The holidays are here, and if pastry is on your baking list, there’s no need to buy it frozen – pastry is inexpensive to make from scratch, and not difficult once you know what you’re doing. It seems making a pie from scratch is one of the most intimidating culinary tasks, primarily because of the crust factor. Baking pies used to be the norm – any home cook could turn one out using skills most likely passed on by their mother or grandmother, who baked pies from scratch for reasons of necessity and economy. These days, with the availability of frozen pie crusts and ready-made pies, making pastry from scratch isn’t necessary, but it’s infinitely satisfying and well worth the effort.
The only way to learn how to make homemade pastry and turn it into a pie is by doing it. Pastry shouldn’t be as intimidating as it is; it’s simply a combination of flour, fat and water, but the method by which you combine them is vital to the end result. The two rules my Grandma reinforced as she deftly rolled perfect “never-fail” pastry for her pies and butter tarts were: keep the dough cold, and don’t handle it too much. Treat not-so-perfect attempts as learning experiences rather than wasted time and ingredients, and remember that tying your shoes once seemed like an impossible task. Trust me; nothing is more satisfying than pulling a freshly baked pie out of the oven that you made with your own two hands. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.
The secret to making tender, flaky pastry is in the mixing and handling of the dough.
When mixing pastry from scratch, it’s important to keep the ingredients – primarily the fat – cold. Cold fat particles are what produce flaky layers. When butter and shortening begin to melt, they can become greasy and produce a heavy crust. There are many techniques cooks employ to accomplish this: freezing the butter and grating it into the flour, chilling or freezing the dry ingredients after the fat has been added, making sure the water is ice-cold, or using a pastry blender or food processor to cut in the butter or shortening so that their warm fingers don’t melt the fat as it is blended in. When you add the butter and shortening to the flour mixture, the mixture should be blended so that the bits of fat range from the consistency of bread crumbs to the size of small peas. Smaller pieces make your pastry tender, and the larger pieces make it flaky. This part can be done quickly and easily in a food processor – just make sure you pulse it only until the mixture is crumbly. Don’t blend it to the point where it becomes completely homogeneous.
Once the fat has been added, or “cut in”, you’ll need to add your liquid. Using ice-cold water will keep the small particles of fat from melting. Many pie bakers swear by a teaspoon of vinegar in their pastry to keep it tender by preventing the formation of gluten, strands of protein that make pastry tough. It’s not necessary, but if you want to add a teaspoon of vinegar, stir it into your water. The amount of water you’ll need to hold your pastry together will vary depending on factors like humidity and the flour you use, so sprinkle a little at a time over the dry ingredients, just until the dough comes together. If you want to do this part in the food processor, pulse just until the mixture starts to clump together, then gather it into a ball by hand. Your second goal should be to handle the dough as little as possible – mixing, kneading and rolling develops the gluten in flour, making it tough.
Rolling Out Pastry Dough
The first thing to do once you’ve mixed your pastry dough is to gather it into a ball, flatten it into a disc shape, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but the resting period will give the gluten a chance to relax, making the pastry more tender and preventing it from shrinking as it bakes. At this point pastry can be refrigerated for up to 2 days, or frozen for up to 4 months. Since it’s exactly as much work to make enough pastry for two pies, you can double the amount of ingredients and freeze half for another pie.
If your pastry is coming straight out of the fridge, let it sit on the countertop for about 10 minutes to make it more malleable. To keep it from sticking, lightly dust the countertop with flour. Try to use as little flour as you can get away with; you don’t want your pastry to absorb too much excess flour. You could also roll your pastry out between two sheets of waxed paper or parchment.
Dust your dough and rolling pin lightly with a little flour, and keep the flour canister close by so you can reach more if you need it. Begin at the center of your dough and roll outward toward the edges, using long, gentle strokes. Roll up and down from the center, not back and forth, and rotate the dough a quarter turn every couple of rolls to make sure it isn’t sticking. If it starts to stick to the counter, sprinkle a little more flour underneath. If it sticks to the rolling pin, sprinkle the pin with a little more flour.
