Kitchen Basics: Pie Crust and Pie Pointers for the Perfect Pie That I Swear Will Taste Better Than Costco

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pies are not only traditional desserts for the holidays (hello pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving!), but are actually pretty easy to make. They look daunting, and many people including myself, get freaked out by the whole Make My Own Dough Experiment which inevitably leads to the entire house getting covered (and I mean covered) in flour, topped with the disaster of overfilling the pie and the horrible burning smell in the oven that inevitably ends in tears and a husband consoling a wife covered in flour drinking a shot of Jack Daniels to brace my nerves as guests are due to arrive in 2 hours.

Yes, I've been there.

A few times.

And I've come out of the darkness and into the light, and am thrilled to share with you my Pie Pointers for the Perfect Pie That I Swear Will Taste Better Than Costco. Because we all know we panic and end up running to Costco on Thanksgiving or Christmas to bail our asses out. No more! Just head the rules and follow, minions...I will lead you to Pie Nirvana.

First off, you need a good pie crust! An ideal dessert pie crust is buttery but not greasy, flaky but not dry, a hint of sweet but overall neutral to pedestal the gorgeous filling you have inside. It's lightly golden on the top edges, pale golden and cooked on the sides and bottom, and soft enough to be pierced with a dinner fork with minimal effort. An excellent pie crust is when you start eating the crust instead of the filling.

And so I give you my recipe for the perfect pie crust.

Here's what you need in terms of ingredients and equipment:

Basic Pie Crust Perfection
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 sticks very cold unsalted butter, cubed (see below)
2 egg yolks
4 Tbsp ice water

Special Equipment: food processor or hand-held pastry cutter

1. First, you have to measure out your flour. You'd be surprised how many people mess this up, like I used to. You need a baker's measuring cup (sorry, the glass pyrex one is for liquids guys, not dry ingredients like flour and sugar). They're cheap so invest in one please. Dip your cup into a vat of all purpose flour and bring out a heap. Then using your finger or a butter knife, skim off the top heap like this:

This way you're left with an even cup of flour, which is very important when using exact measurements for baking.

2. Dump the two cups of flour in the bowl of your food processor or a large glass bowl if working with your hands and the pastry cutter.

3. Next, measure and again level off the sugar with an appropriate measuring tablespoon, then add it to the flour.

No, you cannot use a dinner tablespoon like you use for soup. I don't care if that's how your mother did it. She was better at cooking than you and knew how to eyeball it. When you're investing in proper measuring cups, treat yourself and invest in proper measuring spoons as well. They usually come in a set.

4. Next measure out, level, and add the kosher salt. 

5. Now add your cold, cubed butter to the flour mixture too.

In case you don't know how to cube butter, here's how you do it.

Cut your stick of butter in half, lengthwise like this. Using a sharp knife will help you cut easier.

 Then turn the stick over and cut through the other side, the same way. Now you've got 4 mini-sticks of butter.
 Then cut against the stick horizontally (short side), right down and through the 4 mini-sticks. This creates perfect cubes!

6. Now add your egg yolks.

In case you don't know how to separate the egg yolk out, you can do one of two ways:
(1) break the shell in half, then using each piece of shell, gently transfer the yolk back and forth until the whites fall out and you're left with just the yolk.
(2) crack the egg and open the shell; pour the raw egg into your hand, then catching the yolk with your fingers, gently separate your fingers allowing the whites to fall through, like this:

7. Now you have all your ingredients in your food processor (or glass bowl) and you're ready to cut the butter into the flour.

This is a fancy phrase for combining the butter and flour together. What happens is you're pressing by way of the "on" button on the processor or the handheld pastry cutter the butter to go into the flour, and the flour to go into the butter. The reason why we must keep the butter cold is we don't want it to blend in completely at this point -- we want the butter to keep some of its form so it can then melt in little tiny pieces in the oven, which creates that flaky texture we're looking for.

So if you're working with the pastry cutter, start cutting! Or even your hands! Grab the butter cubes and start mashing/meshing in, squeezing and gathering and flickering the dough off your fingers like sand. Keep doing this until the butter is combined with the flour and resembles the size of peas.

