Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pie Crust 101

Submitted by Michelle

You may remember me.  I am the gal who used to blog on a semi-regular basis but then went MIA in the Fall of 2011.  It all started with me enrolling in a Master's Degree program. Going back to school consumed my life.  I am happy to report that I have finished my coursework, taken my comprehensive exams, and am now waiting for my degree to be posted. This past September, when school started, I thought my life would get back to normal and I would be a blogging fool.  Unfortunately, my appendix had other plans and decided to poop out in the middle of a staff meeting. I spent 5 days in the hospital and 5 weeks recovering at home.  Not fun.  I had some epiphanies during my recuperation, which I will share at a later time, but for today I think I had best focus on the something very important.  Something I cannot live without during the holiday season (or any other time of the year for that matter.)  I am sure you know what I am referring to.  Yes, it is pie crust.

For a long time I was afraid of pie crust.  I would try to make it and it never turned out right.  Most times I could not even get it off of the counter and into the pie plate.  Then, in 2004, I read an article about pie crust in Gourmet magazine that changed my life.   Both the recipe and the technique worked like a dream and I've been making pie crust ever since. The recipe is simply called All-Butter Pastry Dough.  Some bakers might contend that an all butter crust won't hold it's shape, which is in part true, but I have never been a fan of Crisco so I choose to deal with the edges of my pie crust not staying perfectly crimped when baked.  My motto is that the best things in life are made by hand, and the non-perfect edge says, "This pie crust is homemade and didn't come from a red box in the refrigerated section of the grocery store."  (Not that there is anything wrong with store bought crust. I used it for years before the Gourmet article changed my life.)

The pie crust begins with a few simple ingredients:
Flour, salt, ice-cold water and cold, unsalted butter. I measure out the flour and salt into the bowl of the food processor and then stick it in the freezer to get cold.  Keeping all the ingredients chilled is essential to a flaky pie crust.
I also think using a food processor is essential.  I know people who can use two forks to incorporate the butter into the flour or even their fingers, but it has never worked for me.  And I find that the finger method gets the butter warm, which is not a good thing.  
So I use my Cuisinart and blitz away until the butter gets chopped finely into the flour.  
Then I add the ice water.  I always measure and I always start with the smallest amount that the recipe calls for.  Usually I need more, but it is important not to over do it.  The dough should come together and be slightly moist.
A good test is to pinch some of it together in your fingers.  If it holds, you are good to go.  If it seems dry or crumbly, add a little more water.
The dough mixture easily comes together on my pastry board using the fraisage method I learned from Gourmet magazine.  Basically, you use the heel of your hand to smear the mixture forward and across the work surface, using a light touch so you don't uniformly blend in the butter.
You can see the bits of butter in the dough.  I wrap it and chill it for at least 30 minutes and then roll it out.  
I use my rolling pin to get the pastry off the board and into the pie plate.  
I fold the edges of the crust under and make it look as pretty as I can.
Once the edges are crimped, I freeze the crust until I am ready to fill and bake it.  Freezing helps the crust hold it shape and it allows me to make crust days (or even weeks) in advance.  

Tomorrow I will post the crusts filled and baked.  Until then, here's the pie crust recipe.

All-Butter Pastry Dough
Makes enough for a 9- or 10-inch single-crust pie.  

1 1/4 c all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

--Whisk together flour and salt in a large bowl.  Blend in butter with finger tips, pastry blend or food processor until most of mixture resembles coarse meal with some small (roughly pea sized) butter lumps.  Drizzle evenly with ice water and gently stir with a fork (or pulse in processor) until incorporated.

--Squeeze a small handful: If it doesn't hold together, add more ice water, 1/2 tablespoon at a time, stirring (or pulsing) until just incorporated, then test again.  (Do not overwork, or pastry will be tough.)

--Turn out mixture onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 4 portions.  With the heel of your hand, smear each portion once or twice with a forward motion to help distribute the fat.  Gather dough together with a scraper and press into a ball, then flatten into a 5-inch disk.  Chill dough, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, until firm, at least 1 hour.  Dough can be chilled up to 1 day. 

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