There is an alchemy involved with pastry crust. The simplest of ingredients–flour, fat, water, and salt–yield a product so much finer than their parts.
As a baker, the elusive ability to master pie crust has long intrigued me, and I declared I would do it. This started me off on the lonely road of buying shocking amounts of butter and practicing rolling pin prowess.
Fall is the perfect time to hone pastry skills, as we’re surrounded by a harvest bounty that lends itself so beautifully to pies.
Recently, I was lucky enough to finally be able to go apple picking–on gorgeous Thanksgiving weekend–and we found ourselves the firmest, juiciest, freshest tasting apples possible.
As I had been practicing my pie crusts a little bit, I was feeling a bit more confident about making the pie, but I’m not going to lie: this is a tricky business, and requires a very light touch and patience. And a willingness to throw the whole lot into the garbage and start again. (That only happened once, I swear.)
I much prefer using all butter–I did experiment with using some vegetable shortening in one of my pies, but I won’t do that again. There is no question that it yields a flakier, more forgiving pastry dough, but it has such a funny flavour to me. It just tastes kind of fake. All-butter crusts are a bit denser and trickier, but have much better flavour.
Keep it simple in the beginning. A simple double-crusted apple or plain pumpkin pie is a great way to wade into pastry-making. There’s lots of time for lattices and basket-weaving in the future.
Be patient when cutting in the butter. Ah. It does take time. Just go with it! I like using two butter knives.
This is one of those times when the process is as important as the outcome, if not more so. It does feel magical to watch such simple elements turn into something that is beautiful and delicious.
(ps. Thanks to AK for the photography help!)
Butter Pie Crust
from Bon Appetit, November 2009
This simple recipe forms two 9-inch pie crusts.
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1/4 cup (or more) ice water
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Place your cubed butter in the bowl, and using a pastry cutter or two butter knives, cut the butter into all of the flour until the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Be patient–this will take about 5 minutes.
Sprinkle with the ice water and stir the mixture lightly with a fork until the dough starts to come together. This is where the light touch is needed. Add more water, a tsp at a time, if the dough is dry, but only add enough until the mixture is able to hold together and form a ball.
Gather the dough into a ball and knead once or twice–but try to handle it as little as possible. Cut the dough into half and flatten each half into a disk. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and let chill in the fridge for about an hour.
(The pastry can be in the fridge for a couple of days if you want to make it in advance. Or, double-wrap it carefully and you can freeze it for up to a month. Before using, let thaw at room temperature and proceed with the next step.)
Once the dough has chilled, roll out each disk onto a floured surface. If it’s too cold right out of the fridge, let it warm up for about 5 to 10 minutes, depending how long it’s been in there. Roll on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of about 1/8 inch thick and a width of about 12 inches. Keep rotating your circle as you roll out, and make sure it’s not sticking to your surface by lightly sprinkling with flour if you need to.
To transfer your dough circle to your pie plate, drape half of it over your rolling pin and rest it gently into your 9-inch pie plate. If you’re making a double-crusted pie, repeat the procedure with the other disk and leave your crust until you’re ready to top your pie. If you want to cut out a couple of shapes like I did, do it at this point.
(If you’re making a single-crusted pie, freeze the rest of the pastry until your next pie adventure–provided it’s not more than a month away.)
Simple Homey Apple Pie
Modified slightly from the perennial classic apple pie recipe in Joy of Cooking
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 pounds of 1/4-1/2 inch thick slices of peeled and cored firm, juicy apples (I used a mixed of Cortlands and Spartans)
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp butter, cubed into small bits
mix of cinnamon and sugar (about a tbsp)
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and position your rack in the bottom third. In a large bowl, mix the apple slices with the sugar and lemon juice. Add the flour and spices. Mix well until all are blended.
Take your pie plate with the crust laid in it and spoon in your filling. Dot the filling with the bits of butter. Top the filled pie with the second pie crust and press the edges of the pie crust together. Cut off excess overhang, leaving about an inch, and fold the edge under itself. Using your thumb, flute indentations along the edge of the pie, or press a fork around the rim to create a pretty pattern. If you haven’t cut out a couple of shapes (as I did), then take a sharp knife and slice a few steam vents. If you want to attach cut-out shapes, dab the back of them with water and attach.
Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar on top of the pie and place in the oven.
After 20 minutes, lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake until bubbling and golden, about 30 to 40 minutes more. Near the end of the baking time, keep a careful eye on it. If your pie edge starts to burn, shield it with aluminum foil. Place the pie on a cooling rack and let cool for about an hour before serving. Cut into wedges and top with a dollop of ice cream or rich lemon yogurt if you’re really feeling indulgent.