroll. Like over mixing, this will result in a tough crust.
Crimp the edges. When you are putting the top crust on a double-crusted pie, first wet the edges of the bottom crust. When you place the top crust over the filling, tuck the edges that hang over under the edge of the bottom crust to create a tight seal. To crimp, take the forefinger and thumb of one hand and place on the inside edge of the pie. Then, take the forefinger of your other hand and press the dough between the fingers on the inside hand. Or, say ‘fuck it’ and crimp the edges with a fork.
Wrap it in foil. Fruit pies often overflow the pan as the fruit cooks and their juices begin to bubble. Avoid a sticky mess by wrapping foil under the bottom of the pan, up the sides and just over the edge of the crust. This will also protect the crust from overbrowning. I have tried those little metal edge protectors you can buy. They’re crap. Same goes for the little metal pan to put the pie plate on while you bake. Just use a rimmed cookie sheet.
Air vents. Cut 3-4 slits in the top of the pan to let air escape. They only need to be an inch or two long – they will stretch a little as the pie cooks.
Cutting into a fresh pie. There is a little trick to getting that first slice of pie out of the pan. Cut the first slice, then a slice on either side. This will make it easier to serve the first piece.
Foolproof Pie Dough
From Cook’s Illustrated magazine
Makes one double crust pie
2 ½ cups (12 ½ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 ½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼ inch slices
½ cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
¼ cup cold vodka
¼cup cold water
1. Process just 1 ½ cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated 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.
2. 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. 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.
3. Remove 1 disk of dough from the refrigerator and roll on generously floured (up to ¼ cup) work surface to 12-inch circle, about 1/8 inch think. Roll dough loosely and rolling pin and unroll into pie plate, leaving at least 1-inch overhang on each side. Working around circumference, ease dough into plate by gently lifting edge of dough with one hand while pressing into plate bottom with other hand. Leave dough that overhangs plate in place; refrigerate while preparing filling until dough is firm, about 30 minutes.
Berry Pie Filling
From The Kingston Hotel Cafe Cookbook
Makes 1 double crusted pit
6 cups fresh or frozen blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, or a combo of the three
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons cake flour
¾ cup brown sugar
6 tablespoons white sugar
¼ teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Prepare the pie crust and line a 9-inch pie pan with half the dough.
In a large mixing bowl, combine all of the filling ingredients except the butter. Pour into pastry-lined pie plate. Dot the top of the fruit with the butter.
Roll out the top crust. Wet the rim of the bottom crust with ice water and place the top crust over the berries. Turn the edges under and crimp. Make little slits in the top of the crust to allow steam to escape while baking.
Plce the pit in the center of a piece of tin foil and fold over te top crust to prevent the edge from browning too fast. Place the pie on a cookie sheet to catch the juices that bubble over.
Bake at 425 degrees F for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees F and bake for about 45 minutes. Uncover the foil from the edges of the pie, then bake another 30 minutes. The top crust will be golden and the juices will be tick and bubbling to the top.