Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Zen of Pie Crust

Pies I made for our summer solstice party

It's officially summer! With plenty of fresh fruit available, it's a great time to make pie. My favorites are rhubarb and sour cherry, both of which my family hate, so I make them when I'm having a party or taking something to a potluck.

Pies aren't just for summer. Homemade chicken pot pie on a cold January night has lifted my family's spirits by hitting the comfort food spot--besides providing great leftovers for the next day. When our sour cherry tree was alive I would freeze some of the fruit and make a pie or cobbler for a winter potluck.

Many a pie-loving friend laments their lack of crust-making prowess. As a result, they won't make pie, or worse, they'll resort to buying those crappy, cardboardy crusts available in the freezer section. NO! Friends don't let friends buy crappy pie crust! I don't believe people when they say the crusts are better than they were before. They may be better, but they're not better than making your own. I don't care how good your filling is--a mediocre crust ruins the whole works. It's like putting the Hope Diamond in a plastic Target bag.

I've been mulling teaching a course at my church called "Dough Demystified." It would teach people to make all kinds of dough--bread, pizza, dumplings, pasta, and of course, pie crust.

My great-uncle Gilbert was a mechanical genius. I once asked him if he planned to write down all his secrets. He looked at me as if I was crazy. "Well, hell," he said. "I suppose anyone could figure out all that stuff if they just fooled around with for awhile. That's all I ever did." My point is that people who can make pie crust do not have special powers. They have a high tolerance for trial and error. You can build that resilience, too, with a little practice. In the spirit of public service, I offer a pie crust tutorial. You had a bad experience in your pie-crust-making adventures. You went to roll out the crust and it kept crumbling into asymmetrical pieces that crumbled when you lifted them into the pie plate. Set those memories aside. You can do this.

Assemble your ingredients: a sifter, a bowl, a tablespoon, a knife, a pastry cutter, a fork, 2 cups flour, 1 tsp. salt, 2/3 cup plus two tablespoons of COLD unsalted butter, a 2-cup measure with ice water, extra flour, a rolling pin, and most importantly, a can-do attitude, patience, love in your heart, and a song on your lips (this last is optional, but it helps me). Sift the flour and salt into the bowl. Divide the butter into equal parts, cutting the first 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon portion into tiny cubes, about the size of baby peas. You can put the other portion in the fridge to keep it cold. Cut the first butter portion into the flour with the pastry cutter. More important than your technique is your resolve to stay with it until the mixture resembles cornmeal. It might help you to use a cup of cornmeal as a visual aid. I rotate my bowl as I use the pastry cutter. This part of the process may take a minute or two, maybe longer. Use your best judgment.

Cut up the second portion of butter and start to mix it with the pastry cutter. This time you will work with the same amount of commitment, can-do-ness, patience and love of self and others. After all, pie is meant for sharing. This time you will cut the butter until it is the size of baby peas, all of the butter, not just some. If you've got a few marble-sized pieces in there, keep working it.

This is what my pie crust looked like right before I began adding the ice water. I love my pastry cutter, about $7.99 at Target.

Then add the water. Here in the super-dry Rocky Mountain region, I add more water than the recipe calls for. When I lived in coastal California and humid Vermont, I used less. Wherever you live, this step is as subject to your use of judgment as cutting the butter is. Most recipes call for 4-6 tablespoons of water. Anne Waugaman, my sister in pie-making, swears by cold vodka. I haven't tried that. Seems like a waste of good vodka. First I add five tablespoons (keep in mind what the local climate is and add accordingly), fluff it in with a fork, and pick up a pinch and see if it holds together in a tidy little ball, not too wet or too dry. If it's still crumbly, I add another tablespoon of ice water and pick up another pinch. Careful how much you handle the dough with your fingers. You don't want to get the butter too warm, because then rolling out the dough becomes more difficult.

Rolling the dough is the part of the process that requires the best of you. Replace the tape that tells you your mission is doomed with a vision of success--pie crust that crumbles in your mouth. My mother-in-law swore by her pie-crust guide, a plastic mat with concentric circles that gave your crust rolling parameters. I found it annoying. It slipped around underneath the crust as I rolled the dough. Instead I use my kitchen table. I sprinkle a little flour on the table and spread it around to roughly the size I want to roll it. Again, use your judgment with the amount of flour--too much and you get the crumbles, too little and it sticks. It's that judgment thing again. You can add more as you roll. Butter a pie plate. Divide the dough and flatten the first lump into a disk a little smaller than a corn tortilla. Rub some flour on your rolling pin and roll evenly across the dough. Turn the dough a quarter turn and roll again. Turn the dough over and roll again. Continue this process, turning the dough a quarter turn and turning it over, adding more flour if necessary. Before you know it you'll have rolled your dough into the bottom layer of crust. If you're not satisfied, there's no crime in starting over. Roll it back up into a ball, wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for ten minutes before rolling it out again. Remember, you want it cold. In the meantime, you can work the second lump of dough in the same way as above and line your buttered pie plate with it. It's better to roll it out bigger than the pie plate. You can use a pair of kitchen shears to cut off the excess. It's really great sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and baked until golden brown.

Some cooks always prick their bottom crusts with a fork, but I recommend reading the recipe you're using to see if that's indicated. I've found that cutting vents in the top crust is sufficient. Place your filling in the crust, and roll out the top, again, making it a little bigger than the pie plate. Artfully crimp the edges with your fingers or use a fork. This is all I ever do. Other pie makers swear by pie crust crimpers, but that seems like a waste of money to me. I found this video helpful.

It's best to view making pie crust as an adventure. When you first start out, the results are uncertain. It's not enough to use the proper ingredients. There's art and science involved in the process, but no magic. It's following all the steps, one at a time. There are no shortcuts. There are do-overs.

I'm with my uncle Gilbert on this: making pie crust is something anyone can do, if you're willing to play around with it and to risk not getting it right the first few times. It's worth the time and trouble. People are always so impressed when you make your own pie, from crust to filling. That's because you can taste the trust, compassion, love and a successful process.

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