Continue to roll the dough, keeping it as evenly thick and round as possible, until it is a few inches larger than your pie plate or tart pan, and between 1/8th and 1/16th of an inch thick. If it cracks or tears, patch it up with your fingers, using a little extra dough from around the edge if you need to. Never gather up and reroll your pastry, or it will turn out shrunken and tough.
Lining the Pan
The easiest way to transfer the dough to your pie plate is to gently fold it into quarters, then transfer the wedge of dough to the plate, placing the corner in the middle. You could also drape the dough over your rolling pin to help lift it over. Unfold the dough onto the plate, center it, and gently fit the dough into the plate without stretching it. Trim the edge of the dough to within 1/2- inch of the plate rim with scissors or a knife. Fold the edge of the dough under itself so that it’s flush with the rim of the plate, and crimp the border with your fingers or press it down with the tines of a fork. For best results, refrigerate the shell for another 30 minutes before you fill or bake it. To make tart shells, cut circles of rolled-out dough with a biscuit cutter, glass rim or the open end of a can, and fit them into regular or mini muffin pans.
Blind Baking your Pie Crust
Some pie crusts need to be “blind baked”, or baked without any filling. Crusts can be partially baked, for recipes in which the pie requires additional baking once the filling is added, or completely baked, for recipes in which the filling is cooked separately. Since custard-type fillings don’t require a long baking time, partially baking the crust first ensures it won’t turn out soggy. And since some fillings, such as chocolate mousse or lemon curd, don’t require any baking at all, the crusts must be baked completely before they are filled.
To blind bake your pie crust you’ll need to prick it all over with a fork, then line it with aluminum foil and fill it with pie weights, dried beans or rice before you bake it. Lining the unbaked shell and weighing it down helps it hold its shape and keeps it from puffing up as it bakes. You could also line it with a second pie plate, if you have one of the same size. Tart shells don’t need to be lined before they are blind baked; just prick them all over with a fork.
Blind bake your pie shell at 400°F for about 10 minutes, until the edges are set. Gently remove the weights and the foil and continue to bake for another 5-7 minutes, until the crust is dry and just barely golden. If it starts to puff up, use a dish towel to gently tap the bubble down. Partially blind-baked shells should be just slightly colored when they come out of the oven. For a fully baked crust, continue to bake it for another 10-12 minutes, until it’s golden and just baked through. Let either crust cool completely before adding the filling, so that the warm pastry doesn’t steam and become soggy.
Classic Pie Pastry
When making pastry, you need to use a solid fat. Lard used to be the fat of choice, and will produce very flaky pastry, but shortening has become the norm for health reasons. (If you want to convert your recipes to use lard, or vice versa, you’ll need only three quarters as much lard as vegetable shortening.) You can use all butter or all shortening in your pastry, or a combination of the two. Butter will give you the best flavor, but your crust won’t be as flaky as it would be if it was made with shortening, which is used for flakiness but doesn’t add any flavor. A combination of the two gives you the best of both worlds. All-purpose flour will produce great results – there is no need to buy cake & pastry flour, which is popular because of its lower gluten content.
For a single crust pie:
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/4 cup lard, chilled and cut into small pieces
4-8 Tbsp. ice water
In a large bowl or the bowl of a food processor, stir together the flour, sugar and salt. Add the butter and shortening and use a fork, pastry blender, wire whisk or the “pulse” motion of the food processor to blend the mixture until it resembles coarse meal, with lumps of fat no bigger than a pea. Drizzle the minimum amount of water over the mixture and stir until the dough comes together, adding a little more a bit at a time if you need it. Gather the dough into a ball, flatten it into a disc, wrap it in plastic and chill it for at least half an hour. If you are making a double crust pie, divide the dough in half, making one half slightly larger than the other. (Your pastry can be prepared up to this point and frozen for up to 4 months; let it thaw on the countertop when you need to use it.)
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 12 inch circle. Gently fold the dough into quarters to transfer it into a 9- inch pie plate. Unfold the dough onto the plate, center it, and gently fit the dough into the plate without stretching it. Trim the edge of the dough to within 1/2 inch of the plate rim with scissors or a knife. Tuck the edge of the pastry under itself so that it is even with the edge of the pan, and flute it with your fingers or press it gently with a fork to create a border.
If you have time, refrigerate the crust for about half an hour while you make the filling.