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Food Friendly May: Fill Your Pie Hole | Manolo for the Big Girl

Food Friendly May: Fill Your Pie Hole

As Food Friendly May comes to an end, it’s only right and fitting that I do my best to pass on what I know about one of the most universally frustrating challenges faced by cooks the world over: pie crust.

I honestly don’t know if what I have to say will do the trick for you or not because I am one of those revolting people who just plain has The Touch for pies. I made my first pie crust at seven. My mother nearly cried. Pie crust was her culinary Achille’s heel and somehow she’d produced a daughter who seemed incapable of turning out a bad pie crust.

This is why I rarely attempt to explain to anyone how I do it: because it comes to me so easily that I don’t know why what I’m doing works so well. It just does.

Still, I can pass on what I do in hopes that someone will find it helpful. There are a few hints I know that might be useful to somebody. For one thing, start with very cold ingredients. The colder the better, as long as you can still work them. I even put my flour in the fridge before I start work, because it’s always produced a better result. I don’t know why this works, only that it does for me. The other really important one – and I cannot stress this enough – is not to overwork the dough. Once it almost holds together, stop fussing. Once you get it about the right size, stop rolling and get it in the pan. Pie crust is never improved by extra efforts, but can be by a quick hand.

So what’s my recipe? It’s simple enough. Here’s hoping it works for you:


1 1/2 Cup flour

dash salt

1 Tablespoon sugar (unless filling is savory, in which case leave the sugar out completely)

1/2 Cup (one stick) unsalted butter cut into small pieces

A few tablespoons ice water

In a large bowl stir together the flour, salt, sugar, and any other dry flavorings you may wish to add (I often throw in a dash or two of a spice or herb going into the filling, such as cinnamon and cloves with apple or ginger with pumpkin or even a touch of thyme or rosemary if I’m doing a beef or savory vegetable filling) with a wooden spoon.

Using a pastry cutter, two knives, or your fingers (I use the pastry cutter because it’s always worked nicely for me, but your mileage – and kitchen equipment – may vary), work the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles fine crumbs. Don’t get too fussy about this stage. By the time there are a few slightly larger lumps and a little bit of completely unincorporated flour, it’s more than ready for the next step. Just try to get it fairly well mixed, not precisely.

Add ice water a tablespoon or two at a time and mix with a dinner fork until the dough comes (mostly) together. Again, this is a point where less exact is actually better. If there’s a bit at the bottom that just isn’t sticking, don’t worry about it. Get most of the dough together and get it on to the next step.

Pat the dough into a slightly flattened ball and wrap in waxed paper. Place in refrigerator for 1/2 hour to 2 hours. It’s probably fine if you leave it a bit longer, but it’s definitely ready to work with by then.

On a lightly floured surface (a marble slab is the absolute best for this, because it keeps the dough slightly colder and is very even), roll out the dough. I swear by my mother’s old hardwood rolling pin. If you plan to make much pie, a really top notch rolling pin is an excellent investment.

Roll out the dough until it’s fairly uniform in thickness and larger than your pie pan. There are a lot of ways people tell you to get the crust from the rolling surface into the pie pan, but the one I’ve used since I was seven and has never failed me yet is to simply dust a final bit of flour over the top of the crust, use a thin spatula to make sure the bottom is free from the marble and not going to tear, then fold the dough into quarters and place it in the pan. Unfold, press lightly into the bottom of the pan. Then, using a knife or the thin spatula, cut off the excess dough about half an inch or so beyond the edge of the pan.

Fill your crust. If it needs a top, re-roll the excess and place it over the top by the same method. Pinch edges together, poke a few holes with a fork, and bake according to your filling recipe.

This recipe does nicely for a two-crust nine-inch pie.

Oh, and I have to say, I absolutely adore my Emile Henry Pie Dish. Not only is it pretty, but it goes from freezer to oven to microwave and is insanely easy to clean. I highly recommend it to any pie baker.

Emile Henry Cerise Pie Dish
If nothing I’ve said or done helps you, though, there is yet hope. The superfantastic Rose Levy Beranbaum has written The Pie and Pastry Bible. Just as her Cake Bible explains the whys and wherefores of cake, this will explain what precisely is going on with your flour, butter, etc. so that those of you without The Touch have a better chance of making good pie crust. See, Ms. Beranbaum actually understands what she’s doing. That means she can pass it on far better than I can.

Best of luck with your pies!

10 Responses to “Food Friendly May: Fill Your Pie Hole”

  1. teteatete May 25, 2008 at 5:09 pm #

    This sounds like a great method, Twistie! I’ve always made pie crust with Crisco (as this was how my Grandmother taught me) unless I was making a French tarte aux pommes type of thing. Do you always use butter for all your pies or have you ever used Crisco? I’m liking the way the butter sounds versus Crisco.

  2. Twistie May 25, 2008 at 5:13 pm #

    I actually used Crisco for years. Then one day I got brave and tried butter. I’ve never looked back. Alton Brown, though, recommends using a combination for the perfect balance of flaky and tender. I haven’t ever tried that. I like the texture I get with pure butter, and the flavor can’t be beaten, in my not so humble opinion.

  3. teteatete May 25, 2008 at 10:16 pm #

    Butter certainly seems to make everything better :) Thanks!

