Among the many ways that past time is divided into knowable units, two come immediately to mind. Geologically speaking, the paleozoic era yielded to the mesozoic, and roughly 65 million years or so ago, we all sat down in the cenozoic. The evolution of pie pastry is as rigidly defined. To be fair, its epochs are significantly shorter, but they are no less distinct one from the other. Our grandmothers competed in state fairs with their lard crusts. Their daughters – our mothers – pursued the epitome of flakiness by going all modern with Crisco. I evolved into the butter era, though I’m sure my mother rolls in her grave when I say that.
We know rockslides happen. Similarly, any one of the 3 types of pie pastry will turn on you in an instant. I vividly recall once when I was trying (yet again) to follow my mother’s instructions for making a pie dough as she glared at it, fists on hips. Unable to stand it for another second, she literally yanked it away from me, spitting tacks of, “It’s going to be tough!” and 1-2-3 finished it herself. I did not touch another pie dough until I went to culinary school.
My friends, food should not make anyone crazy. It should bring you pleasure and joy – to make, to give, to eat. Explaining the whys of successful pie pastry is one of my fondest missions; if I can help one baker lay aside the anxieties that kept me pie- and tart-less for years, well that’s a pretty good day.
SOME SIMPLE FACTS
- A couple of things will toughen a crust every time: adding too much water, and handling it too much. Gluten, the protein in flour, forms and develops in the presence of water and via kneading. Banish the “k” word from your mind when making a pie dough.
- Fat tenderizes a dough: it literally causes protein molecules, which are long and convoluted, to separate. That’s a good thing.
- Cold, cold, cold: use butter straight out of the refrigerator, and ice water. Butter is an emulsion of 80% fat, 18% water, and 2% milk solids. Your objective is keep as much water as possible bound up in the butter, not leaching out into the dough and developing more gluten than you want. You’ll also fill a large measuring cup or pitcher with ice cubes followed by cold water which will chill while you begin your dough. When you’re ready for the water, you’ll decant ice water into a measuring cup and add that to your dough. Ice water will keep the butter in the dough cold, and less gluten forms in the presence of cold water than in warm. Think of bread dough, which typically begins with yeast being added to warm water. The warm water not only makes it easier for yeast to activate and begin to multiply; it also encourages gluten formation in the bread flour.
- The differences between lard/shortening and butter are interesting. Lard or shortening can indeed yield a more tender, flaky crust. Either contains exactly zero water, compared to 18% in butter. They both tenderize faster than butter when being incorporated into dough. Pure animal or plant fats warm more quickly when manipulated. When water is added, neither firms up much more, so even given the fact that neither contributes so much as a drop of water to the dough, you’d still use about the same amount of water as with a butter crust because the dough is going to come together faster than a butter crust. In the final analysis, if lard/shortening will likely produce a flakier crust, why would anyone bother with the somewhat greater idiosyncrasies of one made with butter? Quite simply, a butter crust tastes better. For my mother, the quality of the crust was the point of making a pie. The filling was merely a vehicle for the perfectly flaky crust. With a butter crust, on the other hand, the crust becomes part of the overall flavor profile of your pie or tart. Think of it as the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
- A food processor is a wonderful tool, but it is the wrong one for this pastry. It works way too fast, creating way too much friction. Friction generates heat. Heat warms the butter too much. Heat overdevelops the gluten in the flour. Instead, use your stand mixer; it gives you the amount of control you need.
FLAKY PIE AND TART PASTRY
Makes 2 crusts
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine ground sea or kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
8 ounces cold butter
6 ounces ice water
- Measure the flour, salt, and sugar into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle. Use a bench scraper to cut the butter into cubes. You should have 2 4-ounce quarters. Cut each one into 4 sections. Do not cut them any smaller. If you do, they’ll incorporate too fast, leaching too much water into the dough. Fill a large measuring cup with ice, followed by cold water. Have a smaller measuring cup into which to measure the ice water.
- Drop the butter cubes into the bowl, scattering them over the surface of the dry ingredients. Turn the mixer on to its lowest speed. Do not walk away from the mixer. Do not answer the phone, check email, feet the cat. Mix only until most of the chunks of butter are about the size of hazelnuts, or garbanzo beans. Don’t worry that they’re too large; when the water is added, the mixture will be come more dense, and the butter will smooth out into thin-ish layers.
- Measure off 6 ounces of ice water. With the mixer running on low speed, pour it straight down the side of the bowl in a steady stream, and not necessarily a slow one. You want to get it into the bowl, but not dump it all at once. Pouring the water down the side of the bowl delivers it to the bottom of the bowl. If you pour it down the center, the dough will tend to knot up around the paddle and take
much longer to hydrate the dry ingredients. Again, don’t walk away from the mixer. Continue mixing only until no unhydrated dry ingredients remain in the bottom of the bowl. As many times as I have mixed batches of of this dough, large or small, I never get tired of watching in make the last couple of passes around the bowl, picking up the very last of
crumbs of flour. At that second, hit the off switch.
- Lightly flour your work surface. Remove the paddle from the mixer and use a white plastic scraper to pull dough away from the paddle and from the bowl. Use the palms of your hands to just press the dough into a somewhat cohesive dome. It only needs to form a shape that you can divide in half. Once you’ve divided it in half, work with one piece at a time. Shape it into another round, again using your palms. Your palms transmit warmth much less effectively than your fingers (think how lovely it is to join fingers and hold hands with someone). You want to work quickly, and not warm your dough. Place one hand atop the other and give the dough a couple of quick presses. Then round it with your palms, then quick-press it again, repeating until the dough is about a 3/4″ thick round disk. Place each disk in the refrigerator, not on top of each other, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before rolling.
The refrigerated rest is important for 2 reasons. First, it allows the gluten formed during mixing and shaping to relax. Second, the protein strands and starch molecules have a chance to become fully hydrated. When shaping the dough into disks, you may notice that it feels a bit “blotchy,” for lack of another term. Some spots may seem wetter than the rest, in other words. Don’t worry; the rest period will allow that moisture to be evenly absorbed throughout the dough.
This is also a good point to freeze dough is you aren’t going to use it right away. To freeze it, leave it wrapped in plastic, then enclose in a ziplock bag. When you need to pull a rabbit out of a hat, thaw the dough overnight in the refrigerator, and the next day you can toss a quick pie or tart together with one hand behind your back. Sort of.