What Makes Pie Crust So Challenging?

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.

My New Cast Iron Pie Pan

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.

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About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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11 Responses to What Makes Pie Crust So Challenging?

  1. Jay says:

    Being Brit born, Canada raised, pastry in my home, my mother & grandmothers home has always been made with lard, Tenderflake lard, to be exact. I make a big batch of pastry at one time, enough for 3 double crust, or 6 single crusts, use what I need and freeze the rest. There’s no muss no fuss, no worry about the pastry not being flaky even if you overwork the dough, as lard always produce a flakier pastry that butter or shortening, “for me and mine, that is”

    I will once in a while make a half butter half lard mixture, if I make Granny Smith tart, a lovely recipe one of Patrick O’Connells cookbooks, but other than that, it’s good old lard for basic pastry. (I should add O’Connell uses half butter half shortening, but I sub lard)

    It’s a shame Lard gets such a bad rap in the US. If I mention using lard for pastry on a cooking/baking site I’m visting, more often than not, I’ll get, “ewww lard? how gross,” in response. It’s quite silly actually.
    Nonetheless, I love to make pie, tarts, turnovers, patties, etc, etc, and a good crust is a must. For me, that’s a lard crust!

    Here you go doc, right from my trusty Tenderflake lard box.. Give it a go, I don’t think you’ll be disapointed.

    Tenderflake Perfect Pastry

    6 cups cake and pastry flour, I.5 L. or 5 1/2 cups all purpose flour. 1.4 L.
    2 teaspoons salt 10ml
    1 lb. Tenderflake lard 454 g
    1 tablespoon white vinegar 15 ml
    1 large egg
    Cold water

    1. Mix together flour and salt.
    2. Cut in lard with pastry blender or two knives until mixture resembles coarse oatmeal.
    3. In a one cup measure, combine vinegar and egg. Add water to make 1 cup (250ml). Gradually stir liquid into lard/flour mixture. Add only enough liquid to make dough cling together.
    4. Gather into a ball and divide into 6 portions. If desired, wrap unused portions and refrigerate or freeze.
    5. Roll out each portion on lightly floured surface. If dough is sticking, chill 1 or 2 hrs.
    6. Transfer dough to pie plate. Trim and flute shells or crusts and bake according to your recipe.

    Oh, and thanks for the recipe doc. The ricotta filing sounds great!

    • drfugawe says:

      You’ll not hear any dissing of lard in this house! I render my own and there’s still some in the fridge – I too think lard makes fantastic pie crust, amigo, and the best fried chicken too. I find the Tenderflake stuff interesting since it doesn’t seem to require refrigeration – and I thought that all non-hydrogenated kinds had to be refrigerated. But I think Tenderflake is not, right? Why not?

      Yes, sometimes an old reputation can haunt for a very long time – and I think lard has had a difficult time shedding its old image in the US – but I see that a good number of the celebrity chefs are now singing its praises, so the tide may be turning.

      Thanks for the recipe – next time we go up to Vancouver, I’ll see if I can get some Tenderflake, and give it a try.

  2. Glenda says:

    Hi Doc
    Pastry is my thing … A few years ago I had a thought about my mother’s cooking. We all think our mothers were great cooks (and they were) but when I thought about it more, I realised that she cooked a limited number of things. I could list on my fingers the biscuits, the cakes and the savoury dishes she made. In her defence, she was doing a million other things as well. So I thought about it and realised that today we have so many options and we try them all, hence, we end up as master of none of them. So I decided to ‘specialise’ and pastry was one thing I decided to concentrate on.
    I was very interested in your recipe, as I have read in lots and lots of places that it is too much water (and over working) that causes pastry to shrink. Did your pastry shrink? It doesn’t look like it shrank much.
    I also note you didn’t blind bake the base – was it soggy? It doesn’t look it. Maybe the 40 minute bake was enough.
    I also agree with Jay. I made some Cornish Pasties not very long ago and used lard instead of butter. The pastry was fantastic. I had too much filling so I used some other pastry on the balance which was made out of butter. The lard pastry was much flakier and yummier.
    I am also a fatalistic, so I am glad you decided to make the pastry. It’s great fun experimenting.
    BTW: your pie looks great as does your cast iron pie dish. I am always on the lookout for different pie dishes.

    • drfugawe says:

      Yeah, I was quite concerned about the water in that – but I thought I’d try it anyway, since these guys are the pro’s pros – they’ve got to know something! I think maybe there’s so much water in this one that it can’t shrink enough to be noticeable (??? – I don’t know!). It was certainly too thick in my pie, but surprisingly not soggy, and quite crisp on the bottom, at least on day one. I’ll try it again, and I’ll use lard.

      Somewhere on my archive is a post on rendering lard – I actually love the stuff – I really like the
      ‘porky’ character it lends to the pastry when used in a sweet dessert, like apple pie – its delightful. But I used butter here because that’s what they were using – and I love butter too!

      Your comments about your mother also strike home – I can remember thinking it was because of my mother’s cooking that I became interested in food, and cooking my own. As I look back now, she did much better than I once gave her credit for – she was just not a food enthusiast, she cooked because that’s what housewives did.

  3. Joanna says:

    Interesting post! I approach pastry making with wariness. No family tradition on my side of the family, but Bri’s family were all big pastry makers, so their ghosts are looking over my shoulder. With practice I am slowly getting a bit better at it. I like making rough puff best. All butter! I haven’t made good pastry with lard, I don’t like the mouthfeel of it coating the roof of my mouth after having chewed and swallowed the pastry. On my list of books to buy one day is a book called Fat by Jenifer McLagan. Apparently all lard is not the same and the best sort comes from round the kidneys? Anyway the block stuff we get here is not nice in pastry.

    • drfugawe says:

      Yes, I think you are right about the quality of lards. I infrequently get some pork fat (have never seen the good kind for sale) and render my own – then freeze it in containers. We have some god-awful stuff here that doesn’t require refrigeration – tastes bad and is bad for you too – the Canadians are way ahead of us on that (as they are on many things) – but fortunately we also have our Mexican immigrants who insist on having some of the good kind in their stores. I have great respect for lard, and actually like the assertive taste it lends to baked goods – and when in Mexico, I look for freshly made chicharones, which is just the by-product of making lard – I love those.

  4. I have enjoyed reading your blog.. nothing better than pie..!

  5. I will read your blog quite frequently..it is very good.

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