pastry, science, and avoiding kitchen temper tantrums.

This is where I tell you how to make a pie crust. I started writing about the quiche I made last night for dinner, but then realized that really this blog should start with a pie-dough-primer, so that’s what this is. I am not a pastry chef, a professional cook, or an expert of any kind. But I struggled for years with my mom to make a decent pie crust, and now I find this task relatively easy. That’s saying something, I think.

Over the years I’ve tried many pastry recipes – as mentioned in my introductory post, many of these recipes were dubbed “foolproof” and yet they didn’t work for my mother and I. I did not have the techniques then that I do now, so probably a lot of those recipes are actually great, but they are not the recipes I use. When I first starting making pie on my own, as an adult, I read voraciously through the Cook’s Illustrated America’s Best Test Kitchen chapter on pies. They concluded, after several trials, that the best pastry was made with a combination of both butter and vegetable shortening. I used their recipe for a few years, and had no major complaints, really. Except….shortening is gross. I’m sorry, it just is. Plus there was the time that my mom accidentally bought the simulated-butter-bright-yellow variety and it was so neon and fake looking that I think that weekend was the last time I actually used shortening. The use of shortening seems pretty accepted in the world of pastry chefs, but it’s just not for me. As you already know, I’m a butter girl.

What really changed things for me was reading Smitten Kitchen’s Pie Crust 102 post. If you want to learn how to make good pastry, please please please please read this post from start to finish, and really pay attention. It is such an excellent rundown of what really matters, and when I first read it I had such an “A-ha!” moment. I didn’t study science in school, but when it comes to cooking and baking – science really solidifies things in my mind. Understanding the science behind pie crust changed the way I make dough, for the better. Things like – do NOT use your food processor! And, most importantly, visible butter is the key to wonderful flakiness in your finished product. Most recipes say to leave “pea-sized” bits of butter in your dough, and that’s fine. I leave bigger pieces, because I’m crazy like that. I prefer to use my hands to blend butter into my dough, and when I’m through my butter chunks generally look like flat, dime-sized rounds. Try things out and see what you like best, but don’t make your butter smaller than pea-sized or you will have tough pastry in the end. The all-butter pastry recipe in the above Smitten Kitchen post is also my standard pastry recipe now. If I’m making a single-crust pie, I cut it in half. I often swap some of the all purpose flour for whole wheat flour, especially if I am making a savoury main-dish pie. I only ever use salted butter – I have no place for unsalted butter in my kitchen. Other than that, I don’t change it. It works.

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One last thing – the rolling out. You want to do this as quickly as possible so that your pastry doesn’t warm up too much – the warmer it is, the more the butter melts and the stickier and harder to work with that it gets. The most frustrating times are when the dough sticks like glue to your rolling surface and you can’t get the dough off without tearing it apart. If your dough does tear, try not to re-roll it, but instead patch it in the pie plate by pressing the ripped pieces back together. It might not look perfect, but it will taste better than if you re-roll it, overworking your dough and making it tough. For a long time I always rolled out my dough between two pieces of plastic wrap. It didn’t stick to the counter or to my rolling pin, and though there were often weird plastic wrinkles, it mostly worked quite well. I now have a free-standing countertop cart thing in my kitchen, and the top of it is made from something called “rubber wood”. Whatever this strange composite material is, it is a dream to roll out pastry on – if I flour the surface, it doesn’t stick at all. I’ve had mediocre luck with those old school waxy pastry sheets, and pretty bad luck with rolling on counters that don’t have some rubber component to them. See what works for you, and if your surface is too sticky try the plastic wrap!

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All Butter Pastry – makes one single-crust pie. Double if you want a double-crust pie. (adapted, barely, from Smitten Kitchen)

  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 3/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup salted butter, cut into cubes and chilled in the freezer for 10-15 minutes
  • ice water

Blend together the flours, sugar, and salt in a large bowl with a fork. Add your chilled butter cubes. Using your hands or a pastry blender (I prefer my hands), cut/smoosh the butter into the flour mixture. Stop when you have dime or pea-sized pieces of butter and the mixture looks crumbly. Add ice water, a tiny bit at a time, until the dough will pat together without being sticky to the touch. Form dough into a ball, flatten slightly, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for 15-30 minutes, an hour, or overnight. Whatever works best. I find 30 minutes is usually best. Remove dough from fridge and from plastic, and place on a well-floured surface. With a floured rolling pin, roll your dough – always rolling from the centre outwards – until it is a rough circle about 2-3 inches larger than the diameter of your pie plate. Carefully remove the dough from your surface and flip into your pie plate. Going around the edges, lift the edge of the dough and gently press the dough along the bottom and sides of your plate – i.e. make sure that the dough is in contact with the pie plate, not hanging with space underneath. Cut the excess dough edges, leaving 1 inch. You can throw out this leftover dough or roll it out into tiny shapes, sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar, and make tiny dough cookies. Fold that inch over to make your pie edge. Crimp by pushing your finger along the edge to make dents, press with a fork or use your preferred method of crust-edge-decorating. I like to then chill my dough in the pie plate for at least a half hour, because I rarely blind bake my pastry and this helps the bottom of the crust from getting too soggy from your filling.

Then, of course, fill it with delicious filling, bake it up, and unabashedly enjoy.

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4 thoughts on “pastry, science, and avoiding kitchen temper tantrums.

  1. Pingback: cauliflower & caramelized onion quiche. | a pie a week for a year

  2. I tried to comment a couple of times when you started this blog, but the cyber gods were agin me. So, I am trying for the third time. What I wanted to say is something like this: Hooray! Thanks for taking up the torch, and taking the pressure off me. Marnie would be pleased, and I am very proud and especially thankful that now I don’t have this burden following me. Pie making is a dying art, and although it seems to have skipped a generation, I am glad to see it is alive and well. Kudos, and many thanks, love, Mom. P.S. you will be expected to perform this feat multiple times on command when you visit. Here’s a tip: Don’t ask anyone to watch your pies while you take a shower.

  3. Pingback: Veggie Pot Pie. | a pie a week for a year

  4. Pingback: Pecan Pie. | a pie a week for a year

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