Sunday, January 15, 2012

Easy as Pie?

There are some who would say the term "easy as pie" comes from the ease at which one can make a pie crust from scratch. The simplest recipe I know comes from the Betty Crocker Cookbook Sixth Edition (circa 1986) and contains all of three ingredients: flour, shortening and a little ice water. Simple, but deceptively so. One wrong move spells disaster. I once made this pie crust with the wrong flour and was doomed. I was on a white whole wheat kick and had been getting really nice results with breads and other baked goods. In pie crust, however, the results I got could have been used to patch the roof.

So, when making pie crust from scratch, it is important to follow the recipe, especially if you are new to this. After a little practice, you get a feel for what the tolerances are, and you can deviate all you like. My counterpart puts egg in his crust.

Also many people fear the home made pie crust due to the potential mess. With the right  equipment, the clean up is a snap.

And, it really is worth the effort. The pre-made frozen crusts are a convenience, but once you fill one of them with a nice, made from scratch filling, all those additives in the crust really stand out. A few years ago, I was a judge for a holiday bake-off at work. All entries were to be made from scratch. One woman entered a really lovely chocolate silk pie that she did indeed make from scratch. Except for the crust. Next to her superior filling, the phony crust was obvious.

For this afternoon's pie, I turned to another reliable standby, The Joy of Cooking Cookbook (1997 edition) and made the Deluxe Butter Flaky Pastry Dough.

First, the tools:

In addition to my measuring cups and flour sifter, I have a pastry blender, a silicon rolling pin, a large plastic cutting board, and a pie mat. These are basics in making a pie crust without making a mess.

Next, lightly mix together:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (unless the recipe states otherwise, this is the flour to use)
1 tsp white sugar
1 tsp salt

Then add 2 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter. I cut mine into smaller pieces as it makes the next step easier.

There are a couple of approaches to blending the cold, hard butter into the flour mixture. You can use a butter knife, but this will take a good bit of time and is a bit of a pain in the ass. Or, you can use the pastry blender. A poor one will not make much difference. A good one will make all the difference in the world. If you're serious about baking and doing things from scratch, this is a sound investment.

The concept is to break up the butter into small pieces that are coated with flour without softening the butter too much. A chopping motion is very effective. You should end up with pieces about the size of peas.

You should have 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons ice-cold water nearby. Drizzle the 1/3 cup into the dough. At this point, I prefer to work it by hand, which I readily admit is a tad messy. Keep it in the bowl and the mess is contained. Also do not do a full-on knead like you're making bread. The objective is to just get things to stick together - any heavier working changes the composition of the flour, and your crust will be nothing better than subflooring material.

Once you can form a ball with the dough, you're done. Clumps of butter are desirable here.

Let the dough rest for about 30 minutes before rolling it out. You can set it right in the refrigerator, or wrap it in plastic wrap first. While it is resting, prepare your filling.

A big help in rolling out a pie crust (or any other dough) are a silicon rolling pin and a pie mat. The dough won't stick to them the way it will to other surfaces, and these items are easier to clean that a wooden rolling pin and your countertop. Plus, the pie mat has circles that correspond to common sizes of pie plates.

So, ideally, your ball of dough will roll out into a perfect fit for your pie plate.

Even if you have superior tools like these, you will still need some flour. My preferred method is to drop a small handful of flour on top, flatten the ball slightly, flip it over, and repeat. This covers the surface area of the dough and the mat. Roll the dough out from the center to the edges until you have enough to cover the surface of your pie plate.

I got my dough just about evenly rolled to the corresponding circle for my pie plate. Just to make sure, this is also a good visual technique.

There is also a trick to getting it from the pie mat into the pie plate. I do not have photos as I was working solo. Basically, you place parchment paper over the rolled out crust. Then, place the large plastic cutting board over the parchment paper. Placing one hand on top of the cutting board, gently lift the mat off the counter top and flip the whole thing over so that the map is on the top. Place everything back on the counter top and peel the mat off of the dough. Gently flip it over again onto your pie plate with the cutting board now on top. Remove the board and the parchment paper, and the hard part is over. And you will notice that most of the flour is either on the crust or on the mat, not all over the counter or the floor or you.

Use your fingers to shape the dough into the plate, filling in any gaps. Then, trim the overhang with a knife and press the edges into the rim of the plate. And, you can do what my mother always used to do with the trimmings: lay them on a metal cookie sheet, sprinkle them with cinnamon and sugar, and bake until golden. These are a nice treat and a good preview of your crust before you serve it to others.

You can either pre-bake your crust or fill it right away. If you pre-bake it, you'll need to add weight to it to prevent it from bubbling up. You can buy pie weights if you like. These are just metal balls that fill a pie plate. Or, you can take another hint from my mom and just use a cup or so of dried  beans. Note that once the beans are used for this purpose, they can't really be used for anything else. Store them in a container with your other baking supplies until needed.

I made the filling and crumb topping from the Apple Sour Cream Pie recipe in my good old Betty Crocker Cookbook and baked as instructed.

Happy Long Weekend!


  1. Your pie crust is so much easier than the one I made yesterday...

    1. Sometimes you just need to keep it simple. The important thing is - did it work?