Monday, July 5, 2010
OK, pie isn't really _that_ hard. Especially not once you get the hang of it. But there's a lot going on in there. Family recipes are highly individualized (not to mention closely guarded). Family pie standards are just as idiosyncratic. Everyone seems to have strong opinions on the ideal degrees of flakiness, tenderness, butteriness, brownness, sweetness and the amount (and even presence) of the decorative outer edging. It seems that the kind of crusts someone likes (and the kind of crust they make) is almost as individual as a fingerprint.
Yet the actual ingredients remain fairly constant. In his book, Ratio, Michael Ruhlman describes the proportions -- 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part water (all by weight) -- to which most pie dough recipes conform, more or less. The type of fat, rather than the amount, is usually the biggest variable. Butter, shortening, margarine, lard and even cream cheese all have devoted factions. (Other ingredients pop up from time to time as well, like vinegar or other acids and eggs.)
I grew up accepting the standard kitchen lore that the type of fat determined the texture of the crust, the gold standard being "tender, flaky crust." In my accepted version of crustology, the whole idea of "tender AND flaky" was an unachievable fallacy. Tender and flaky were opposites, and you had to choose one direction or another, or come to some compromise in between. Butter led to more cookie-textured (and more flavorful) crusts and shortening led to flaky crusts (that were often a little tough). My mother, after much tinkering, settled on a formula 2 parts butter to one part Crisco. It's a wonderfully flavorful crust, not terribly flaky, but tender and broadly useful, and it was the pie crust in my house growing up, for ever and ever, amen.
Except that I'm kind of a good idea slut. I have no particular faithfulness to doing things my way. If your way works better, then, hey...
One day I was making blueberry squares without the benefit of a Cuisinart and I noticed that mixing in the fat using a pastry cutter seemed to yield flakier results, even with the usual ingredients. Hmmm... Then, a few years ago, Gourmet [sob] published a recipe for sour cherry pie that included pie dough with almost the same butter-Crisco ratio as my mom's, but with a very different method. It used a technique called fraisage that I was familiar with because my mom had used it to make her famous shortbread, but never her pie dough. Basically you blend the fat in by smearing the dough with the heel of your hand, creating pastry layers almost as if you're making really quick and dirty puff pastry. Instead of mixing up your ingredients and hoping for the best, you build flakiness right in. You don't give your pastry a choice.
So, all this sort of implied that the type of fat was not the only thing, or even the main thing, determining the texture of my pie dough. As usual, the madness is in the method. Is this why people consider pie dough so tricky? Perhaps that's also why everyone's pie dough is so unique. From the same basic 3-2-1 ratio of flour to fat to water, everyone becomes comfortable with their own process, and these are the kinds of things that make it into written recipes imperfectly, if at all.
This really became clear to me the other night. I had been thinking about a pie dough blog post, and invited a friend to a head-to-head pie comparison. Still focused on the types of fat being used, I had sort of planned a dairy vs non-dairy crust competition, but, what with one thing and another, at the last minute we both ended up using some combination of butter and Crisco, only with the proportions just about reversed. (My pie had more butter.) But while our ingredients weren't really that different, our methods definitely were. Having grown up with Cuisinart pie dough, I'd never seen a stand mixer used... Interesting! The motion of the paddle attachment actually comes closer to the motion I use with my fingers. ("Hey... are you stealing my secrets?!" my friend asked. Absolutely.) But what I noticed was that the pieces of butter in the machine-mixed dough, like my mom's Cuisinart-mixed dough, ended up much smaller, the texture much more even than my hand-mixed dough. Once baked, my friend's crust was, by design, much more cookie-like and less flaky in texture than mine, and the bottom crust stood up particularly well to the juicy sour cherry filling.
One further experiment confirmed what I'd been thinking. I made a non-dairy pie with about 2 parts Crisco and 1 part margarine (Earth Balance Buttery Sticks), using my hand-mixed/fraisage method. The dough itself felt much more supple than butter dough, but, when baked, the texture was nearly identical to my butter crust. Both were... tender and flaky. Only the flavor differed significantly. The Crisco crust had a more neutral flavor, whereas the butter crust, unsurprisingly, was richer.
At this point, having come to the conclusion that the texture is mostly a result of method, I rather unscientifically set out to bolster my conclusion with research. Michel Suas's encyclopedic Advanced Bread and Pastry did not let me down. Suas explicitly divides pie dough into "mealy" and "flaky". ("Mealy" is not meant as a pejorative here. It's what I've been calling "cookie-like".) The difference? It's all about the size of the fat left by the mixing process. If you want flaky pastry, leave some particles the size of a pea or larger. (For industrial mixing processes, the recommended size is walnut sized!) If you want cookie-like pastry, cut the butter into the flour more thoroughly, to the point where the mix resembles cornmeal. Apparently, it's that simple. Since it's easier to mix the flour and fat to a more even point in a machine (either Cuisinart or mixer) the less flaky results my mom and my friend both get make a lot of sense. As does the fact that I started getting flakier crusts when I started mixing by hand. I'm not patient enough to hand-mix flour and butter to completely even and tiny pieces.
Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking was similarly illuminating. Apparently, shortening has a reputation for making a flakier crust because it is more forgiving to work with than butter, but given the right conditions, butter can make just as flaky a crust. Temperature is the key. According to McGee, "butter has the right consistency for making pastry in a relatively narrow temperature range, between 58 and 68 degrees F." I'd been on the right track, using cold (usually frozen) butter, working quickly, and chilling the dough once mixed.