If you're using the food processor, simply press the "pulse" button on your machine a few times until your dough is mixed. You'll press the button in spurts, like revving an engine.

Either way, you want the combined dry dough to look like this:

Notice the pieces of butter coated in the dry ingredients, about the size of a pea:

That's exactly what we're looking for.

8.  Now it's time to add the ice water to bring it all home.

Ice water means "water with ice cubes in it." It does not mean really cold water from the tap. It doesn't mean frozen pieces of ice. It means getting a glass like I did, filling it with some ice, then with some water.

If using the food processor, then remove the "feed tube" at the very top.You're going to put your ice water through here because it's easier. Now make the dough! To do this, press the "dough" mode for your processor, then the "on" button to turn it on. Working pretty quickly, spoon out that ice water right into the top hole and let it go, careful not to add an ice cube! Add enough ice water so a ball comes together. You may have to add a little less or a tablespoon more, but honestly, 4 tablespoons should really be fine. Keep that processor on until it mixes into a ball. If you add too much water, it'll make the dough gummy which is no bueno. So no more than 5 tablespoons of water, but 4 should really be perfect!!!

If you're working by hand, then dump that water 2 Tbsp at a time and work it into the dough with your hands.

Either way, you want to end up with the dough coming together into a ball, like this:

Here's another view. See why it's so easy to do with a food processor? In under ten seconds the whole thing comes together in a ball for you, all by itself with the blade doing all the work for you! If you're doing it by hand, it'll probably take you around 7-10 minutes to work it in right.

9.  Dump the dough ball into a floured surface.

The texture should feel soft but still strong, with some heft to it. It's going to be heavy and really dense; not bubbly and spongy like a bread dough is.

10. Flatten the ball into a disk and round out the edges.

This will help it chill properly and will help with rolling it out later.

11.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap.

12.  Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, up to 3 days before rolling out. Rechilling the dough helps it keep its form when you're rolling it out and forming it into a dish. When the dough is too warm, it's more likely to tear and break off. You'll be surprised how much the dough will actually warm when you start working with it again -- the air, movement, and warmth of your hands will make it malleable enough later.

Voila! Now you have pie crust. Time to figure out what to stuff with and bake off! You're pretty much 85% there now in the Pie Endeavor, and now the easy part with the filling comes next.

Here are some more tricks of the trade to ensure maximum success for pie crust:
1. You must use cold butter. And I mean cold. As in directly out from your refrigerator cold, not take it out and leave it on the counter for 5 minutes cold. You need to use cold butter. Why? Because you want to keep the teeny tiny butter pieces within the crust. You'll see when you roll the dough out, it'll be dotted with small spots of butter. This is a good thing. These butter dots will melt into the dough as it cooks, creating the flaky effect that we're all looking for. When butter is too soft and then combined with the flour and water, it becomes too gummy. And the resulting pie crust is chewier and lacking that characteristic "crunch" when you slice your fork into it. So keep it cold!
2. You have to get one, good quality, pie dish to use over and over again. It can be glass or ceramic. I think ceramic cooks better but I've done great pies in regular Pyrex dishes as well. And know the difference between a pie pan and tart pan -- pie pans are round or largely crimped on the sides, while tart pans have those distinct angled edges. You can certainly use this pie crust recipe in a tart pan, but just know that then technically it's called a "tart" and not a "pie."

3.  Make sure your ingredients are not expired! Yes, flour and sugar can expire. You can't really detect it in taste (unless it's like years later), but rather in the baking process. The chemical reactions that need to happen will be thrown off. Since I do a lot of baking for the holidays starting in October, I just start fresh with all new baking ingredients like flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, etc. This way I know for sure I'm working with good products.

4. Be prepared for disaster -- there's no shame in having a Plan B pre-made pie crust!!! I do this every. single. year. Buy the pre-made pie crust and just keep it in your fridge. I think homemade does taste better, but just in case the crust gets burned or your son spills juice all over it before it bakes or whatever, you'll have a back up to work with already done and chilled and ready to be fitted in the pan.

Good luck and send me pictures of your pies!!!!!

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