Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Do Your Own Pie Crust: a Book of Cookrye special

Guess what's coming up in just two days!
Are those croissants sticking out of that thing like goat horns?

Yes indeed, the fourth annual Pieathlon is impending! In other news, the fourth? It's really been that many?
At any rate, I thought I might do a little how-to for those who want to make their own pie crust when trying the hopefully scrumptious recipes. If you look at the pie recipes I've done here starting with the oldest, you can actually see me getting better at making them (or you can start with the most recent and watch me get worse). So I thought I'd share what I figured out.
First, a tip I got from Our Mom of Cookrye when I made my first attempt: Don't try to make your own pie crust for the first time and make your own filling from scratch. That will likely be an overwhelming and frustrating effort, and no one wants that. Make a box of instant pudding, get a can of pie filling, or have something else ready to just dump in when you're done. (Or, for a slightly more homemade touch, you can get a half-pint of cream and whip it with powdered sugar to taste. Put it in the pie crust after you've baked it, pop the whole thing in the freezer, and in a few hours you'll have ice cream pie.)
You can also make little mini pies (using a cupcake pan if you haven't got miniature pie pans) if rolling a big pie crust is too hard at first. 
Making your own pie crust is actually not hard, though the first few attempts may look like this:
As seen in Chicken Pie As Made In England

Worry not, because you can still take all the other pieces of dough that fell off and press them in like patches. It may not be pretty, but you were going to hide it with pie filling anyway. Besides, if anyone you're serving this to gets in a snit over the crust's appearance, that person clearly didn't want pie anyway.

While I've tried multiple pie crust recipes which resulted in things that looked like the above photos, this is what actually brought me to pie crust that did not fall apart when I tried to put it in the pan:
A Book of Selected Recipes, Mrs. George O. Thurn, 1934

So, for every one cup of fat, you'll use three cups of flour. If you're making a pie with only a bottom crust and no top crust, ½ cup of butter and 1½ cups of flour will be just right. A lot of people use shortening or lard and swear that what they use is the only thing that works. All my attempts at making pie crust with shortening have been crumbly and sad, and I've never tried lard. But clearly they work for a lot of people, so it must just be my rotten luck with them. At any rate, I recommend using butter because that's what works for me. But you may find that shortening makes for beautiful pie crusts in your hands, and butter makes really sad attempts at a pie crust.
Now, for every cup of fat, you'll want to use a teaspoon of salt. Stir the salt into the flour, then add your butter (or whatever you're using). The butter is straight out of the refrigerator, unsoftened.

Now, get out a pastry blender if you have one and a couple of knives if you do not. I've also done this bare-handed even though all the books say not to, and have noticed no difference. If you do it with your hands, be sure to toss and fluff it up as you force the butter to mix in. What you're going to do is cut and mix the butter into the flour until you get this:

It's now pretty uniformly pebbly-looking. Now, we're going to add water until it makes a dough. Many books say you must use very cold water, often saying to use strictly iced water. I have always used cold water directly out of the tap, and it works just fine.
At this point, I suggest you just use your hands to mix it. A spoon doesn't seem to work very well- it flings little pebbles out but doesn't really force the water to actually play nice and mix in. Add the water a spoonful at a time, thoroughly mixing it in before you add any more. At first, it will look like frustrating modelling clay.

 But sooner and with less water than you may think, it will form a cohesive lump.

The above dough has almost got enough water in it
When you've got it right, there are no crumbly bits of dough in the ball or stray pebbly bits in the bowl, and the dough may be ever-so-slightly sticky. When you form it into a ball, you don't have any bits that try to fall off it. If it is still to crumbly, add more water. If it's gone really soft, add more flour.
When you've got it just right, make the dough into a ball. If you're making multiple pie crusts, divide the dough up and make one ball for each crust. For a pie with a top and bottom crust, use a slightly larger portion for the bottom crust since it must cover the bottom and sides, whereas the top only has to flatly cover the whole thing.

And now we reach the step that makes a lot more difference than you may think: Putting the dough in the refrigerator! Don't ask me why, but if you roll it out now, it will fall apart, crumble, and be sad. But if you put it in the refrigerator for a little bit, for some reason it will roll out very nicely. Heck, t might even stay in one piece. So put each portion of dough in a storage container or sandwich bag, and let it spend an hour or so with your leftovers (though you can leave it a couple of days if you're in a make-ahead mood).
After that, we finally get to the hardest part: rolling this thing out! The first thing I've learned is to make sure whatever countertop or table you're using is completely dry. Wipe up any stray water drops and give them a minute to thoroughly dry up. No matter how thoroughly you coat the counter with flour, your pie crust will stick to any wet spots and tear apart. Sometimes like it seems like the dough goes out of its way to find spots to stick to, so be sure you've dried them all.
Now, a lot of people coat the counter and rolling pin with flour, but I find it a lot easier to thoroughly coat the dough instead. Just make a mound of flour in the center of whatever space you've cleared, and drop the dough on it over and over until all sides are coated thoroughly.