  4. class-factotum May 26, 2008 at 3:14 pm #

    Where do you stand on the lard issue? It’s supposed to make the best pie crusts. I wouldn’t know, because I buy pie crusts, a fact that would cause my grandmother the baker, were she dead, to spin in her grave.

  5. Twistie May 26, 2008 at 4:33 pm #

    I haven’t tried lard yet, though I’d certainly be open to doing so sometime. I would tend to think it would be better for savory pies than sweet ones, but then suet is the very best fat to use in steamed puddings, for my money, including the sweet ones, so my assumption might well be very wrong.

    If I give the lard a try, I’ll write about it here and let you guys know how it turned out.

  6. ChaChaHeels May 27, 2008 at 9:42 am #

    I think butter is the absolute best for pies, but you can do very well with a mixture of butter and lard. I have a recipe for Buttermilk pie based on on the butter lard combo that makes a fantastically light and flavourful crust, a perfect match for the filling.

    I never use Crisco, can’t stand the stuff. I’m not one of those people with a gift for pie crust, and for me “keep it cold, work fast” is a concept I fully understand but see as quite an effort–so I’m only ever going to use real food to make my hard earned pastry. Besides–you cannot beat real food for deliciousness, and no one ever died from eating butter or lard, unless they choked on them. The same thing can’t be said about Crisco.

  7. Twistie May 27, 2008 at 10:52 am #

    ChaChaHeels, if you feel like sharing, I’d love to have your Buttermilk pie recipe. And I absolutely agree that a butter crust tastes miles better than a Crisco one. My mother used to make cake frosting from Crisco, too, and I always hated it. Now that I have learned to make a real buttercream, I am even less able to comprehend why she thought Crisco made a good frosting.

    My philosophy in the kitchen is that ingredients count even more than technique. You can be the best cook in the world, but if you use crap ingredients, it will never taste better than mediocre. If you have good ingredients you can turn out a glorious meal, even if what you do with them is nothing very special.

  8. ChaChaHeels May 28, 2008 at 2:50 pm #

    I completely agree: use the very best ingredients you can find. The highest quality ingredients can make even the most simple foods superb.

    I think Crisco has been used so liberally because it costs nothing, it’s not a real food so it never actually decomposes–keeps for years!–and it was basically “pushed” on everyone by heavily subsidized Big Agribusiness who put it in everything, and clogged every market on the planet with it.

    In honour of not using Crisco, here’s the recipe for Buttermilk pie:

    (you can serve this with fresh, tart berries and whipped cream, or some berry coulis).

    For a 9 inch pie

    Filling:

    6 tbsp. unsalted butter at room temperature
    1 cup sugar
    2 eggs, separated
    3 tbsp. all purpose flour
    1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
    1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
    1/4 tsp. salt
    1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
    1 baked pie shell (recipe coming right up)

    Pie Pastry:

    (this will make enough for 2 pie crusts)
    13 1/2 oz. (3 cups) all-purpose flour
    2 tsp. sugar
    1 tsp. salt
    5 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
    4 tbsp. cold lard, cut into pieces
    1/2 cup plus 1 1/2 to 2 tbsp. ice water

    Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

    Let’s do the crust first:

    In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar and salt. Using just your fingertips, crumble the butter and lard together with flour, pinching until the mixture looks coarse and crumbly, with the butter no larger than pea size. Dribble in 1 tbsp. of the water, mixing the dough and lightly with a fork. Add more water, a teaspoon at a time, until the dough holds together (pinch a piece between your fingers to test); you may not need all the water.

    (here’s a tip I learned from a couple of wonderful Quebecois women who make excellent pastry: use very cold ginger ale instead of the water!)

    Divide the dough and gently press each half into a disk with your hands. Refrigerate one disk at least 30 mins. before rolling it out; you can freeze the other for later.

    Heat the oven to 400F. Roll the dough into a 14″ round on a lightly floured surface, until it’s about 1/8 inch thick. Place the dough in a 9 inch pie pan and trim all but 1/2 inch of the overhang, tucking the excess under and crimping the edge. Line the dough with 2 sheets of foil to cover the crust and fill with pie weights or dried beans, then bake for 12 minutes. Remove the foil and weights and bake until the crust is golden, 5 to 8 minutes further. You can push any bubbles in the crust down with the back of a spoon.

    Filling—

    In a mixer, combine the butter and sugar until the sugar is completely incorporated. Add the egg yolks and mix well to combine. Add the flour, lemon juice, nutmeg, and salt. With the mixer running, slowly add the buttermilk. In another bowl, whip the egg whites until they form soft peaks (please please please use a whisk and whip them by hand–the pie comes out so much better!). Pour a little of the buttermilk mixture into the whites; fold gently to combine. Then, gently fold the egg-white mixture into the remaining buttermilk mixture until they’re just combined. Pour the custard into the baked pie shell. Bake in the middle of the oven until the filling is lightly browned and barely moves when jiggled, about 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on a rack and serve warm or at room temp. Refrigerate leftovers.

    This is Robert Stehling’s recipe, from the Hominy Grill in Charleston, South Carolina.
    But I’ve made a few changes here and there, since I’ve been making this for years.

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  10. geoff daum February 20, 2009 at 2:01 am #

    Yep – I would agree with that.. Thanks for the line.