When was the last time you made a pie? Never or I can’t remember is your answer? It was the pie crust wasn’t it? Don’t feel alone. Many a great cook or baker is still intimidated by a pie crust. Trying to wrangle a few ingredients into a flaky crust that will bake beautifully without sliding down the pan or hold a juicy filling without getting soggy is a challenge and with good reason. Helping you understand the process will insure you will be on your way to a no fail pie crust.
Several years ago, Midwest Living magazine asked me to provide a “no fail pie crust”. The results elicited this comment from the food editor: “We share a test kitchen with Better Homes and Gardens, Traditional Home, Successful Farming, Diabetic Living and more. The staff is educated in food science or through a culinary school. We used your crust for all the pies and they were blown away with the recipe. Not only does it taste great, it was easy to work with. You became a sensation! One of the staffers refuses to make any other crust at home and she’s been on staff for almost 20 years. I hope you feel the love!” I think you will too after making this melt in your mouth crust.
Many elements go into a pie crust and an understanding of how they work will help allay any misgivings you have. First of all, let’s talk about flour. The type of flour used will determine, almost completely, the outcome of the crust due to the protein count of the gluten. In making pastry dough, the fat is cut into the flour so that the two proteins in flour, which make up the gluten, cannot come together to link up and form a chain or strand. On the other hand, bread dough is worked vigorously by kneading in order to link the two proteins to form a chain. Whereas the elasticity gained by working the dough is desirable in bread, it is not in pastry, which is why pastry dough is handled and worked as little and as quickly as possible. Bread flour has the highest percentage of gluten followed, in descending order, by all purpose flour, pastry flour and cake flour which has the very least. It would seem reasonable that if the lowest amount of protein is desired then cake flour would be the choice. Using all cake flour does make a very tender crust, however it is rather mealy and without good texture. Because pastry flour is not commonly available to the consumer, many recipes combine two thirds all purpose flour with 1/3 cake flour. While this yields a better crust, reversing it and using a larger amount of cake flour with just a little all purpose yields the requisite tenderness and flakiness without sacrificing the crispness, texture or strength. In addition, it can stand a little more handling than crusts made with other flours – a boon to beginners.
The most important item is the fat used. The colder and harder the fat, the flakier the crust. At every point while and after adding the fat the pastry should be worked quickly and kept cold. Lard, a very hard fat, is advocated by die hard pie crust makers as providing the flakiest crusts. This is true, but its very definite flavor along with its very high cholesterol and the difficulty of finding it in the supermarkets make this the least used choice. The second flakiest crust will be obtained with vegetable shortening, as it is 100 percent fat, although not as hard as lard. Butter, with a fat content of 75 to 80 percent, will not produce as flaky a crust, but the taste is superior. To maximize flavor and retain flakiness a combination of butter and shortening is used in this recipe. The butter is used directly out of the refrigerator and the shortening is frozen in 1 tablespoon measurements. Under no circumstances use butter substitutes such as I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter, etc. They have a lot of water in them that alters the proportions of fat and water.
Liquids make the dough cohesive. Water, although the main liquid usually used in pie crusts, is not the only one to be considered. Egg and lemon juice play an important part also. Ice cold water is used to slow down the formation of the gluten strands. Several ice cubes placed in a cup of water 5 to 10 minutes before using are sufficient to chill it. Egg in the crust adds firmness, crispness and color and is particularly good when making pies with juicy fillings. When less than a whole egg is called for, beat a whole egg with a fork until the yolk and white are completely mixed, then measure the amount called for. Lemon juice, because of its acid content, acts as a tenderizer on the gluten.
Measuring the flours is very important to the finished pastry. As a professional baker, we weigh everything. However, I realize many homes do not have scales. Stir the flour in the bag or canister, dip the cup in and fill to overflowing. With the back of a knife or anything flat, sweep the excess flour off. Be sure to use a dry measure – one that has no lip on the top.
At this point you are ready to mix. There are several ways to mix the dough. But my favorite is using the food processor. The only caveat is you mustn’t over mix – use pulses as they are easy to control. Frozen butter and shortening are cut into the flours with pulses. You want the pieces to remain the size of peas so when the pastry is rolled out the fat gets trapped between the layers of flour. When it bakes, the fat melts and the steam causes the pastry to puff and become flaky. After the fat is cut in, the liquids are combined and pulsed in until large crumbs are formed.
To roll the pastry, use as little flour as possible. You may think a photo of “lightly floured surface” is ridiculous but I have had students that use so much flour you can’t see the surface of the table. Extra flour rolled into the dough at this point will only serve to toughen it. To keep a round shape, roll from the middle out to the edges. If, no matter what you do, the shell does not form a good circle you can help it along. Cut away the bulging part of the pastry, moisten the edge of the pastry that needs help with water and patch it with the cut piece overlapping to make a seam. Sprinkle lightly with flour and roll lightly. The seams will not adhere to each other without the water. Roll the pastry into a circle about 12 1/2 to 13 inches round. To make sure the pastry fits into the corner of the pan and is not being stretched, ease about one eighth of the pastry at the side of the pan gently toward the middle. Now bring the pastry back to the rim and slide it down the side of the pan so you can see it fits the angle at the bottom. Continue around the pan in this manner. Trim the overhang a uniform 1 inch, turn under and flute the edges.
