Two Methods for Winning a Pie Crust Bake-Off

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Ezekiel J. Emanuel


One of the pleasures of summer and fall is fruit pies. My friend Helen claimed she had a wonderful pie crust recipe, noting that we were in the midst of the only two weeks when sour cherries were in season. Ah, sour cherries! When I was a kid, my family took long driving trips. (Yes, you wonder about the sanity of my parents, confining the three Emanuel boys in a car for five or six hours at a time.) At every lunch or dinner, we ordered cherry pie for dessert.

Not ones to demur from a challenge, we went at it—Helen's pie crust versus mine. Helen's aims to be flaky and light. Mine is made for apple pies and is supposed to be more cookie-ish, sweeter and firmer, and able to absorb more fruit juice without falling apart. Mine is also easier. Helen works her crust by hand. I put the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer. Then, as the mixer is going, I add cut-up butter and shortening and finally add a few tablespoons of water (or if apple pie, apple cider). The recipes are below.

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Ezekiel J. Emanuel

I also learned a new technique for rolling out dough from Helen: put down two overlapping sheets of plastic wrap, place the dough on the sheets, fold the cling wrap over to cover the dough, and roll. It works like magic, with less mess, and it is easier to flip into the pie pan.

The result was clear—Helen won. Her crust was flaky and buttery. You could enjoy its taste even without any cherry filling. But it did not hold up so well to the running juices of the pie. (You can also see from the accompanying pictures that I am the "ugly chef" and her pie is much more aesthetically pleasing.)

Zeke's Crust Recipe

    • 2 ½ cups flour
    • 5 tablespoons sugar
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • 6 tablespoons butter
    • 6 tablespoons shortening (can substitute 12 tablespoons margarine)
    • 4 to 6 tablespoons water (or apple cider for apple pie)

Place flour, sugar and salt into electric mixer. Turn on at low speed. Add cut-up butter and shortening and mix until the mixture looks like cornmeal. Then add water one tablespoon water at a time until the mixture begins to congeal. Collect the dough and wrap in cling wrap. Refrigerate for 60 to 120 minutes. Then roll out as described above.

Helen's Crust Recipe

    • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    • 1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
    • 1/4 cup cold vegetable shortening (preferably trans-fat-free)
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 5 to 7 tablespoons ice water
    • 1 tablespoon sugar

Mix flour, butter, shortening, and salt in a bowl with your fingers until like cornmeal. Add 5 tablespoons ice water and stir until incorporated, adding more if needed. Mix all the dough together and refrigerate for at least one hour.

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Ezekiel J. Emanuel

Ezekiel Emanuel is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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