CAN a pie crust recipe really change your life? I guess it depends on how much you like eating pie -- and how much you hate making crust. I really love eating pie, but I really hated making crust, at least until I found the perfect recipe.
Now I can make pie whenever I want. I'm even improvising pies from whatever ingredients I have on hand -- just like real cooking.
Homey double-crusters, oh-so-cosmopolitan fruit tarts -- they're all pies in my book. And there are few things more delicious. The combination of crisp and melting textures, the sweet filling and buttery, wheaty crust -- a piece of pie is one of the great pleasures in life. (And maybe even beyond: There must be pie in heaven, right?)
I worked for years trying to learn how to make a good pie crust. In fact, I devoted most of one summer to the project -- even getting hands-on lessons from pastry wizard Nancy Silverton, then still baking at Campanile. My pie crust skills did improve under her tutelage, but not nearly enough that you'd notice.
Even after all that, there still would be times when the dough would be either so dry it crumbled, or so wet it would stick to everything it touched. And sometimes even when the texture felt perfect, it would roll out looking like a map of Africa or South America instead of the neat Antarctica I was hoping for.
It was enough to make me throw up my hands and shout, "I'll just make a crisp!"
BUT then a couple of years ago, I found my pie crust nirvana. It came when I was working on a story about quiches and tried the basic pate brisee crust in Thomas Keller's "Bouchon" cookbook.
It was love at first roll -- this dough works like a dream. It comes together quickly, handles easily, rolls out like silk and bakes crisp and gorgeous brown. Though Keller intended it as a savory shell, it works equally well for sweet fillings with only the addition of just a little sugar (or not: Keller says he likes a sugarless crust for desserts too).
It works so well I've started making pies just for fun. Seriously, bake a crust, slice some fruit, warm a sweet glaze, scatter some nuts -- there's nothing to it.
I'm not quite sure exactly why this crust recipe works where all others failed. The proportion of ingredients for most of these doughs is basically the same -- roughly half as much butter as flour by volume and then just enough ice water to bring everything together.
The combination of flour and water creates sheets of gluten -- just as it does in bread. The fat is there to waterproof enough of the flour so that the sheets are tender, not tough.
The difference between a flaky crust and a short (crumbly) crust is the extent to which the fat is mixed into the flour. When the flour and the fat are thoroughly mixed, the crust is cookie-like. If you leave the fat in little chunks, the crust will be flaky: The pieces of fat melt during baking, giving off steam that leaves behind tiny pockets in the pastry. But getting a good flaky crust is the kind of thing that takes a special touch.
The trick with Keller's pastry must be in the technique, but even that is only slightly unusual. While most pie dough recipes have you mix the butter with the full amount of flour, this one has you mix the butter and only half the flour, then beat in the remaining flour only after that mixture has been thoroughly amalgamated.
The result is a flaky pie crust that couldn't be easier to make. Keller's recipe calls for a stand mixer -- and I do think that slow motion does yield the most tender crust -- but it also works well when made with a food processor. Lacking either of those, you could even make it by hand, mixing the butter and the flour with a pastry cutter or a couple of table knives.
Keller says he learned his method years ago, when he was just starting out and working in the Catskills. He, too, felt pastry-deficient, and so he enrolled in a cooking class given by Francis Lorenzini, pastry chef at the old New York restaurant Le Cygne (he now teaches at New York City College of Technology).
"It was nothing fancy, a typical cooking class," Keller remembers. "I was the only professional and the only male in the whole class. It was a real hoot, but I've been using that dough recipe ever since. There's just something about the texture and the way it handles."
As easy as this dough is to work with, there are a couple of pointers -- what Keller likes to calls "points of finesse."
The first and most critical is that the crust should be baked very thoroughly. A well-baked pastry crust is golden brown, not beige -- and not just on the rim. It is only then that you lose the taste of raw flour and get that wonderful well-browned flavor.
Also, be sure to give the dough plenty of time to chill. This lets the gluten strands relax so the pastry doesn't twist and pull in awkward ways. Give it an hour or more after mixing it and then at least 20 minutes after it's in the pan.
Once the pastry has been made, the filling can be as complicated or simple as you wish.
At this time of year, the best fresh fruit to use are strawberries, which are just coming into their peak, and navel oranges, which are nearing the end of theirs.
I like the idea of fresh strawberry pies, but too often find they're coated in gloppy cornstarch-thickened jelly. So I took that idea and turned it around slightly, using just a little raspberry jam, thinned with orange juice and perfumed with zest. Scatter toasted sliced almonds over the top for a contrasting crisp texture. This makes a fresh strawberry pie that really tastes fresh.