Baking an empty shell is called “blind” baking the shell. The biggest obstacle here is the tendency towards shrinking when baking. To forestall this, it is necessary to freeze the shell first then weight it. I am always amused by the pictures of a few aluminum weights on the bottom crust or something that looks like a string of beads. These will do nothing to help your cause. Line the frozen crust with foil that has been sprayed with a releasing agent (do not use waxed paper – it doesn’t have enough strength when removing), pressing it, sprayed side to the crust, against the sides and letting it stick up over the top. Fill the crust completely to the top with dried beans – limas are my favorite because they are big and heavy. It will take two pounds of beans for a nine inch crust. Follow the times in the recipe and you will have a perfectly baked, beautiful, tall empty shell waiting for whatever filling you choose. It is important for the finished shell to have color so it remains crisp and flaky. Cool the beans completely and store in a covered container to use over and over. I have had mine for years.
If you are baking a pie longer than 45 to 50 minutes the edges need to be covered or they will become overly brown. It is much safer to do this before baking instead of waiting until it is halfway or more done then trying to cover it hot. After the top is put on the pie, simply tear off strips of foil about 3 inches wide and cover the edges. These are left on about 25 minutes and then removed so these edges can bake also.
The color of the pans will alter the baking times. I see mostly dark ware for consumers these days, very little aluminum. Dark metal or glass pie pans require a twenty five degree reduction in heat in order not to over brown or burn.
To figure out how much filling you need, a standard pie pan requires about 6 cups of fruit, plus sugar and thickeners. The deep dish pie pans require about 8 cups of fruit plus sugar and thickeners.
By following the steps you see here, you will be assured your pie crusts will be fast, flaky, fantastic and fail-proof.
1 3/4 cups sifted cake flour (6 1/8 ounces or 175 grams)
1/3 cup sifted all purpose flour (scant 1 1/2 ounces or 40 grams)
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces and frozen until hard
3 tablespoons shortening (like Crisco) frozen and cut into pieces
2 tablespoons beaten egg
1 teaspoon lemon juice
5 tablespoons water, chilled and divided
3 cups cake flour (10 1/2 ounces or 300 grams)
1/2 cup all purpose flour (2 ounces or 60 grams)
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick + 4 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces and refrigerated
4 tablespoons vegetable shortening frozen and cut into pieces
1 egg, beaten
2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/3 cup + 2 tablespoons chilled water
Place both flours and the salt in the processor bowl. Pulse several times to mix. Place the butter evenly over the flour and pulse until the butter is in large pieces. Add the frozen shortening and continue to pulse until the shortenings are pea sized.
Combine the egg, lemon juice and water. Pour in a circle over the processor contents. Pulse until it forms clumps. Pour out onto a lightly floured work surface. Push the clumps together into a ball. Knead 4 or 5 times for form a dough. Pat into a circle about 1 inch thick. Wrap in film and refrigerate a minimum of 2 hours or overnight. If making a double crust, divide the circle into two pieces, one a generous 1/3 of the dough. Form each into a round about 1 inch thick. Wrap and chill for two hours or overnight.Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Place in the pie pan by sliding hands under the crust and lifting into the pie pan. It can also be rolled up on the rolling pin and unrolled in the pan.and fit into edges by pulling the dough gently away from the side of the plate and then fitting it securely into the edge and patting in place
Cut the overhang an even 1 inch all the way around. Tuck the crust under and flute the edges. If baking blind, freeze for 30 or more minutes until hard. Line with foil, and fill with beans. Bake for 20 minutes with the beans. Remove the beans by bringing the four corners of the foil together and lifting out. Return to the oven and bake for approximately 18 minutes until lightly browned and set.
For a double crust, proceed making as above. After the flour and liquids have been mixed, form into a ball and flatten into a disc. Divide the disc in two with one piece a generous 1/3 of the dough. Flatten, wrap each piece and refrigerate.
Very Berry Pie – I use unsweetened frozen fruit for this pie as, out of season, the fruit is very expensive and not always the best. Because the fruit has been frozen it will have more juice than fresh fruit. Consequently, there is more thickener in the frozen fruit version that would be used with fresh fruit.
12 ounces frozen blueberries
12 ounces frozen red raspberries
24 ounces frozen sliced strawberries
1 3/4 cups sugar (375 grams or 13 ounces)
3 tablespoons instant tapioca
3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter, cut in small pieces
1 egg, well beaten, optional
Sanding sugar, optional
Mix together well to distribute the flour and tapioca in sugar
Roll the remaining pastry into a 12 inch circle. Wet the edges of the bottom crust and place the top crust on, lightly pressing the edges together. Trim both edges, tuck under and flute as above. Egg wash the top. Sprinkle with sanding sugar. Cut vents in the top. Cover edges with foil and bake for about 25 minutes; remove foil and finish baking for 35 minutes more.