As you're rolling the dough, the extra flour will get pushed over the counter and do a really good job keeping the dough from sticking.
All right! Let's get start rolling!

Well that didn't make much difference, did it? But that's exactly as it should be. Especially at first, you want to barely use enough pressure to make a visible difference. Otherwise, your dough ball will crack. And as you roll, those cracks will widen into huge peninsulas as your dough ball flattens into a sheet, and it will not matter how much you try to press them back together. If this happens (and it often does), just wait until you're getting the crust in the pan before pressing them back into one united whole.
If anyone comments about visible seams where you pinched it back together, take away their pie. They clearly didn't really want it.

When you're rolling, it seems to work better if you only push the rolling pin away from you. Going back and forth leads to the aforementioned cracks. And only make one pass with the rolling pin. Then, pick up the dough, give it a quarter turn, and make another pass. Give it another quarter turn, and again go over it just once with the rolling pin. And basically, just keep going in this way until it's big enough.
Picking the dough up and turning it (instead of alternately rolling it forward and sideways) will do wonders toward keeping it from sticking. And if there are any spots that threaten to stick, just tuck a little flour under them. Note: you pick up the dough to turn it. Otherwise, especially as it stretches thinner, it will do its damnedest to stick.
(Side note: If rolling the dough into one big sheet is too frustrating at first, you can do what I used to: Roll four or five strips, lay them across the pie pan, and press the seams shut. Obviously it is is a bit trickier to pinch the pieces together for a top crust, but you can just do a crumb topping instead.)
As your dough sheet gets bigger, it will probably be wider than your pin. So instead of just a single pass in each direction, you'll just want to make sure each part of the dough makes contact with the rolling pin once between each turn.
So, when are you done rolling? Bring forth your pie pan and see!

Since it has to go up the sides instead of laying flat across, it should go a little ways past the rim on all sides. Now comes the big moment: We're going to lift this pie crust off the counter and get it in the pan!
Actually, don't lift it. It will tear under its own weight when you pick it up. Take your rolling pin, set it at an edge, and gently hold the edge to the pin as you start rolling across. In other words, wrap the dough on the pin. It may be a bit wider, and that is not a problem at all. You know how you were lifting the dough every time you turned it? And turning it literally every time you rolled the pin across it? Now that's going to pay off because you know with certainty that the dough is not glued to the counter.

Now, holding the encrusted pin very gently, you're going to unroll it over the pan. The trick here is starting placement. Place your rolling pin so that an inch or so of dough will hang over the edge where you're starting. That way, you won't have a lot of dough hanging over one side. Then unroll the dough over the pan, being sure to go straight across. Imagine if you will a line that starts where the pan rim touches the rolling pin, goes through the center of the pan, and across to the point on the rim directly opposite where you started. Keep the center of your rolling pin on that line as you roll it across.

If your crust is off-center, just gently tug it sideways, lifting up any parts that don't want to move.

Now we have a lovely pie crust draped over the pan!

Now, go around the crust, gently lifting the overhang until it falls into the pan. It probably will not settle neatly into the pan in all places. So, while you are holding it just above the rim so it doesn't catch and tear, gently press it into place. As you press, you're trying to bring more dough down from your hand into the pan, not stretch what's already there.
Once you've got that done, get a pair of scissors or a knife and trim whatever's still hanging over the edge. You can use these scraps to patch any holes, or to fix any spots where the crust doesn't quite reach the edge. Just fingerpaint a little water on both the patch and the spot you're pressing it onto. This will keep your repairs firmly glued on.

Now, you want to press the dough so it goes under the rim of the pan just a little bit. Pie crust wants to shrink in baking, so this will help fix that. One way which is both easy and looks really nice is to notch the dough every half-inch, fold each little flap into a triangle, and press the point under the rim:
All folded and ready to hook under the rim!

Or, you can just press the dough under the rim:

Or you can try to do that bit where you make a squiggly rope-looking or scalloped line around the edge as you press it under. The trick is to pinch it up as you go.

The scalloped one may look super cute now, but it came out of the oven looking just as plain as the one on the right.

Now, if you're baking the pie crust empty, you'll need to prevent it rising up off the pan in one big bubble. You can prick it all over the sides and bottom with a fork (giving the fork a little jiggle just so you can see the pan through each little hole), and that will definitely help. But it seems like I often see a huge air bulge forming in the middle of the pan as the crust bakes regardless of how many holes I poked for the hot air to escape through. If this happens, just grab a fork and immediately stab the crust in the center of the bubble. It will deflate, and should stay flat the rest of the time the crust bakes.
I've baked crusts anywhere from 350°-400°, depending on what else was in the oven. They're done when they're golden in the middle and probably brown at the edges. It tends to be around 15-20 minutes. Watch them carefully-- since they're so thin, they'll go from beautifully baked to burnt really fast.
And that is how you do your own pie crust! If you like cooking, it's actually pretty fun once you've had some practice at it. And though your first ones will probably look raggedy, you can just confidently declare that it is homemade charm.

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