Good cooks make good cakes, cookies, puddings, doughnuts, tarts, candies and more. People have a love affair with desserts of all kinds, but there is something about the ability to make a delicious made-from-scratch pie that seems to set a cook apart.
It isn’t the fillings that make it seem special. Pie fillings are no particular mystery. It is the crust that is an enigma to many cooks. Some throw up their hands in despair and purchase ready-made pie crust or resort to crumb crusts, shortbread crusts or the like. It’s hard to find fault with that. Those crusts taste really good.
Nevertheless, some folks stay with it and work at learning how to make good pie dough until they figure it out. They learn to make the perfect piecrust — golden brown, flaky and light. It does take a bit of practice to perfect the art and science of making piecrust, but learning a little about the science will help with the art.
Rule 1: Handle pie dough lightly to incorporate as much air as possible and to avoid the development of gluten. One of the keys is to avoid developing the gluten strands that are so important in bread making. Pie crust needs very little gluten development to hold it together so don’t overwork the dough.
Rule 2: Measure carefully. Too much flour toughens pastry, too much liquid makes it soggy, and too much shortening makes dough greasy and crumbly. However, some of each is essential because together they form a light crust. The shortening is incorporated leaving small beads mixed throughout the flour. Water binds it all together and makes it light. The shortening spreads into layers inside the dough as it is rolled out. As the dough heats in baking, the water forms steam. The steam forces apart the layers created inside with shortening creating a flaky texture.
Rule 3: Although this step is not absolutely essential, chilling pastry dough, covered, up to 12 hours after it is mixed tenderizes it, keeps it from shrinking during baking and makes it easier to handle. Take the dough out of the refrigerator an hour before shaping or you will have to over handle it.
Rule 4: Pinch off just enough dough for one pie shell, press it into a round shape and roll as little and as lightly as possible until you get the desired thickness. Put the trimmings to one side rather than mixing them back with the main batch of dough.
Rule 5: Choose non-shiny pie pans for good browning. Always preheat the oven before starting the baking. The contrast between the coolness of the dough and the heat of the oven causes rapid air expansion and helps make the pie crust lighter. Rule 6: Pie dough freezes well if it is sealed up in airtight packaging.
It will keep in the refrigerator for a week or more if it is covered in an airtight container. To save time, roll out those pie crusts a week ahead, seal them up and refrigerate them. Then pull them out the morning you need them, add the filling and bake. It is sort of like making your own convenient pie crust.
Perfect Pie Crust
Sift the flour and salt together.
Cut half the shortening into the flour until it resembles corn meal, then add the other half and cut to the size of small peas.
Add very cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring with a fork. Move the mixed portion to one side of the bowl and add another tablespoon of water to the dry flour. Mix and pull it to the side. When all the flour has been moistened, blend the entire mixture together lightly with a fork.
Place on a lightly floured surface and pull the dough together. Take enough dough for one crust, and set the rest aside. Flatten the dough roughly into a circle using the edge of your hand. Sprinkle a small amount of flour on top of the dough to keep the rolling pin from sticking. Use a rolling pin to roll from the center to the edges working all directions to maintain a round shape. Roll to 1/8-inch thick.
To move the crust to a pan, fold it in half or in quarters and lay across the center of the pan, then unfold to fit. Another option is to roll the crust loosely around the rolling pin and unroll on the pie pan. This is particularly effective for placing the top crust after filling is in place. Press the crust down around the edges and bottom of the pan. Use a knife or cooking scissors to clip the edges just beyond the edge of the pan.
Fancy pie crust cutters are also fun to use for fancy edges. Use fingers to flute the edges. Use a thumb and forefinger on the outside, and press the forefinger of the opposite hand between them to create a dent. Continue around the edge of the crust. Be sure to raise the fluted edges up to keep filling from leaking over the edges.
Add filling. Add top crust if desired and bake.
For pies with fillings that don’t need to be baked, the crust is baked alone. Roll out the crust and lay it in the pan and form it as above. Prick holes in it with a fork, leaving rows of holes about an inch apart all over the bottom and sides of the pan. This keeps the crust from puffing up excessively.
Favorite Apple Pie
3/4 to 1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Dash nutmeg and salt
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
6-8 tart apples, peeled and sliced (6 cups)
Pastry for a two-crust pie, unbaked
Combine sugar, flour and spices. Add apples and mix well. Place apple mixture in bottom crust and dot with butter.
Adjust top crust (cut slits) and seal and flute edges. Pat milk on top crust and sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 400 degrees for 50 minutes or until done.
Blackberry Swirl Pie
1 unbaked piecrust
1 cup sour cream
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 cups fresh blackberries or one 16 oz. package frozen blackberries
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Let frozen berries stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare pastry and line 9-inch pie plate. Line pastry with double thickness of foil. Bake eight minutes. Remove foil. Bake four minutes more or until lightly browned. Cool on wire rack. Reduce oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, combine sour cream, sugar, flour and salt. Add berries and gently stir to combine. Spoon into prebaked crust. To prevent overbrowning, cover edge of pie with foil. Bake 25 minutes (50 minutes for frozen berries). Remove foil. Bake 20 minutes more or until filling is bubbly and appears set (some berries will pop up to surface). Cool on wire rack for two hours. Serve or cover and refrigerate.
Caramel Apple Pie
4 cups sliced, tart apples
1/3 cup water
1/3 cup sugar, more or less to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons cornstarch or Clear Jel A
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)
10 caramel candies, cut into small pieces
1 egg, to brush on pastry surface
3/4 cup caramel ice cream topping
Peel and slice apples. Combine with water and lemon juice. Bring to a boil and boil three minutes. Mix together sugar, cornstarch (or Clear Jel A) and spices. Stir into hot apples. Bring apple mixture back to a boil, then cool. Place filling in bottom crust and top with caramels. Adjust top crust (cut slits) and seal and flute edges. Brush with beaten egg if desired. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes. Serve with ice cream drizzled with caramel ice cream topping.
Famous Pecan Pie
1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1/3 cup butter or margarine, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups pecan halves
1 unbaked pastry shell
In a large bowl, combine corn syrup, sugar, eggs, butter, salt and vanilla. Mix well. Pour into unbaked piecrust and sprinkle with pecans. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes or until center is set. Cool and serve with whipped cream.
Fresh Strawberry Pie
1 1/2 quarts fresh strawberries, hulled and washed
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Reserve half of berries (best looking) and mash the rest. Combine sugar and cornstarch in large saucepan. Add mashed berries and mix well. Cook for five to six minutes or until clear and thick. Add lemon juice and cool. Add the rest of berries and pour into a 9-inch baked pastry shell. Top with whipped cream to serve.