Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pie Clinic: Part 1 ~ The Crust

If you're looking ahead to Thanksgiving's pie-baking sessions with fear and trembling, you've come to the right place! Put your fears to rest and get excited about the fantastic pastry you're about to create by learning a few simple techniques.

First off, let's look at what can go wrong. With pie pastry, there are two main problems: tough crust and dust crust. The former requires a knife - or, in extreme cases, a jackhammer - to get through the bottom crust. The latter is so dry it is more of a loose assembly of crumbs than the tender, flaky crust it is meant to be.

Different factors contribute to problems like inferior texture and cracked pastry, but the biggest culprits are overhandling, too much or too little moisture, overflouring, not chilling the dough sufficiently, and pulling or stretching the dough as you move it into the pan.

Tips and Tricks

Some tips to keep in mind when you work with pie pastry:

  • Colder is better. Regardless of whether you're working with butter or shortening, the colder it is, the better the outcome will be. Cut your butter into cubes and put it into the freezer for a few minutes before working it into the dough. Refrigerate your shortening. Keep your water in the refrigerator or drop a few ice cubes into it.

  • Butter has a lower melting temperature than shortening does. If you are new to pie baking, you may want to work with a pie-dough recipe that calls for shortening only, or a shortening-butter blend. If you're up for a challenge, go ahead and use butter, but make sure it's well chilled, and chill the pastry at each stage chilling is called for.

  • Do not overhandle your dough. Kneading it will develop the gluten strands, making the dough tougher. Push your dough together rather than "kneading" it. It's okay to see pieces of butter in the dough; it won't be completely homogenous.

  • Roll your dough out between two sheets of waxed paper or baking parchment. Dust it lightly with flour and lift the paper/parchment periodically to unstick it from the dough.

  • When you roll the dough out, turn it by quarter turns to ensure even rolling. A good thickness to shoot for is about 1/8 inch.

  • If you develop a tear or a whole in your dough, wet the tip of your finger with some warm water and run it along the edges of the spot to be fixed. Place a patch of dough over the spot and roll it in. You must wet the dough a little in order for the patch to stick.

  • It is absolutely possible to make a pie crust by hand using a pastry blender or two knives to cut the fat into the flour. However, I have recently started using my food processor and I find that the results are excellent. If you have a food processor and feel like using it, I recommend it - the distribution of fat into the flour seems to be a bit more even. In either case, do NOT process the fat completely into the flour. There should be a few larger bits of butter or shortening among the smaller crumbs. Think lentils and cous-cous. The unevenness of these bits is what will produce the flakiness of the crust as they melt down upon baking. No lumps larger than peas, please.

  • Chill! Chill before (your butter, your water), during (before rolling out), and after (the crust before filling). Chilling allows for a number of processes to take place, include the hydration and lubrication of the flour particles by the fat. Again, follow the specifics of your recipes. No shortcuts!

  • Use a fork instead of a spoon to incorporate your (very cold) water into the crumb mixture. Toss rather than stir.

  • After mixing, form your dough into a disk and roll it on its edge to even it out. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and store in refrigerator.

  • If you want to get a jump on things, make your pie dough in advance. Wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, it will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days. Follow the recommendations of your individual recipes.

  • Have a question? E-mail me or leave a comment.

    Stay tuned for tips on filling, topping, and baking your pies.

    Can't wait? Check out my other pastry-related posts: here and here.

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