Every fall, I make so many pies I lose count. I am the official Thanksgiving pie baker in our family, so I can tell you that for the Thanksgiving dinners (we have 2) alone, I make 8. If you haven't already mastered the art of pie crust, I can't encourage you enough to do so. It's not that hard (really!), and once you have a go-to recipe that you're comfortable with, you'll find that pie making holds no mysteries for you. There's a reason why they say "Easy as pie."
When I first started baking pies, I used a recipe that a college roommate gave me. It was a good, reliable all-shortening recipe. It did the job and produced a decent, flaky crust that held up under juicy fruit pies in the fridge for a couple of days - my main criterion. I used this recipe for years.
Then, I decided to expand my horizons a little. I indulged in little butter-shortening blending for my pie crust. The flavor: improved. The texture: still excellent. The drawback: butter is more expensive than shortening - but considering how little butter goes into pie crust in the grand scheme of things, I deemed it an acceptable expense. Bye-bye all-shortening recipe.
And then I received a review copy of Cindy Mushet's wonderful The Art and Soul of Baking . Cindy uses butter - all butter - in her pie crust. Hmmm. Of course I had to give that a try. An all-butter crust? Would it be too much of a good thing? Too rich? Too greasy? The answer? No. It is the hands-down winner. The flavor is simply wonderful. The flake is gorgeous. The drawback? Well . . .
Butter has a lower melting temperature than shortening does, so it is more challenging to work with in a pie crust. If you want to try an all-butter crust, don't ignore the recipe instructions that suggest freezing the butter and using very cold water to make the dough. Also, be sure to allow for plenty of chilling time between mixing the dough and rolling it out.
Why chill the dough for 30 minutes? Well, this has two effects. First, it firms up the butter in the dough, making it easier to work with and less likely to fall apart in the oven. Second, it gives the butter a chance to permeate and lubricate the flour particles. Ever drop a potato chip or a cookie crumb on the page of a book and come back to find it's made a grease spot the size of a quarter? A similar effect is taking place here. The butter is essentially moisturizing the flour and making the dough more supple. Don't skip out - it'll be worth it later in frustration saved when you reach the rolling-out stage.
Cindy Mushet's Flaky Pie or Tart Dough
Adapted from The Art and Soul of Baking, pp. 177 - 178
- 1 stick (4 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
- 3 to 4 tablespoons cold water
- 1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1½ teaspoons sugar (omit for a savory crust)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- Freeze the butter pieces for at least 20 minutes. Refrigerate the water until ready to use.
- Mix the dough: Place the dry ingredients in the bowl of the food processor. Process briefly to blend. Add butter pieces and pulse in 1-second bursts until the butter and flour mixture looks like crushed crackers and peas.
- Place butter-flour mixture in large bowl. Sprinkle a tablespoon of cold water over the mixture and “fluff” it in with fork, then add additional 2 or 3 tablespoons one at a time. Continue to fluff and stir 10 or 12 times. It will not be a cohesive dough at this point but a bowl of shaggy crumbs and clumps of dough. Test it for the correct moisture content. Take a handful of the mixture and squeeze firmly. If the clump falls apart and looks dry, push large, moist clumps to the side of the bowl and add more water, one teaspoon at a time, sprinkling it over the dryest part of the mixture; immediately stir or mix it in. Test again before adding any more water. Repeat, if needed. The dough is done when most of it holds together. If it feels very soft at this stage, refrigerate before continuing. If it feels cold and firm, continue to the next step.
- Turn the dough onto a work surface and knead gently 3 to 6 times. If it won’t come together and looks very dry, return it to the bowl and add another teaspoon or two of water (one at a time), mixing in as above, and try again. Flatten the dough into a 6- or 7-inch disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes. This allows time for the dough to hydrate fully and for the butter to firm up again.
- If the dough has been refrigerated for more than 30 minutes, it may be very firm and will crack if you try to roll it. Let it sit on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes. Dust your work surface and the top of the dough generously with flour. Roll, turning the dough, until you’ve got a 14- to 15-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick.
- Place the dough carefully into the pan, lifting it slightly to ease it into the crevices of the pan. Do not stretch or pull the dough, which can cause breakage or shrinkage during baking.
- Trim the dough using a pair of kitchen scissors so it overhangs the edge of the pan by 1 inch. Fold the overhanging dough under itself around the pan edge, then crimp or form a decorative border. Chill for 30 minutes before baking.
- The dough can be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for up to 2 days, or double-wrapped in plastic and frozen for up to 1 month in a freezer bag.
Be sure to check out Cindy Mushet's detailed post on her Flaky Pie Dough here.