“We’ll behave, Mary Poppins, we promise.”
“That’s a pie crust promise: easily made, easily broken.”
As usual, the practically perfect Mary Poppins is right. Pie crusts are like the martini of the pastry world: their very simplicity belies a complexity of manufacture that has broken many a chef.
A basic pie crust contains 4 ingredients: flour, shortening, salt, and a binding liquid. A sweet crust may include sugar, and a tart crust–or pate sable–generally includes an egg yolk, as well. Other crust recipes may include ingredients as varied as ground almonds, vanilla, baking powder, or even vinegar. The type of flour, shortening, and liquid may change as well, depending upon your interest or the recipe, but generally, pie crust can be made with ingredients you probably have in your pantry, barring an intolerance for gluten or dairy.
Shortening is any fat rendered solid. As a shortening element for pie crust, lard is the traditional ingredient, but today, pie crust is more commonly made from vegetable (hydrogenated) shortening or butter, or a combination thereof.
The ingredients listed below will make a double crust pie:
2 1/2 cups of flour
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, vegetable shortening, or lard-diced into tablespoon sized pieces and chilled
3 T COLD crème fraiche, heavy cream, sour cream, buttermilk, or iced water-plus more, as needed
1 tsp salt (or a pinch, if you’re making a sweet crust)
1 tsp sugar (if you’re making a sweet crust)
Before the machine age, pastry was mixed by hand. This is why Mrs Patmore is always in a bad mood. If you choose to blend your pie dough by hand, sift dry ingredients into a large bowl. Add the shortening and mix until blended into coarsely shaped pea sized lumps. To do this, you may use 2 knives held scissor fashion, a fork, a pastry blender, or even your hands, if your circulation isn’t what it should be. What you want to avoid is warming the butter as you blend it: this will toughen your crust. Or, you may behave as any civilised person would, and blend the flour and butter in your food processor.
If you do not have a food processor, buy one. It will slice 8 cups of onions for you, if you’re making French Onion Soup; it will grate Gruyère, if you’re making a Quiche (or French Onion Soup Gratinee); and it can be used to chop meat, if you refuse to buy food grinder. There are many brands on the market now, but Cuisinart is a pioneer in the field; I have had mine for over 20 years, and it is as strong today as the day I bought it.
To make pie crust in a food processor, add the dry ingredients to the bowl and pulse 3-5 times to blend. Add the shortening–I favour an all butter crust, some say that shortening will provide the flakiest one, and Julia generally made a crust that combined butter and vegetable shortening–and pulse up to 20 times, until the butter and shortening are blended into coarsely shaped, pea sized lumps.
At this time, you may add the liquid. I favour crème fraiche or heavy cream. Whatever you use, it must be COLD. Stir to mix, if you are a Luddite, or pulse 6-9 times to blend. If the dough is too dry, add cold liquid, a teaspoon at a time, until it just binds. If it is too sticky, add flour, 1 tablespoon at a time. Don’t overblend, though, as this will toughen the crust.
Remove the dough to a floured pastry board or silicone rolling mat, and gently knead 2-3 times with the heel of your hand to ensure it is fully combined. Separate it into 2 parts, 1 twice the size of the other, and gather each into a ball. Flatten each ball into a disc, and tightly wrap in cellophane.
Refrigerate for at least an hour, or as long as two days. Or you may wrap it in 2 layers of aluminum foil and freeze it for up to 2 months. Thaw it in the refrigerator before using. If you refrigerate it longer than 2 hours, allow it to sit at room temperature for 10 minutes before rolling it out.
Using your floured silicone baking mat (by now, you will have purchased one, along with your Cuisinart) roll the larger disc out to a 12 inch diameter, gently rotating it on the mat to ensure that it doesn’t stick. You may need to dust your rolling-pin, and/or the dough, with more flour. To move it to your pie plate, you may either roll it around your pin and gently reroll it into your pie plate or fold it into quarters and gently unfold it into your pie plate. While it’s settling into the pie plate, roll out the smaller disc.* Fill the pie plate, and cover the filling with the top crust. Crimp it rustically or elegantly, depending upon what type of pie you are making. It’s lovely to brush the top crust with an egg wash. Cut air vents into the top crust. If you like, dust it with sea salt or sanding sugar before baking. Bake the pie until done.
With practice, your pie crust will be better than Mary Poppins: it will be perfectly perfect in every way!
*Pre-baking a single crust pie crust will be addressed at another time.