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A perfect crust isn't pie in sky

November 18, 2011

When Thanksgiving approaches and thoughts turn to pie, many cooks have discovered they can have a crusty situation on their hands.
Rolling out a picture-perfect pie crust can be a challenge for the most seasoned baker, but particularly for home cooks who may only bake pies from scratch a few times each year.
Akron, Ohio, resident Helen Weyrick has been using the same shortening-based recipe for her pie crust for more than 60 years. But lately, she said she has been frustrated with it.
"It gets too sticky and I had to keep adding flour and adding flour," she said.
Weyrick wondered whether there had been changes to the formula of her favorite brand of shortening, Crisco, and said several of her friends have thought the same thing. With pumpkin pie season upon them, Weyrick reached out for help.
Several years ago, Crisco brand vegetable shortening was reformulated to eliminate trans fats. The company acknowledged that it did adjust some of its recipes after the change, but the pie crust was not one of them. However, Weyrick's recipe was outdated and contained steps that the shortening brand no longer advises.
Ken Haedrich, author of "Pie: 300 Tried and True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie" (Harvard Common Press 2004, 2011), said homemade pie is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. It has been talked about this year as the one dessert that could unseat the cupcake's popularity.
As Weyrick's experience shows how longtime bakers can run into problems, new bakers can have even more issues.
Haedrich said the problem with pie baking, particularly for beginners, is that there is so much information out there now and so much of it is contradictory. The process of making the crust is intimidating for many.
"There are 10,000 experts and they all have very strong opinions," he said. "It used to be your mom showed you how to bake a pie and she probably learned it from 'The Joy of Cooking' or Good Housekeeping. There is too much information now."
While the classic French pate brisee or pastry crust contains all butter, Haedrich said he always falls back on his basic flaky pastry recipe, which uses half butter and half shortening.
"An all-shortening crust is excellent, but it is mainly textural, it's all flaky. An all-butter crust has great flavor, but not the flakiness. Over the years, I have found that half butter and half shortening gives the benefit of both," he said.
The addition of shortening means the crust will roll easier than an all-butter crust as well. Another option is lard, which is animal fat. Haedrich said lard will produce an extremely flaky crust, but some folks don't care to use it because it can have a stronger flavor. However, lard purchased in the grocery store is typically neutral in flavor. "The results are very flaky, almost like a shattering sort of flake," he said.
When putting crusts together, it is best to make sure that all ingredients, even the flour and salt, are very cold. Use ice water, not just tap water. The same goes for the bowl and any utensils, including the rolling pin _ it helps to chill them first.
For putting a crust together, a hand-held pastry blender, a mixer or a food processor all work well. Use only enough water to allow the crust to come together.
Chill the dough for half an hour before rolling. Any longer and it will be too hard, requiring you to overwork it to get it rolled out, Haedrich said.
"Rolling is where people really start to get freaked out," he said.
Haedrich said he always tells students to visualize something round, like a globe, when they start to roll.
"Roll from the center out and ease up on the pressure as you get to the edge. Let up at the edge so you don't pinch that edge," he said. "Roll straight out and keep rotating the crust as you go."
Haedrich recommends rolling on a piece of waxed paper or on top of a silicone baking sheet liner, so when it is done you can simply invert the crust into the pie plate and peel the paper off. The paper also makes it simple to rotate the crust.
Lightly flour the paper before beginning and flour the dough disc as well. A pastry that sticks often means the rolling surface wasn't evenly dusted with flour first.
If your paper is sliding on the countertop, consider putting a silicone baking sheet liner or damp washcloth underneath it. Because waxed paper is exactly 12 inches wide, Haedrich said it provides a built-in measuring guide for a 9- or 9 {-inch pie plate.
Haedrich believes the growing popularity of pie-making is directly correlated to how much our lives have become focused on technology, which has folks craving a creative, nontechnological, tactile outlet.
So popular is pie that his book, which came out in 2004, was re-released by its publisher this year.
"People love disconnecting on the weekends for downtime and love getting their hands into pie-making. It offers people the opportunity to engage all of their senses," he said. "Even in the end, if you don't make a beautiful Martha Stewart type of pie, the worst homemade pie is better than that best store-bought pie."
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Here are pie crust recipes for getting started:
BASIC FLAKY PIE PASTRY
For a single crust:
1 { cups all-purpose flour 1 { tsp. sugar { tsp. salt \ cup ({ stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into \-inch pieces \ cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into pieces \ cup cold water
For a double crust:
3 cups all-purpose flour 1 tbsp. sugar 1 tsp. salt { cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into \-inch pieces { cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into pieces { cup cold water
To make in a food processor: Put the flour, sugar and salt in the food processor. Pulse several times to mix. Scatter the butter over the dry ingredients and pulse the machine 5 or 6 times to cut it in. Fluff the mixture with a fork, lifting it up from the bottom of the bowl. Scatter the shortening over the flour and pulse 5 or 6 times. Fluff the mixture again. Drizzle half of the water over the flour mixture and pulse 5 or 6 times. Fluff the mixture and sprinkle on the remaining water. Pulse 5 or 6 times more, until the dough starts to form clumps. Overall, it will look like coarse crumbs. Dump the contents of the processor bowl into a large bowl. Test the pastry by squeezing some of it between your fingers. If it seems a little dry and not quite packable, drizzle a teaspoon or so of cold water over the pastry and work it in with your fingertips.
To make by hand: Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Toss well, by hand, to mix. Scatter the butter over the dry ingredients and toss to mix. Using a pastry blender, 2 knives, or your fingertips, cut or rub the butter into the flour until it is broken into pieces the size of small peas. Add the shortening and continue to cut until all of the fat is cut into small pieces. Sprinkle half of the water over the mixture. Toss well with a fork to dampen the mixture. Add the remaining water, 1 { to 2 tablespoons at a time, and continue to toss and mix, pulling the mixture up from the bottom of the bowl on the upstroke and gently pressing down on the downstroke. Dough made by hand often needs a bit more water. If necessary, add water 1 or 2 teaspoons at a time until the pastry can be packed.
To make with an electric mixer: Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter, tossing it with the flour. With the mixer on low speed, blend the butter into the flour until you have what looks like coarse, damp meal, with both large and small clumps. Add the shortening and repeat. Turning the mixer on and off, add half of the water. Mix briefly on low speed. Add the remaining water, mixing slowly until the dough starts to form large clumps. If you're using a stand mixer, stop periodically to stir the mixture up from the bottom of the bowl. Do not over-mix.
Using your hands, pack the pastry into a ball (or 2 balls if you are making a double crust) as you would pack a snowball. If you're making a double crust, make one ball slightly larger than the other; this will be your bottom crust. Knead each ball once or twice, then flatten the balls into }-inch-thick discs on a floured work surface. Wrap the discs in plastic and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight before rolling.
_"Pie: 300 Tried and True Recipes for Delicious Homemade Pie", Ken Haedrich
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CLASSIC CRISCO PIE CRUST
For a single crust pie:
1 1/3 cups all purpose flour { tsp. salt { stick or { cup well-chilled Crisco 3 to 6 tbsp. ice cold water
For a double crust pie:
2 cups all-purpose flour 1 tsp. salt } stick or } cup well-chilled Crisco 4 to 8 tbsp. ice cold water
Blend flour and salt in medium mixing bowl.
Cut chilled shortening into {-inch cubes. Cut in chilled shortening cubes into flour mixture, using a pastry blender, in an up and down chopping motion, until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with some small pea-sized pieces remaining.
Sprinkle half the maximum recommended amount of ice cold water over the flour mixture. Using a fork, stir and draw flour from bottom of bowl to the top, distributing moisture evenly into flour. Press chunks down to bottom of bowl with fork. Add more water by the tablespoon, until dough is moist enough to hold together when pressed together.
Test dough for proper moistness by squeezing a marble-sized ball of dough in your hand. If it holds together firmly, do not add any additional water. If the dough crumbles, add more water by the tablespoonful until dough is moist enough to form a smooth ball when pressed together.
Shape dough into a ball for single pie crust. Divide dough in two for double crust, one ball slightly larger than the other. Flatten ball(s) into {-inch thick round disc(s).
Wrap dough in plastic wrap. Chill for 30 minutes or up to 2 days before rolling.
Roll dough (larger ball of dough for double crust pie) from center outward with steady pressure on a lightly floured work surface (or between two sheets of wax or parchment paper) into a circle 2 inches wider than pie plate for the bottom crust. Transfer dough to pie plate by loosely rolling around rolling pin. Center the rolling pin over the pie plate, and then unroll, easing dough into pie plate.
For a single pie crust, trim edges of dough leaving a }-inch overhang. Fold edge under. Flute dough as desired. Bake according to specific recipe directions.
For a double pie crust, roll larger disc for bottom crust, trimming edges of dough even with outer edge of pie plate. Fill unbaked pie crust according to recipe directions. Roll out smaller dough disc. Transfer dough carefully onto filled pie. Trim edges of dough leaving a }-inch overhang. Fold top edge under bottom crust. Press edges together to seal and flute as desired. Cut slits in top crust or prick with fork to vent steam. Bake according to specific recipe directions.

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