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"We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie." David Mamet

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A Pie Virgin's Guide to Passable Crust

The crust on the last pie I made, the one for Thanksgiving, the high holy day of pies, broke the tines off a plastic fork. And this after working into every conversation how I had just baked a pie a day for a week. My just dessert was humble pie.

I know why it happened. I was rushed and distracted on Thanksgiving eve, decidedly un-chill. And if I learned anything this week it's that you need scads of chill to make a good crust. I'm hoping this never happens to you, so here are a few expert crust-making tips I learned over pie week.
  1. Remember it's just pie. It's not gene splicing or your first novel - imperfect pie is still pretty great. Why? Because it's pie!  Even roadside diner pie (think cumulus meringue) makes me a little happy. Even my friend who broke her plastic fork on my pumpkin pie crust ate the whole slice.
  2. Start chill. If the dough gets too warm before it bakes, the butter will melt into the flour, create a sticky glutenous mess, and toughen the dough. Some people go so far as to put all ingredients and all of their tools into the freezer - bowl, spoon, dough cutter, rolling pin, etc. Don't worry if this sounds like the actions of someone with a psychological disorder because, as Julia Childs said, when you are in the kitchen you are alone.
  3. Measure like a lab assistant. Baking is chemistry, which is why precision is key. The best bakers recommend weighing ingredients. For those of us without a digital scale, there's a technique to measuring, says my dear friend Laurie Smollett of the renowned gourmet cruise line, Eastern Star Yacht Charters. She says first, use dry measures; don't use a liquid cup measure with a spout. Then scoop the flour in the cup and level it with a knife. "Don't bang it down," she says, "no patting." Never spank your flour.
  4. Mix it up, say a few of my friends. Karen Levenberg, baker extraordinaire, suggests a butter to shortening ratio of 1:1. Lucy Saunders, author of the recent Dinner in the Beer Garden likes 3:1. Cook's Illustrated, arguably the grand high poobah of all things cooking, prescribes something in between (see recipe below.) Karen also likes to replace 1/4 cup of whole wheat flour for white flour. See the Big Fat Debate on Serious I've been playing around with flavoring the crust, as I did with the pumpkin pie by adding lemon zest, cardamom and grated ginger. (That crust came out well because it wasn't Thanksgiving.)
  5. Booze it up. After literally thousands of years of bakers making pie crusts pretty much the same way, in 2007 Cook's Illustrated came up with a revolutionary new idea: use vodka. There is scientific logic behind this tip. When water bonds with flour it forms gluten, and too much gluten can make a crust tough. But you need liquid to roll out the dough. Using vodka as the liquid serves the purpose of making the dough malleable (some say too wet), but the alcohol in the liquid will evaporate out during cooking. This minimizes gluten formation, maximizes flakiness. There is, unfortunately, no vodka after effect.
  6. Stay chill. After mixing, put your dough in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to relax the gluten, preventing it from overtaking your tender crust. Breads are high in gluten, pastries should be relatively less so. If the dough starts to warm up while you're handling it, give it a quick slip into the fridge. Cold also keeps the fat from melting until it is in the oven, where it will leave pockets of air = flakiness. I don't really understand all this, but if you are interested in reading things like, "remember that gluten forms once glutenin and gliadin are mixed with water..." you can find it on geek cooking sites like, the Food Lab, and Cook's Illustrated.
  7. Get the dough gracefully into the pie pan. Lucy and Karen again agree that you should roll out dough between parchment or wax paper to ease its transport from work station to pie pan. Others suggest gently folding the dough in quarters. Or rolling the dough up on your rolling pin, and unrolling it onto the pie pan.
  8. To avoid soggy-bottom crust. For custard, pumpkin, and fruit pies, you can moisture proof your crust by brushing with butter, apricot jam, or chocolate - then letting it set in the fridge for 15 minutes. If you're making a custard that's cooked, time it so that the blind-baked crust comes out of the oven hot at the same time as the custard is done. Placing the hot custard in the hot crust helps the custard set faster, lessening the chance of it absorbing into the crust.
  9. The best apple for apple pie is Northern Spy, according to my pal Paulette Peduzzi, Head of Kitchen at the North Country School
  10. For a pretty crust, Paulette continues, brush the top with milk and sprinkle with raw sugar before baking. I also like to cut out shapes from leftover dough - leaves, hearts, etc. Score the bottom lightly with a fork, brush with some milk or egg white, and place gently on the pie. 
For a great guide to pie crusts, I just ran across a great list of tips at

Here is the recipe from Cook's Illustrated:

1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch slices
1/4 cup chilled vegetable shortening, cut in 2
2 tablespoons vodka
2 tablespoons cold water

Process 3/4 cup of flour, all of the salt and a,,ll of the sugar in the food processor until combined. Add the butter and shortening and process until it resembles cottage cheese curds and all of the flour is coated, about 10 seconds. Scrape down the side and even out the dough distribution. Add the remaining 1/2 cup flour and pulse until the mass of dough breaks up. Remove to a separate bowl. Sprinkle the vodka and water over the mixture and fold into the dough until it sticks together. Flatten dough into 4-inch disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.  Roll out and refrigerate again for 30 minutes. Transfer to pie plate and refrigerate one more time for 15 minutes. Line crust with foil, fill with pie weights or beans. Bake for 15 minutes, rotate pie, and bake for an additional 5 to 10 minutes until golden brown and crisp.