OK, here’s the way I think – sometimes I think there’s a unseen world around us where our pets are actually hosts for the spirits of those we once shared love with, and who are now departed – and then sometimes I think that all living creatures on earth share the same impression, that their species is at the top of the domain of all living things (and that actually mankind may well be somewhere near the bottom and soon will be gone anyway, and that perhaps bacteria is actually at the top) – and then sometimes (no, all the time!) I’m a fatalist, and I believe that fate and destiny are one – if you are sensitive to the cues and clues.
On a recent Saturday, as I journeyed out in search of another adventure, I turned on the radio to NPR, and remembered that Saturday is the day for ‘talk’ programming, when there’s no music – I was about to make a move to another station when I realized that they were talking about food – pie crust to be exact. OK, maybe I’ll stay with this for awhile.
Now, I have a love/hate relationship with pie crust – I love it, but I hate making it. And here was NPR sending one of its correspondents to the CIA (that’s the Culinary Institute of America) to learn how to make pie crust. And the teacher, chef George Higgins, was promising a simple 3/2/1 formula to success – guaranteed success! Could the CIA afford to be teaching anything less than perfection?
I listened – I absorbed – and I knew it was meant to be. I couldn’t wait to get home and to give this a try – fate was at work here.
I have given some thought to why I fear making pie crust, and I’ve determined that a good deal of the problem is that my chosen approach to cooking/baking is one deeply instilled from my days in the restaurant kitchen – that approach simply is that one must learn how to apply an economy of effort in everything one does. In other words, it is vitally important to find shortcuts in one’s daily kitchen work – if you can accomplish two things with one effort, good – but if you can do three, so much the better! You are constantly looking for steps to eliminate. And I am serious when I tell you that approach has been so firmly implanted that I find it impossible not to look for shortcuts for everything I cook or bake!
How then can I successfully make bread, since bread is a discipline that requires application of scientific rules for success? Well, extensive experience will teach you which shortcuts will work and which will not – you simply learn to work around failures, which are always our best teachers, and of which I have had many. Pie crust, OTOH was something I had not yet had enough experience with to find the shortcuts which would work – and I was violating the rules in the process.
What are those rules? Well, as outlined in NPR’s piece, the keys to a good pie crust are:
* Avoid, as best one can, the development of gluten (many ways, including a low gluten flour).
* Keep everything (ingredients, tools, bowls) as cold as possible,
* Handle as little as possible (really part of the first rule, but hey, it’s important).
* Do not over-mix those lumps of butter.
If you’re like me and already you feel unsteady about pie crust, you may notice that this dough breaks what we all thought was another of pie crust’s rules, the one about using as little liquid as possible – Whoa, how can a pie crust with so much water be successful? I considered this for a bit and then thought that if this recommendation was coming from the CIA, I needed to give it at least a ‘first try’ level of respect – OK, let’s go with it.
But what kind of pie will this be? Didn’t take long to settle on a summer favorite, Ricotta Cheese Pie with a fruit topping. I love ricotta because it lends itself to simplistic but delicious creations, and yet requires little sugar. Let’s get to it and put this baby together.
Here is Chef Higgins’s exact instruction just as it appears on their website:
* To make a flaky pie crust, start by measuring out 12 oz. (by weight) flour, 8 oz. firm butter, 4 oz. ice water. Keeping it cool is key. [I’d add a little salt as well, maybe a 1/2 tsp]
* Cut the butter into one-half inch chunks. Add water and mix by hand. [No, the water will not be absorbed by the butter – mix briefly and move on]
* [Add the flour and salt] Flake the butter chunks into the flour. The chunks should still be visible.
* “Do not overwork the dough,” says Chef Higgins. You want a loose, jaggedy ball.
* Press ball gently into a disk, refrigerate in plastic for an hour or so before rolling.
OK, that’s simple enough – just remember to limit the time you are working the dough with your hands, but don’t be afraid to ‘pinch’ the butter and flour together – once the dough begins to come together, pull it into a ball and wrap it in plastic. I used white pastry flour for this – if you’ve got a low gluten flour, use it instead of AP or bread flour. Resist the urge to use the food processor for this, as it is guaranteed to ‘disappear’ your butter chunks – do it by hand this time – next time, use the processor and compare the results.
I have a new cast iron pie pan which I was eager to use – it’s a 10 inch pan (outside diameter), but frankly, I think the amount of dough from this formula is too much for a 10 inch single crust pie – next time, I’d use only 2/3rds of this amount, or I’d reduce the formula by 1/3rd. If you are using a 9 inch pan, you’d have enough dough for 2 crusts – with an standard 11 inch pan, it’s a perfect amount.
How about the ricotta cheese filling? I prefer the simpler types, and that’s what I chose:
* 1 lb ricotta
* 3 eggs, beaten well
* 1/2 cup granulated sugar (you may like less)
* zest of 1 med lime or lemon
Preheat your oven to 375F (if you bake on a stone, make sure your oven preheats for 1 hour) – Mix all above and place into your pie crust in pan. The cheese/egg mixture will be quite wet, so I slipped the pie into the oven for 15 minutes to avoid having the fruit slip below the wet cheese. Then pull the pie from the oven and arrange fruit (I used 3 skinned peaches and a handful of blueberries) around top and sprinkle some sugar over the fruit. Place assembled pie back into the oven and continue baking for 20-25 minutes or so – keep an eye on it, and if crust gets too browned, it’s done.
How was this crust? Very nice, I’d have to admit – it was very flaky, but still had structure – not so tender that it fell apart as you ate it – and the taste was quite nice, with a buttery crunch that paired well with the fruit and cheese.
And what did I learn from this? I’ve always had trouble with the concept of leaving large chunks of butter in my dough, and on this one I suppressed that desire and learned I’ve been wrong! As you roll out the crust, those lumps will tend to disappear and do their magic. This is also the first time I used pastry flour for a pie crust, and of course, it’s perfect for a pie crust due to its low gluten content. The other thing I learned was that this amount of dough is more appropriate for an 11 inch pan than my 10 inch one – I should have guessed that they were using the larger pan, since the 11 incher is the commercial size, but I didn’t.
BTW, my new cast iron pie pan did a fantastic job right out of the chute – very nice indeed.
Summer is the perfect pie time, as long as you can still heat up the kitchen – so don’t miss the opportunity to do something delicious with all that luscious summer fruit.