For years I have used a basic, work-horse pie pastry recipe. One that can be adapted to both sweet and savory fillings. Its what I used to create the cheddar-cracked pepper pastry for my chicken pot pie recipe, as well as all sorts of other pies. Its fool-proof and it has been just fine. But is that the goal? Just fine? Just a holder of pie filling? Or should it be delicious in its own right?? Have a part in the main production rather than just being a stage hand?!
While studying to become a clinical dietitian I had the chance to take several food science classes - chemistry where you get to eat your experiments! In the decades that have followed, those classes have fueled a continuous quest to perfect recipes as I understand and apply the principles of food science. In my family we have a standing joke that we are incapable of just following a recipe as written. We are always thinking of ways to improve the ingredients or change the process. So it was inevitable that I would eventually turn this quest toward my pie pastry. How could it be improved? Surely butter would taste better than shortening! Why do some recipes include vinegar? Egg or no egg?
The goal is to have a flaky, yet tender pie crust that also tastes good, using just three essential increments: flour, fat and water. Everything else, like salt, sugar and flavorings, are non-essential, but tasty extras. The fat is “cut” into the flour to create small balls of fat that are surrounded by flour. Adding just enough cold water brings the mixture together to create the dough. And when flattened out, it makes small connecting layers of fat, flour, fat, flour, etc. When the dough is heated the fat melts into the flour, creating the flakey crust that we are striving for. Sounds simple! And it can be - IF we understand a few simple rules.
Rule #1: Don’t over-mix the dough. Gluten is an ingredient in flour that can give dough a stretchy, springy texture that we love so much in bread, but that texture would make pie crust a disaster. Gluten is “developed” when a dough is worked and kneaded, so handle your pie crust as little as possible to reduce gluten development. This is also why some recipes include vinegar or lemon juice. The idea is that gluten development is inhibited in a lower pH environment. The problem with this theory is that the one tablespoon of vinegar in these recipes isn’t enough to reduce the pH below 6, where the gluten development can actually be impeded and this small amount of vinegar may even encourage gluten development. Several tablespoons of vinegar would be necessary to achieve the low pH needed to impede gluten development and this would result in an unpleasant flavor in the pastry. (Any takers for a Banana cream pie featuring vinegar flavored crust??)
Rule #2: Keep the dough as cold as possible. The idea here is to keep the fat from softening and melting into the dough before you bake it. Start with cold, firm butter, cut into small pieces, use very cold ice water and try to handle the dough with your warm hands as little as possible. This is why I like to use a food processor to cut the butter into the flour. The blades are quick and cool and they can handle the task of cutting the hard, cold butter into the flour. Next, put the dough into the fridge to chill before rolling out and chill the crust in the pie tin before baking it. As Martha Stewart says, “Make it cold, bake it hot!”
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour (divided)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/4 cup butter flavored shortening (helps with tenderness)
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon ice water
Place 1 1/2 cups flour, sugar and salt into food processor and pulse a few times to mix (or place into a large bowl and whisk a few times). Add butter cubes and 1/4 cup shortening. Pulse until all flour is incorporated and the mixture starts to come together (If using a pastry blender cut butter into the flour until there is no loose flour in the bowl). Add remaining flour and pulse a few times (or using a pastry blender cut in the remaining flour). The mixture will start to look crumbly. Transfer the dough to a large bowl. Using a large wooden spoon or rubber spatula, gentle turn over the dough as you sprinkle in the cold water. Fold and press the dough until it comes together (it will still be in pieces a bit but don’t worry!). Divide the the dough in half and turn each half onto plastic wrap. Fold the plastic in around the dough and press it into a 6-7 inch disk. Wrap and refrigerate for 1-2 hours before rolling out.
Using the Heirloom Kitchen Co pastry cloth, spread several tablespoon of flour around the center of the cloth and rub the flour into the texture of the cloth. You should see the flour on the surface but there shouldn’t be an excess of flour remaining on top. Place the dough disk in the middle of the cloth and begin rolling. As the rolling pin becomes a bit damp from the dough, roll the pin in the flour on the cloth so that the rolling pin will pick up some of the flour. This will help the rolling pin to be non-stick as well as the cloth. Roll the dough to desired thickness, about 1/8 inch thick and approximately two inches larger than your pie plate. Place the rolling pin in the middle of the dough and flip the pastry cloth over the rolling pin so that the dough is now draping over the rolling pin. While supporting the pin and dough with your hand, transfer your dough to the pie plate and adjust the position so the the dough is in the center. Trim excess edges off with a knife or tuck them under to create the decorative edge of your crust. If you are making a baked pie crust, prick the bottom and sides of the dough with a fork to help reduce shrinkage while baking. Line the bottom of the crust with foil and fill with dried beans, rice or wheat. Bake at 425* for 8 minutes. Lift foil and beans out and continue baking
for an additional 6-8 minutes, until light golden in color.
*I often make several pie crusts at a time and freeze them in the pie plate to use at a later date. I bake the frozen (unthawed) crust in the same manner as above but it takes a few more minutes to brown. Watch closely.