Sunday, November 21, 2010

Holiday Cooking School: Perfect Pie Crust

Sometimes you just don’t know what you’re missing—and when you finally find out, it’s enough to make you cry. I love the line in Stanley Tucci's 1996 film Big Night when, after the most memorable meal of her life, a woman is sobbing at the table:

Asks the boyfriend: “What’s wrong?”
She: “My mother was such a terrible cook!”

Ok, so my mom was NOT terrible cook; best spaghetti sauce EVER, best cream puffs, best holiday meals. But pies were never her thing. I grew up with Pillsbury read-made, ready to roll pie crusts procured from the refrigerated section of Piggly Wiggly, and they just weren’t that great—certainly not the appropriate vehicle for an amazing sour cherry filling, or any other perfect fruit of the season. My grandmother (also no slouch in the kitchen) was no help either, making her pie crusts with oil and flour. They were brittle, pale and tasteless—not exactly a recipe worth passing down to the next generation.

Shortly after getting married, I gave the homemade crust the old college girl try. My tragic attempts all seemed to end the same way; with a heap of crumbled dough in the trash and my defeated, greasy hands clutched around a giant glass of wine. What was I doing wrong?

Everything, according to my friend Renee, who agreed to take me under her wing a few years back to school me in making THE perfect pie crust. During the course of an entire autumn day spent making a dozen apple pies, I learned the following:

1. You must use shortening AND butter. Butter gives you amazing flavor, but the shortening (which is filled with millions of little bubbles produced during hydrogenation) contributes that tender, flaky texture that everyone wants in a good crust. Lard can yield that same texture, but frankly, I’m just not going there. Yet.

2. Every ingredient needs to be cold, cold, COLD. When your dough gets too warm, your fats melt, and working with the dough (rolling, shaping, etc.) becomes incredibly frustrating. This was one of my main areas of struggle before…

3. An overworked dough is a tough dough. Visible flakes of fat mean that as that fat melts in the oven, it will create little pockets of steam which push the structure of the dough up and out…creating flakes of crust. It’s a beautiful thing.

4. Next to love, an amazing pie is the best gift you can give to anyone. Period. Test this and just you see.

Perhaps you are one of the many who have endured the pre-made grocery store imposters all your life. Maybe you THINK you’ve had some decent pie at the church potluck or neighborhood picnic. Forget about all that, and just make this. When you finally realize what you’ve been missing, you may just tear up. You’re welcome.

(P.S. Thank you, Renee, for your hospitality and your culinary smarts.)

Perfect Pie Crust (Makes one bottom crust and one top crust)

2 ½ cups flour
2 T sugar
1 t salt
8 T cold shortening
12 T cold butter
6-8 T ice water

1. Cut butter into 1/4” pieces and place them on a small plate in the freezer; proceed directly to step 2.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar and salt.
3. Add in cold shortening and blend in by hand with a pastry blender, for a minute or two. There should still be plenty of visible balls of shortening in the flour mixture.
4. Add in the butter from the freezer. Contine to blend until mixture takes on the texture of small peas.

5. Add ice water, and stir very gently to “sort of” combine. The mixture should look rough, like this:

(Pretty shaggy...)

(But holds together when it needs to...)

6. Dump mixture onto a large piece of plastic wrap sitting atop your counter. Use the plastic wrap to shape the dough into one solid mass (less direct contact with your warm hands is always better). Divide into two equal parts. Shape each part into a disk, measuring about 6 inches across. Wrap each disk tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before using.

(note the visible flakes of shortening and butter.)

7. Bake according to the directions of whatever pie recipe you are using. (For fruit pies—like my favorite, sour cherry—I am loyal to my Joy of Cooking recipe that bakes at 425° for 30 minutes, then lowers the temp to 350° for the final 25-30 minutes. This yields a fully-cooked, non-soggy bottom crust.)

(rolled out, you can still see the flakes of fat...mmmm....)