Best Part of the Pie

MEMORIES OF gluttony often inspire cooks, and the memory of my mother’s pie crust has driven me to pursue the elusive art of making pastry. Nothing could be more satisfying, to my mind, than the crunch of a crust whose layers break in the mouth, adding savory bite to a sweet fruit filling. At parties where the dessert is pie, I watch other people’s plates, waiting for somebody to leave the rolled edge. This glorious, most crackly morsel of all is what I used to pinch from leftover pie at our house, hoping that my theft would be attributed to a clumsily handled knife.

I couldn’t understand why so many cooks refuse to make their own crusts until I started trying to make them the way my mother did—a skill, family legend has it, that she acquired by baking pies every night for a month. I soon realized why the majority of crusts one is served are bits of white paste from which one scrapes fruit (which more often than not is overcooked and syrupy). Making crusts isn’t easy. I was progressing well last winter using The Complete Book of Pastry, by Bernard Clayton, Jr., and At Easy as Pie, by Susan G. Purdy, when I happened on a demonstration of pastry-making given by Flo Braker, whose splendid book The Simple Art of Perfect Baking had just been published. Now I don’t smile sympathetically when people tell me that they would rather buy a crust than face the chore of making and rolling one. I tell them how to do it right.

Two PRINCIPLES underlie all the fetishes that cooks say will produce a perfect pie crust. First, manipulating a mixture of flour and water produces gluten—the elastic web that makes bread dough deliciously chewy but that is too chewy for a pie crust, which should be light and tender. Second, chilling all utensils and ingredients keeps the small pieces of fat in the flour from melting, so that when the crust is baked they will form layers, just as they do in a puff pastry.

There are several ways to avoid producing too much gluten, one of which is to handle the dough as little as possible. Another is to choose a low-protein flour, because that kind produces the least gluten. If you live in the South and can buy White Lily flour, use that. Or you can order white pastry flour, which is low in protein, from H. Roth & Son (P.O. Box F, 1577 First Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028). All-purpose flour does fine too. Whole-wheat flour makes a less flaky crust, but a tablespoon or two mixed with white flour won’t damage the texture and will add color and a hint of the nutty flavor that people who make whole-wheat crusts are after. Refrigerating the dough relaxes the gluten and evenly distributes the moisture. Finally, because fat gets in the way of the waterflour combination that makes gluten, the purer the fat you use, the more delicate your crust will be.

The fat you prefer practically gives away your nationality. Americans use shortening or lard, both of which, being a hundred percent fat, produce the flakiest crusts. The French use butter, which in this country is usually 20 percent water, because they think it tastes better. I don’t. Butter gives character to a crust, but the more you add, the more flakiness you lose. (That’s why an allbutter crust works so well for fruit tarts: it’s strong.) Flo Braker uses two ounces of shortening and one and a half ounces of butter per cup of flour. I prefer the classic American all-shortening crust— the usual proportion is a third of a cup of shortening per cup of flour. Packaged lard leaves a slight aftertaste that many people object to, although it makes a very tender crust. Pork-kidney fat— “leaf lard”—is purer and its flavor less obvious, but it is hard to find. Even when people can’t actually taste lard in a crust, just the thought of it has a dispiriting effect on them; they look betrayed and slightly sick when they hear you’ve used it, and not only because of cholesterol.

For a single nine-inch crust, use a third of a cup of shortening and one cup of flour mixed with a half teaspoon of salt (you’ll probably want to make more than one batch; unused dough keeps for months in the freezer). Cut the chilled but not frozen fat into small pieces. The next step is to combine the fat and the flour—a task almost as scary as rolling out dough. (If you make a butter-andshortening crust, add the butter first, because it will be harder to break up.) For years I used a food processor, arrogant in the knowledge that its steel blade could cut fat into flour more quickly and finely than I could. Braker never uses one, because she wants to see how large the fat pieces are and to feel the dough. She has persuaded me to go back to using a pastry blender: the kind with four thin parallel blades rather than four wires, because the goal is to cut the fat into pieces, not to mash it. They should range in size from tiny BB-shotlike pellets to lumps as big as the eraser on a new pencil. Courageous downward strokes with the pastry blender produce the fastest results. Use the blender to fold in flour from the bottom of the bowl, and clean the blades by scraping them with the back of a knife. Braker recommends a bowl of any color except white, so that you can see how much loose flour remains to be worked in.

Adding water is tricky. You want to add just enough for the dough to cohere—three to four tablespoons per cup of flour. Acid breaks down gluten, so many people substitute a teaspoon of white vinegar or orange or lemon juice for one of water. The liquid should be ice-cold. Start with two tablespoons, tossing with a two-pronged kitchen fork, and then add the third, a teaspoon at a time, sprinkling it over the dough and blending. Don’t be shy about adding another teaspoon or two; a dry dough will be crumbly and difficult to roll, as Braker pointed out when I bragged about how little liquid I had been using.

