I have a confession to make: until just a couple of years ago, I never made pie crust from scratch. The ability to roll out a pie crust seemed to me to be one of Hercules’ tasks, doable by only the most accomplished of culinary wizards. Or Ma, in Little House on the Prairie. So, on the rare occasions I made pie, I fell back on Pillsbury and their frozen, pre-rolled semblance of a pie crust. Interestingly, until just a couple of years ago, I also never really cared for the crust part of a pie; I thought pie was really only about the filling. It turns out I was missing two critical aspects of pie crust: number 1, butter; number 2 wax paper.
I’ll begin with butter. An all butter crust, in my opinion, is the key to pie crust. In fact, pie crust just may be best viewed as a vehicle for eating butter. Some say that it turns out less flaky, but this can be overcome, and the flavor is unbeatable! Plus, compared to Crisco, margarine, vegetable oil, or the manufactured fats in commercial pre-made crusts, butter is a veritable health food. Once the choice of fat has been made, the list of ingredients needed for a pie crust is quite short. You probably have them on hand already: cold butter, flour, salt, baking powder (optional), cold water, and apple cider vinegar (optional). The ingredients come together just as simply as the list. Especially if you have a food processor!
Most of the time I avoid fancy equipment when I cook. If a recipe can’t be made with the cookware you could have found in a house on the frontier during the westward expansion, well then generally I want nothing to do with it. BUT, a friend of mine let me use his food processor for the last pie crust I made, and I must admit, I’m starting to sing a different tune. The dough was ready to go practically before I’d even begun. You just put the dry ingredients into the food processor, cut the butter into chunks and add it, whirl for a few moments until it looks like crumbs, pour in the liquid, and whirl a couple more seconds. Then scoop out the crumbles – it won’t be all stuck together yet – and press them together into a ball.
Making the dough by hand takes slightly more effort and attention but is more fun in some ways because it really gets you in touch with your ingredients. You begin by mixing the dry ingredients together and adding the cut up cold chunks of butter. Then, use your fingers to rub the flour mix and butter together. You can grab whole chunks and kind of glom them together in a fistful and then break it apart with your fingers. Do this until the butter is fairly well incorporated, so it looks kind of like large crumbs or sand with some chunks of butter still as large as peas. Then add the wet ingredients. Start by mixing with a spoon, but then dig back in with your hands to press the dough together in a ball. Once you have your dough ball from either the food processor or hand method, press it by hand into a flattened, thick disc, wrap it in plastic wrap and chill it in the fridge for at least 20 minutes and preferably an hour. Having well chilled dough is critical because it will help keep the dough cool while you roll it, and this seals butter pockets into the dough, and those butter pockets will eventually become the flaky air pockets that makes for a good pie crust. For a two crust pie (that is, crust on top and bottom), divide the dough into two separate discs, one slightly larger than the other for the bottom, before chilling.
When you’re done chilling and ready to roll, it is time for the wax paper to enter the scene, stage left. The use of wax paper in rolling out a pie crust revolutionized my world! One of the main reasons pie crust has a reputation for thwarting even the most skilled cooks is that when you roll it, it has a tendency to stick to the rolling pin (if you don’t own a rolling pin, a wine bottle or a tall glass works well), the counter, or both, and then come apart into pieces as you try to unstick it and move it into the pie tin. Not so if you just have a sheet of wax paper below and on top of your dough (saran wrap works as a stand in also)! Between the sheets of wax paper, roll your dough discs out, one at a time, until they are large enough to lay into the pie tin (don’t worry if the dough cracks in places as you roll, just push it back together with your fingers. Once it’s covered with filling no one will see it anyway! But don’t try to fold it to lift and then unfold it on the pie – apparently this is what you do for Crisco crusts – because it’ll break). It does take a little bit of careful peeling back and sometimes using a knife to slide between the wax paper and the dough to get it all off, so it’s still not easy as pie (ooh, that was bad), but it’s certainly easier. If you don’t have wax paper or saran wrap, you have to use flour. Then, be careful and patient! (I wish you luck !) *Update: the ability to roll pie crust using just a dust of flour turns out to be a skill that you can learn with practice and persistance. It took a lot of crusts, but I actually now never use wax paper. I love rolling dough on just a lightly floured surface. You get to know dough, its texture, what it needs from you, and so on, through practice. So, keep on trying, pie by pie (or tart). You can do it!*
The basic crust recipe that follows works splendidly for either sweet or savory dishes. It is perfect for berry and fruit pies, but it will also work excellently for quiche, meat or vegetable pies. Or imagine this: prebake the crust in the pie tin (at 425?F for about 15 minutes) then make a couple of layers in it with spaghetti sauce, sautéed zucchini, onions, and mushrooms, and parmesan cheese. Then cover the top with grated or fresh mozzarella and bake at 375?F for 35-45 minutes until it’s bubbling and heated through. It would be like a lasagna pie! (I saw a picture of something like this, which gave me the idea, but now I can’t remember where so I can’t give them credit)
Anyways, here are the ingredients for the crust:
For a single pie crust:
- 8 Tbs cold butter
- 1 1/3 cups flour
- ¼-1/2 tsp. salt (higher amount for savory)
- 1/8 tsp baking powder
- 2 ½ – 3 ½ Tbs. cold water (use as little as possible)
- 1 ½ apple cider vinegar (optional)
For a double pie crust:
- 14 Tbs. cold butter
- 2 ¼ cups flour
- ½ tsp. plus a pinch salt
- ¼ tsp. baking powder
- 5-7 Tbs. cold water (use as little as possible)
- 1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar (optional)
- Mix and roll using the process I described above.
The most recent pie I made was a huckleberry pie with frozen huckleberries that I brought back after picking them in North Idaho. If you ever get the chance to pick huckleberries and bring the extra home, do it! It’s totally worth the sticky mess that may or may not wind up in your suitcase pocket. Huckleberries are a uniquely delicious berry for pies, with a perfect balance of sweet and tart flavor, and they seem to be a regional obsession in North Idaho. For any fruit or berry pie you need about 5-6 cups of fruit, cleaned and sliced if needed. The amount of sugar will really vary depending on whether you’re using sweeter or tarter fruit but it’s usually in the realm of 1 cup (berries tend to be more tart, stone fruits are in the middle, while many apples and pears are sweeter and need almost no sugar). You’ll also need a couple of Tbs. (2-5) of flour for thickening. Here’s what I did for the huckleberry pie: 4 cups huckleberries (any other type of berry would do as well), 2 peaches sliced up (because I had them around and the sweet, mellow peach pairs well with pretty much any berry), ½ cup white sugar, 1/3 cup brown sugar (using some brown sugar gives a little deeper flavor), ¼ cup flour, 1 Tablespoon vanilla. Mix all these ingredients together in a big bowl, then pour it into the bottom pie crust. Cover with the top crust and pinch the top and bottom together. You can shape the edge in waves with your fingers, or press little ridges into it with a fork. Make a few gashes in the top of the pie to allow steam to escape. Bake at 425?F for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375?F and bake for another 50-60 minutes, until you can see through the gashes that it’s bubbling inside and the crust is golden brown. Remove the pie from the oven and let it cool before serving (this is the hard part because I hate waiting, but if you don’t let it cool it will be a runny mess. Of course, if you don’t mind a runny mess, because it also happens to be a delicious mess, then go ahead and serve it warm. Personally, I enjoy the way vanilla ice cream melts all over warm pie). If your pie turns out anything like mine, at least one of your dinner partners will jump up and kiss you with gratitude!