McGee also points out that butter contains water (regular American butter has about 15%, European-style butters have less) while shortenings do not. Too much water in the fat can both "glue adjacent layers together" -- presumably a bad thing for flakiness -- while just the right amount can provide steam to push them apart. So the ancient kitchen wisdom wasn't all wrong. I think this probably means that you have to be more careful when adding water to butter pastry than you do with shortening pastry, since too much water will make for tougher pastry.
So, for the record, here's my all-important method for flaky butter crust.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, preferably frozen, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup Crisco, preferably frozen
4 to 7 tablespoons ice water
Add flour, sugar and salt to a bowl. Use a pastry cutter to cut the fat into the dry ingredients. OR Quickly, with your fingertips, pinch the fat into the dry ingredients. OR use a mixer with a paddle attachment at low speed (I think this would be my preference now, over the Cuisinart: at least one good idea successfully stolen!) or Cuisinart to mix. MIX ONLY UNTIL ALL FAT CHUNKS ARE THE SIZE OF PEAS - HAZELNUTS OR SMALLER.
If you're mixing by machine at this point, stop. Slowly add 3-4 tablespoons of ice water. Mix the water in with a fork. Use only as much water as is needed to get the ingredients clumping together. Add a bit more water if needed. (If you're going for flaky, err on the side of less water.) The amount of water you need will vary based on the humidity (flour absorbs moisture from the air). Take a handful of dough and squeeze it together. If it doesn't crumble, you're good.
Next step, Fraisage: Start with a couple of handfuls of the dough on a clean work surface. With the heel of your hand, quickly smear the dough together.
With a pastry scraper, pick up the smeared dough and start a pile. Work through the rest of the dough the same way, until you have a pile of soon-to-be flaky layers.
REFRIGERATE THE PILE FOR AT LEAST AN HOUR. Put it in the freezer if you're in a hurry.
This is the longest blog post ever and we haven't even talked about the part that gives most people fits: rolling it out. This is just not that big a deal once you get the hang of it. I use plastic wrap. It makes things a lot easier, plus you're not adding more flour to the dough, which would change the consistency.
Wet down your work surface. This will help the plastic wrap stick to it. You'll need two pieces of plastic wrap to accommodate a 9-10 inch pie.
We're making a 2-crust pie here, so we're starting with the bottom. Take 2/3 of your dough. Cover it with two more pieces of plastic wrap.
Use your rolling pin to flatten it out a bit.
Then roll it into a circular thing. Start from the middle and push away from you, or pull toward you, in all directions. Periodically sweep along the edges. You don't have to worry too much about the edges being pretty. I roll mine fairly thin, maybe 2 mm. One advantage of plastic wrap is that you can run your hand over it and feel which parts are thicker than the others.
Peel the plastic wrap off the top to make sure it releases (if it doesn't, it needs more time in the fridge) but then put the plastic wrap back on and flip it over. Peel the plastic wrap off the other side. (Save the plastic wrap to roll out the top crust.) Use your rolling pin to pick up the crust and help you center it in the pie plate.
Make sure the dough gets down into the corners of the pie plate.
Fill the pie. (What? You want to know what to put in it? I dunno. Fruit. Maybe 5-6 cups for your average pie. Depending on how juicy the fruit is, add a few tablespoons of--in order of thickening ability--flour, cornstarch or crushed tapioca. Depending on how sweet your fruit is, add anywhere from a third of a cup to a cup or more of white or brown sugar. You can also add flavors like lemon juice, a splash of your favorite liquor or extract, cinnamon, whatever. This is not the hard part.)
Roll out the top crust the same way. Once the top crust is draped over the top of the pie, go around the outside of the crust and remove as much as you like. Some people like to take off all the excess crust. I like to leave about an inch. My mom likes to leave as much as possible. She's all about the decorative edging. I don't like too much because the inside of the edges never quite bake. Then roll the edges up. This seals the insides of the pie and prevents leaks.
Crimp the edges. It's decorative, and it also helps make sure the edging cooks all the way through.
Cut vents on your pie. You can be as decorative as you want, but they also serve a functional purpose in letting out steam from the filling as it cooks.
Some people like to use pie shields to keep the edges from getting too brown. Sometimes I do this at the beginning and take them off after about 15 minutes. Other times I only do it after the fact if the edges look like they're getting too brown. Here is my mom's patented aluminum foil pie shield. For a 9-10 inch pie, you'll need 4 strips of foil, rolled together.
Start your pie at a higher temperature, about 425 to 450, for about 15 minutes. This helps make sure the fat in your pie actually sets instead of just slowly melting, according to Harold McGee. (Note: if you've forgotten to pre-heat your oven, put the pie in the fridge while it heats up. It's all about keeping the pastry cold until it's ready to go.) Then turn it down to 350-375 and finish it for about 45 minutes, or until the crust is nice and golden brown.
Don't be tempted to take it out until the crust is really cooked. There's nothing worse than uncooked pie dough. You'll know your crust was underdone if it gets soggy by morning and starts to look raw. Not good.
I like glass pie plates because you can see the bottom crust, too. Check your pie about 15 minutes before it's done. If the bottom isn't browning enough, you can move the pie to a lower position in the oven (another observation we made during the pie-off, that was later supported by Harold McGee, though baking the pie in the lower part of the oven for the whole time will probably make the bottom crust a bit too brown). Flaky pie dough in particular needs to be well browned on the bottom in order to stand up to juicy fillings like fruit. Cookie-like dough is naturally heartier.