When the lumps become the size of marbles, stop adding liquid. A food processor is most dangerous at this point, because if you wait until the dough forms a ball over the blade, you will have a rubber crust. Gently gather a handful of dough, and if it sticks together, it’s ready. Touch the dough as little as possible, and use your fingertips and the heel of your hand: the palm is too hot. Divide the dough into as many pieces as you will roll out. Scrape each piece onto a sheet of foil. When dough is wrapped in plastic, it sweats, which results in a gummy surface that will cause the rolling pin to stick unless you add more flour than is good for the crust. Foil, which is more porous, does away with this problem, and it is perfect for storing dough in the freezer.

Lift the four corners to press the dough into a ball that just comes together. I thought I’d invented this trick until I saw Braker do it. She said that she thought she’d invented it. Maida Heatter, in her New Book of Great Desserts, says that her mother used to do the same thing. Press the wrapped ball into a disk about an inch high, so that it will be easier to roll out later.

BEFORE ROLLING OR freezing the dough you should chill it for at least four hours (overnight is best) on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator, where it is warm enough for the gluten to relax and not so cold that the fat hardens quickly.

I’ve tried rolling on marble, and its coldness really does make the job easier, but I can’t figure out where to keep a slab, so I don’t have one. Instead I use a canvas pastry cloth, which becomes seasoned with flour to make a non-stick surface. Add flour sparingly, and keep a brush nearby to wipe off the excess, but do add some, and keep the dough moving to ensure that it doesn’t stick. Always rolling in the same direction, move the dough an eighth of a turn at a time to form a circle, a quarter of a turn to form a square. If any sticks to the pin, scrape it off then and there and flour the pin. Don’t flip the dough over, or you’ll end up adding too much flour. If the edges splay out and look like continents on a map, which always happens, trim the peninsulas and use them to fill in the bays. If you need more than a tablespoon of flour to stop the dough from sticking, refrigerate the dough for ten minutes before continuing. Braker uses guides to make sure that the dough is exactly an eighth of an inch high—the thickness at which it bakes best. At her suggestion, I glued together two strips of shirt cardboard to make a guide an eighth of an inch high, which I set next to the dough. I bent down to counter level to check the thickness and discovered that I had been rolling mine too thin. (So that was why it had been tearing.)

A glass or ceramic pie plate conducts heat best and is the first choice for baking, followed by black metal and then aluminum. Butter the plate for a crisper result and easier removal of the first wedge. To transfer the dough to the plate, drape it over the pin (keeping the side that was facing the pastry cloth down). Unfurl it toward you, so that you can keep the plate in view and center the dough. A pastry cloth will help you get the dough onto the pin. If this procedure seems too daring, fold the dough into quarters and unfold it over the plate.

Press the dough to fit, but lightly. Stretched dough will shrink in the oven and make holes. If the dough tears in transit, trim a piece from the edge and patch it—don’t pull the sides to join them. Use scissors to trim the edge, leaving an inch all around. You can fold this under and crimp it for a single-crust pie, or, if you plan to add a top crust, leave it dangling. Give the dough another rest in the refrigerator, this time for half an hour, before baking.

After much experimentation I’ve decided to prebake bottom crusts whether the recipe calls for that or not. They always taste better. Lining the empty shell with foil and filling it three-quarters full with aluminum weights or rice or beans might seem like an affectation, but it should prevent the crust from bubbling. (The rice or beans can’t be cooked after they have been baked, but you can store them in a jar and use them forever as pie weights.) Bake for six minutes at 425°, remove the weights and foil, and continue for another five to twelve minutes at 375°— until the crust turns opaque (if you’re going to bake it again) or until it browns (if you aren’t). If the crust does start to bubble in the oven, prick it with a toothpick. As a precaution against juices from the filling seeping into the bottom crust, brush it with a thin layer of egg wash (made from an egg and a tablespoon of water) after you remove the weights and before you finish prebaking it.

Roll out top crusts the same way you do bottom crusts, and moisten the rim of the bottom crust to seal the two. Books mention several glazes to brown a top crust—a tablespoon of sugar sprinkled over it or a coating of egg wash or milk. The difference is in appearance rather than taste. If the filling is wet and you haven’t prebaked the bottom crust, don’t linger over decorating the top crust or the bottom will be soggy. I won’t go into fillings except to say that letting a fruit filling marinate with sugar and some lemon juice for ten minutes or so makes it smoother and more flavorful.

A fruit pie usually takes an hour to cook and is ready when juices bubble up and a tester easily pierces the fruit. Braker tests to see if a bottom crust that she hasn’t prebaked is done, by listening for the tiny sound a toothpick makes going through it. Once I bent down beside the pie as she did this, and I actually heard a satisfying crunch when the toothpick broke through.

The instructions for preparing crust make it sound harder than it is. Practice will free you from worrying about the exact size of the pieces of shortening or the precise amount of liquid to use. Once you have some experience, it shouldn’t take you longer than ten minutes to make the dough and three minutes to roll it out.

Don’t believe friends who say, as I heard a woman exclaim when she pulled a pre-rolled circle of crust from a package, “It’s a miracle! You never have to bother with crust!” The miracle turned out to taste like the box it came in, with a little salt. You do have to make your own crust for a good pie. Otherwise you might as well bake apples.