Friday, July 30, 2010

Pie Crust- A Beginner's Tutorial

I've given you guys a couple of pie recipes now, but haven't talked about crusts at all. And they're so important. I mean really, even the best pie filling in the world can't save a crappy crust. So let's get to it.

Pies aren't meant to be quick and easy. They're a process. But the rewards are so wonderful. And when you give someone a homemade pie, they know you really really love them. It's like a love letter you can eat. Does it get any better?
You'll find as the recipe goes along that pie pastry is all about COLD. Cold butter, cold water, and chilling your dough before baking. This things are REALLY important to making delicious pie crusts, so don't skip them!

Pie crusts were the last hold out on my vegan baking transition. Sure, it's easy to veganize a pie crust in theory, just substitute the butter with Earth Balance. But because my pie crust typically got SO MUCH of its flavor from the butter, a vegan version just never tasted right to me. Vegan crusts tend to be softer, and lack that certain something that makes people's eyes roll back in their heads. I'm still working on the perfect vegan pie crust, but for now, this recipe works really well. Like I mentioned, it makes a big difference keeping everything cold, and chilling the crust in the freezer for about an hour before baking it. And if you're not vegan and plan to use butter, then plan for people to start harassing you to make a pie every day. 
We'll start simple with a one-crust pie recipe. Besides the ingredients below, you'll need a 9" pie pan and a rolling pin. A pastry blender and pie weights are helpful, but not necessary.

Basic Pastry Dough
recipe for one 9 inch pie shell

1 1/4 cup of Flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup cold butter, cut into cubes (use Earth Balance Butter to make it vegan)
3 tbsp ice cold water.

Make the Dough:
Cut the butter into cubes, place in a bowl, and put back in fridge or freezer to chill. Measure out the flour, sugar and salt, and stir together to combine. Add chilled butter, and using pastry blender or two knives held together, cut butter into flour quickly, until pea-sized lumps appear. Add cold water one tbsp at a time, mixing together with a fork until it just comes together (you may not need all 3 tbsp). Gather dough into ball and smooth together.
Roll the Dough:
Many pie crust recipes call for chilling the dough after mixing. This recipe is best if rolled right away, and chilled later. If not using right away, form into a small circle, or rectangle, wrap in plastic wrap, place in a freezer bag, and freeze for up to 2 months. If using now, flour your surface and rolling pin well. Form dough into a round, and pat down to flatten into a disk about 4 inches in diameter. Place on floured surface, and sprinkle some flour on top. Start in the center and roll out to the edges, stopping just before the edge. Lift dough and turn 1/4. Continue rolling and turning until the dough is about 12 inches in diameter. If your kitchen is very hot, you may need to stick the dough in the fridge to chill during the rolling process.
Rolling dough is one of the hardest parts of the process and takes the most practice to find the right amount of pressure to roll it out evenly. Take your time, and don't be discouraged if it doesn't look perfect! If the dough happens to rip or tear at any point, wet your finger, and piece it back together using the water as "glue". 

Transfer the Dough:
I like to fold my dough loosely into quarters and then place into a 9" pie pan. Some people like to roll the dough around the rolling pin, but I've never had luck with that method. Unfold pie dough into pan and allow the dough to fall down to the bottom of the pan. Do not stretch the dough, but rather lift up the dough one side at a time, and press it gently into the bottom and sides until it is smooth and even. Trim off excess dough, leaving about 1-2 inch overhang.

Crimp the Dough:
If this has already been too much work for you, you can simply tuck the excess dough under the top rim, and run a fork around the edge to crimp together. If you'd like to get extra OOOHs and AHHHs, now would be the time to crimp the edge. Fold excess dough under itself along the top of the dish. There are several methods of crimping. Smitten Kitchen uses this V version. Mine is similar, though I place both hands perpendicular to the rim, and with both hands' pointer finger and thumbs making a V shape, place them on the dough and push them together and up slightly to create a sharp ridge, and continue this process all the way around. Crimping takes some practice to get used to, and once you find a method that works for you, just stick with it!
Chill the Dough:
Now you need to chill the dough for at least a half an hour. Chilling at this point keeps the dough from shrinking, and helps to maintain all that crimping work you just did. If you're using regular butter, 1/2 hour to 1 hour in the fridge will be fine. If you're using vegan Earth Balance, I think it works best if you wrap it lightly and stick in in the freezer for about an hour. While the dough is chilling, you can start prepping your pie filling.
Partially and Pre-Baked Crusts:
Once your pie crust is done chilling, depending on the recipe you're using, you can then fill with ingredients and bake away. Some recipes call for Partially baked or Blind Baked crusts. When partially baking a crust, you're baking it part of the way, then adding filling and baking the rest together. This is usually done for fillings that are extra wet so that the crust bakes properly and doesn't become a soggy mess. For no-bake fillings (like this blueberry pie), you need to completely bake the crust before you add the filling, which is called "blind baking." For both of these methods, you need to weigh down the crust so that it doesn't bubble up while baking. There are several methods to use, and all require lining the pie crust with either aluminum foil or parchment paper. You can then add uncooked rice, dried beans, or pie weights. Pie weights are one of those things that aren't exactly necessary, but they sure do impress people when they see them on your shelf.
Once your crust is lined and weighed down, place pan in a oven pre-heated to 350 degrees, and bake for about 20 minutes. If you're partially baking the crust, you can remove the dish at this time, remove the foil or paper and weights, then follow the recipe for further baking. If you're blind baking, you're still going to remove the weights, and then bake for another 10 minutes, or until the crust looks browned and smells delicious. You'll want to cool the crust completely before adding any no-bake filling.
Well, you did it! I knew you could! If the first one (or ten) happen to be a flop, remember that tomorrow is another day. Patience and persistence are the keys to becoming a master pie maker. Just keep practicing, and you can be pumping out homemade crusts in ten minutes or less, just like your Grandma, or your Aunt Betty, or whoever it is in your family that wins all those blue ribbons for pies.
And trust me, the payoff is TOTALLY worth it. And until then, imperfect pie crusts are cute, and let people know for sure that they're homemade and filled with love!

Have you been bitten by the pie bug? Here's some other resources to check out:
A friend gave me Williams-Sonoma's Pie and Tart cookbook as a birthday gift two years ago, and I learned a lot of what I know from that book. Their pastry dough recipe is still my go-to for any pie and I've had rarely any problems with it that weren't heat or weather related. If you're new to pies or a seasoned pro, I recommend this book to either get you started in the wonderful world of pastry or to improve your game. 

Pie by Ken Haedrich is also a very thorough tomb that will get you excited about about everything pies! It's big, it's hefty, and it's got 300 recipes for every pie imaginable (and those you've never thought of before). 

And here's some other blogs who've written extensively and much more coherently about crust making than this post: Smitten Kitchen (she's got lessons 101, 102, and 103), Joy the Baker, and Joe Pastry

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