My husband has become something of a pie connoisseur over the past few years. While it is no secret that baking is not my forte, I have happily enjoyed the results of Mr. R’s culinary pursuits in the art of pastry.
And so as a tribute to his passion for pie-making, and in conjunction with the holidays (and the completion of his third semester of law school) we have decided in these last two weeks before Christmas to conduct the Twelve Days of Pie. That’s right, beginning tomorrow, we will bake a pie daily until Christmas spanning everything from classic favorites to new twists on traditional recipes, from healthy, savory pies to completely decadent, buttery treats. And then post about it here.
So get ready!
But first, a primer on the most important and defining aspect of pie: the crust.
Pies have been a part of our diets at least as far back as we have written record of what human civilizations have consumed. There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians ate a primitive sort of pie involving items mixed into a dough, and the ancient Romans are believed to have created the more recognizable form of pie crust known today. In the days before kitchen utensils and cooking wares, dough was used as the primary vessel in which food was cooked and served. It fulfilled a highly functional purpose and was likely not terribly tasty. But after several centuries, numerous cultural interpretations, and the advent of the modern kitchen, the creation of a pie crust has become something of an art form.
When baking a pie, despite whatever filling you choose, the crust is always the common denominator. It can truly make or break a recipe and elevate an otherwise forgettable pie to something of the divine. So allow me to begin by imploring you to resist the temptation to use pre-made pie crusts.
Actually, let me say that again.
Do not ever use a pre-made pie crust!
Yes, making pie dough from scratch and rolling it out into perfection is intimidating and takes a bit of practice. Do not expect your first attempt to look particularly attractive. But I promise you it will taste 100 times better than whatever kind of crap they stock in the freezer of your local supermarket.
Just as a reference, here are the ingredients in a Pillsbury frozen pie crust:
Enriched Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Partially Hydrogenated Lard (Adds a Trivial Amount of Trans Fat) with BHA and BHT Added to Protect Flavor, Water, Sugar, Whey, Salt, Baking Soda, Sodium Metabisulfite (Preservative), Colored with Yellow 5 and Yellow 6.
Even the most organic, natural, highest-rated pre-made pie crust I could find contains palm oil. Palm oil! Not going to get into that issue right now, but I think I’d rather have butter myself…
Really, the results of making your own crust from scratch will be worth the effort.
The following instructions are adapted primarily from the book Biscuits, Spoonbread and Sweet Potato Pie by Bill Neal. This book is Mr. R’s go-to resource for many of the pastry recipes he makes and you are likely find it open on our counter on any given day of the week.
Alton Brown also has a good tutorial on making pie crust (though his ingredients differ significantly):
yields two single or one double crust
3 Cups all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons butter, chilled
4 Tablespoons shortening
7 Tablespoons cold water
Preparing the dough
Sift together flour and salt. Cut chilled butter and shortening into pieces and mix into flour by hand until fully combined (Alton Brown uses a food processor for this part). Texture will still be coarse and only slightly less dry. Avoid overworking; you want the butter to remain cold (re-chill in refrigerator if this happens).
Keep a bowl of icewater next to you and work it in, tablespoon-by-tablespoon.
When dough is complete, divide into two pieces, wrap, and chill in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes. Dough can also be chilled overnight or even frozen, but will be a bit harder to work with.
Rolling out the dough
Remove one piece of dough from fridge and turn out one piece onto a lightly floured surface. You want to avoid using too much flour, which will dry out the dough, but do use enough to prevent sticking.
We have a silicone mat for this purpose which helps prevent sticking and over-flouring.
If dough is very hard (such as after freezing) you may need to knead the edges a bit to get it going. When it is soft enough to roll out, sprinkle with a bit of flour, and press outward, not down.
Dough can be quite finicky; sometimes, as in the above picture, it is easy to work with, and other times, as below, it is difficult. It depends on a multitude of factors, such as how long you knead it, how long it has chilled, or even the ambient temperature and humidity. Don’t get discouraged if your dough looks more like the second picture — this crust had been frozen, which exacerbates the cracking — no one can tell the difference once the pie is assembled.
You may wish to shift the dough around or turn over, to prevent sticking and ensure even rolling.
Again, do not worry about aesthetics. The results will be the same whether you have a beautifully crimped crust or one that took a little finagling.
Assembling the pie
Fold the crust in half, and then into quarters, so that you can easily center it over a pie pan.
Press the pie into the pan. If pieces have torn or broken off, don’t fret — just stick them back together.
For most pies, simply pour the filling into the pan and bake per the instructions of the recipe.
Some recipes, however, do call for a partially or completely pre-baked crust. To pre-bake a crust, just line the bottom with a piece of foil and add some dried beans or rice to weigh it down. Bake at 450 for 8 minutes, remove, and prick bottom all over with a fork. Return to oven for another 8 minutes and remove for a partially baked shell. If the recipe calls for a fully baked crust, first check if any more pricks are needed (crust is puffing up excessively), and then bake for a final 8 minutes.
See? It’s not so bad. One bite into that pie and you will be so thankful you took the time to make the crust yourself.