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.