If you want to bake a really good pie, get up early. I mean insomniac early, before light and birds and traffic, when the house and anyone in it, including the dog, are asleep. Put on the tea kettle and some music or the news in Europe and measure out your ingredients. Because making pie dough is, and I’m hardly the first to point this out, more a state of mind than a fixed recipe. So is pie, for that matter, particularly holiday pie, when that ceramic pie plate is filled as much with memory and tradition as it is actual spiced pumpkin custard.
There’s a reason bakers keep strange hours, and it’s not only production schedules and the time-elapse required of rising dough. It’s a lot easier to think then, and to think about what you’re doing in the kitchen. When I was in graduate school, I got a job making desserts at a restaurant — after it had closed, when the line cooks and even the dishwashers were gone, and I was the only one there, in the back kitchen, making chocolate terrines for the good citizens of Iowa City at 3 a.m. I wrote outlines of my thesis on the back of old restaurant menus spilled with raspberry sauce and pastry flour. You can think, or you can not think too much, and you can eat Valrhona in peace.
The engines are quiet then, except for the stove and the oven, and it’s more fun to mix the dough and to realize that a good pie crust is about restraint more than precision. Sure, you need to get the right proportion of flour to butter to liquid, but the rest is mostly about having a light touch and not overworking things, any more than you sometimes need not to over-think things. Let the dough barely coalesce, the butter stay bits of butter. You should be able to see it, marbled in the dough as you roll it out, in patterns like a William Morris print on your counter.
Pre-dawn baking is also cooler, so both dough and butter stay cold — which is important — more than it would at, say, 5 p.m., when the kitchen can be filled with people or dinner or both. (If the dough gets fussy, just toss it in the refrigerator for a bit. Make more coffee. Pet your dog. Get the paper? Maybe so.)
As for all that rolling and primping, whole-grain doughs, especially those with all whole-grain flours, are more delicate than the white-flour-and-shortening pie crusts of our childhood. So just don’t bother. Roll out the dough a little, then just press the stuff into your pie plate, half pie crust, half tart dough. If it were not necessary to fill the pan with pumpkin pie filling, the best thing is to just make a free-form galette on a sheet pan and fold it over fruit or whatever.
But this is Thanksgiving, the one time of the year when you need a real pie, preferably pumpkin, the custard laced with a happily inordinate amount of spices — lots of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, some turmeric and, in my kitchen, a dose of cayenne. Parbake the crust (because soggy pie crust will not make anyone happy), fill it up and bake your pie until it’s as dark as you can bear without burning it. Rye flour and lots of spices, by the way, mean a dark palette already, so watch it instead of just setting a timer — you can also tell a lot by the aroma, so maybe just sit there with your coffee and smell your kitchen until it seems done too.
The other benefit of insomnia baking? Your pie is cooling on a rack, the kitchen clean, the stove ready for breakfast — or the rest of the holiday cooking — by the time the outside world gets up.