Hacking pie crust

Simple tricks help neophyte bakers beat dough-phobia

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Tip Top Savory PIes
Susan France

Pie crust has a bad reputation. It may be tasty, but it’s impossible to make. Popular culture has transformed simple dough into this magical, monumental skill that scares the cinnamon out of otherwise good cooks. As a result, fewer and fewer attempt to make pie.

That’s a sad loss because a home-baked pie with all its idiosyncrasies will always taste better than one of those goo-filled abominations in your grocer’s freezer case. 

Some bakers will try to freak you out by insisting that the secret is adding vodka or vinegar or using a particular flour brand or oven. Forget all that noise. Leave pastry perfection to those retentive British baking nerds.  

You really can make a great pie. Trust me, I’m a pie expert. For decades I’ve written about pie, judged pie contests, taught pie classes and even ran a national pie organization in Boulder. Here are the most important things I’ve learned about how to turn flour, butter, salt and water into flaky tastiness.

Mixing it up: You can find a million recipes for your favorite pie filling online. Here’s what you need to make the dough for double-crusted pie: 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, 2 sticks chilled unsalted butter, and about 1/2 cup ice-cold water. Always use European (high butterfat) butter that is very chilled. Buy some fresh flour, please. (For a great sweet/savory effect, mix in 1/2 cup finely grated extra sharp cheddar cheese.)

To make the dough, combine flour, sugar and salt in big bowl. Add butter in random chunks and blend into flour until crumbly with a fork or your fingers.  Some describe it as pea-sized clumps or a clumpy, sandy appearance, but here’s the key takeaway: Do not overmix. 

Ice water does it: Slowly sprinkle on ice water, just enough to make the mix pull together and create a pliable dough. Again, do not overwork the dough. There can be little visible butter pieces in it. Work the dough gently until it forms a ball. Divide into two equal, flattened discs, wrap and chill. It’s important to refrigerate three or more hours.  

Rolling a fat one: Don’t get your apron in a knot over this part. Yes, you can cover the rolling surface, the rolling pin and your hands with flour to potentially roll a perfectly even crust. It’s messy and doesn’t always work. Instead, place each dough disc in a large plastic bag and work it with a rolling pin or wine bottle, whatever’s available. Gradually press and roll the dough until it’s a roughly even circle. Wider than needed is always better than narrower, because dough shrinks as it bakes into crust. 

Moving is the hardest part: You may be able to move your rolled-out crust in one piece and press it into the pie pan easily. That doesn’t happen easily or often. Instead, I take pieces of dough and press it into the pan with my fingers until it’s even. The big thing is to work fast so the butter doesn’t melt. 

Looking at its bottom: The best choice is a deep-dish glass pie pan because it bakes evenly and you can tell if the bottom crust is brown. Once you put in the filling, add the top crust. Coat the surface of the two crust edges with milk before pressing them together in a crimp. Always cut a few vents in the top crust to let the steam get out. Many recipes recommend baking pies at 325 degrees and will give you a certain baking time. Reality check: Thermometers on most home ovens are not accurate. You have to check the pie and see whether it is actually baked. Unless it’s burning, leave your pie in the oven an extra 15 minutes. I can’t tell you how many pies I’ve judged where the bottom crust is doughy and half-baked. If you are worried about burning the crimp, lower the oven temperature to 300 and shield the edge with aluminum foil.  

Pre-rolled is OK, too: Finally, if you’ve never made a pie, start by baking one in a refrigerated, ready-made crust that you just roll out, fill and bake. I use them all the time. Trader Joe’s makes a great pie crust. 

Miss American Political Pie 

In 1915, The Suffrage Cook Book was first published by The Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania. The cover showed Uncle Sam weighing men and women on his scales. Most are practical recipes, but this one was political:

“Pie for a Suffragist’s Doubting Husband”

1 qt. milk human kindness

8 reasons

War

White Slavery 

Child Labor

8,000,000 Working Women

Bad Roads

Poisonous Water

Impure Food 

Mix the crust with tact and velvet gloves, using no sarcasm, especially with the upper crust. Upper crusts must be handled with extreme care for they quickly sour if manipulated roughly.

Local Food News

eTown Hall hosts a Nov. 20 showing and discussion of acclaimed documentary, Wasted! The Story of Food Waste. etown.org … Learn to make empanadas Nov. 25 at Boulder’s Food Lab: foodlabboulder.com …  Lafayette’s The Post canned a fresh batch of ciabatta-infused Penny Loafer Pale Ale made with leftover bread from Louisville’s Izzio Artisan Bakery and designed to provide ongoing support to Denver Food Rescue and Metro Caring. … More than one-third of Americans report cutting spending on healthy food and utilities in order to afford housing, according to a recent Freddie Mac study. More than 42% of renters report cutting food spending to cover housing costs. 

Taste of the Week

If I hadn’t been invited, I never would have known there was a comfy coffee shop tucked inside Due South, a women’s clothing and gift store at 802 S. Public Road in Lafayette. Brew Tea & Coffee House serves elixirs and espresso along with baked goods including some stellar personal pies from Denver’s Hinman Bakery. An all-butter crust wraps handpies filled with apple or cherry and savory ones with spinach and artichoke or pork green chile and cheese. The cafe is in the same building as Ras Kassa’s Ethiopian Restaurant, On Point Distillery and Deli-cious Z’s.

Words to Chew On

“I spent three months on the couch eating pie, and then I woke up one morning and went, ‘Damn, that was fun!’” — Linda Hamilton, on the time after she finished portraying Sarah Connor again in Terminator: Dark Fate.    

John Lehndorff will be talking about making great gluten-free pizza pie crust at 8:25 a.m. Nov. 14 on Radio Nibbles on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, streaming at kgnu.org).