You know February is National Pie Month, right? If you haven't celebrated yet, there's no time like the present. If you've got some extra time this weekend, celebrate with a homemade pie or two.
Here are some tips and tricks to take your pies to the next level:
Passionate pie bakers tend to have a religious zeal about what type of fat goes into their crust, and not without good reason. The type of fat determines flavor, and can influence the final texture of the crust. Do you use butter, shortening or lard?
Although butter adds flavor, over-mixing -- or "over-working" -- the butter while you're making pie dough can cause the final crust to become tough and crunchy, rather than light and flaky.
Conversely, shortening's high melting point will give you a light and flaky crust, but one that lacks the rich flavor found with butter.
Lard, especially "leaf" lard (the most prized lard for pie-making), will give a wonderfully light and flaky crust, though it also lacks the richness of flavor you will find in a butter-based crust. (Some recipes also call for oil, which can lend interesting flavor, but results in a crust more mealy in texture.)
Over the years, I've taken to making my crust using butter and shortening. The trick is determining when to add the fats. I add the shortening first, cutting it in with flour before adding the butter, which I pulse only briefly to incorporate it into the dough.
Whichever recipe you use, keep your ingredients cold when forming the pie dough. I chill everything first, even the flour (measure the flour first, then freeze it for 30 minutes or so before using). The act of making the dough -- pulsing or cutting your fats in with the flour -- can generate heat, which can toughen the dough if you're working with a delicate fat such as butter.
One additional tip here: I always add a touch of vinegar to my pie dough. The cider vinegar is used to help "shorten" the crust, improving the texture. Though you might smell the vinegar as you roll out the crust, you won't taste or smell it in the finished pie.
USING A FOOD PROCESSOR FOR PIE DOUGH
If you've never made a pie dough, or other quick doughs, in a food processor, I can't stress how wonderfully simple and easy the whole process is. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Add the cold butter chunks and give the processor a couple whirs to incorporate, then pulse in the liquid ingredients just to combine. The steps may vary slightly depending on the recipe, but that's pretty much it. Voilà.
Many recipes now include dual methods for mixing -- mixing bowl and food processor methods, but even older recipes should work in a processor; it just takes a little adaptation. And a food processor is especially great if you're pressed for time or are working in a warm kitchen.
If you do use a food processor, remember that the blades rotate quickly and that it's easy to overprocess the dough, which will make it tough. I frequently pause between pulses to gauge where I am, just to make sure nothing is overmixed before proceeding.
ROLLING OUT PIE (AND COOKIE) DOUGH
To keep the dough even while rolling out your pie crusts and cut cookies, work the rolling pin in the center of the dough and don't roll all the way to the edges. You'll have greater control over the thickness of the dough if you keep the pin toward the center of the dough -- the closer you get to the rim, the more likely you are to roll the pin off the edges, flattening them and making the dough uneven. Rotate the dough a quarter-turn each time you roll to make sure the thickness remains even. Check out this video for a quick demonstration.