A similar treatment works just as well with citrus. Peel and slice navel oranges and warm them in rosemary-scented honey -- use about a half teaspoon of rosemary with one-quarter cup honey and a tablespoon of water). You want them to soften just barely and begin to release their juices. Scatter chopped pistachios over the top.
These pies can be dressed up quite easily for an elegant dinner party -- just take a couple of minutes arranging the fruit. But they're every bit as delicious as an everyday pie, with the fruit simply mounded in the center.
Everyday pie -- I like the way that sounds.
Basic tart shell
Total time: About 1 1/2 hours, plus resting time
Servings: Makes 1 (9-inch) tart shell or a (9-inch) deep-dish pie crust
Note: Adapted from "Bouchon" by Thomas Keller
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups flour, divided, plus a little more for rolling
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 -inch pieces
1. Place the sugar, salt and 1 cup of the flour in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Turn the mixer to low speed and add the butter a small handful at a time.
2. When all the butter has been added, increase the speed to medium and mix until the butter is completely blended with the flour. Reduce the speed, add the remaining flour and mix just to combine.
3. A little at a time, add one-fourth cup ice water and mix until the dough gathers around the paddle and pulls cleanly away from the sides of the bowl. It should feel smooth, not sticky. (Alternately, the basic dough can be processed in a food processor. Place the flour, sugar and salt in the food processor. Pulse the processor a few times to incorporate. Add several chunks of butter at a time, pulsing once or twice between additions. When all the butter has been added, sprinkle in the flour about one-fourth cup at a time, pulsing once or twice between additions, just until combined. Add the water a little at a time, pulsing between additions, just until the dough starts to gather together and pull away from the bowl.)
4. Remove the dough from the mixer and check to be certain there are no visible pieces of butter remaining; if necessary, return the dough to the mixer and mix briefly again. Pat the dough into a 7- to 8-inch disk and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to a day. (If the dough does not rest, it will shrink as it bakes.)
5. Place the dough on a floured work surface and rub on all sides with flour. Flatten it into a larger circle using a rolling pin or the heel of your hand. Roll the rolling pin back and forth across the dough a few times, then turn it 90 degrees and roll again. Continue to turn and roll until the dough is one-fourth inch thick and about 14 inches in diameter. (If the kitchen is hot and the dough has become very soft, move it to a baking sheet and refrigerate for a few minutes.)
6. To lift the dough into the tart pan, place the rolling pin across the dough about one-quarter of the way up from the bottom edge, fold the bottom edge of the dough up and over the pin, and roll the dough up on the rolling pin. Lift the dough on the pin and hold it over the pan, centering it. Carefully lower the dough into the pan, pressing it gently against the sides and into the bottom.
7. Trim any dough that extends more than an inch over the sides of the pan and reserve the scraps. Fold the excess dough over, doubling the thickness of the sides of the shell. Place in the refrigerator or freezer for at least 20 minutes to resolidify the butter.
8. Place a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line the shell with a 15-inch round of parchment paper or aluminum foil. Fill the shell with pie weights or dried beans, gently guiding the weights into the corners of the shell and filling the shell completely. Place the tart pan on a sheet pan, and bake the shell until the edges of the dough are lightly browned but the bottom is still light in color, 35 to 45 minutes.
9. Carefully remove the parchment and weights. Return the shell to the oven until the bottom is a rich golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow the shell to cool completely before filling.
Each serving: 320 calories; 4 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 23 grams fat; 14 grams saturated fat; 60 mg. cholesterol; 144 mg. sodium.
Strawberry tart with raspberry-orange glaze
Total time: About 25 minutes
Servings: 6 to 8
1 pound strawberries
1/2 cup raspberry preserves
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon chopped orange zest
1 basic tart shell
3 tablespoons toasted sliced almonds
1. Cut the green tops from the strawberries and slice the strawberries in lengthwise quarters (very large berries can be cut into sixths). Place the berries in a work bowl.
2. Warm the raspberry preserves, orange juice and orange zest in a small saucepan over low heat until the preserves become liquid and flow easily, about 5 minutes.
3. Cool briefly and then press through a fine-mesh strainer over the berries, separating out the raspberry seeds and orange zest. Gently stir the berries to coat them with the glaze.
4. Arrange the glazed berries in the baked tart shell. You can do this neatly in overlapping rows or simply by arranging them in a mound. Sprinkle with the toasted sliced almonds. Serve at room temperature.
Each of 8 servings: 402 calories; 4 grams protein; 43 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 24 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 60 mg. cholesterol; 144 mg. sodium.