Thanksgiving is uniquely American, and I thought, the pie was too. The American Pie Association (and yes, there is one!) states:
- Pie has been around since the ancient Egyptians.
- The Romans must have spread the word about pies around Europe as the Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word pie was a popular word in the 14th century.
- The early pies were predominately meat pie. Often these pies were made using fowl and the legs were left to hang over the side of the dish and used as handles.
- Fruit pies or tarts (pasties) were probably first made in the 1500s.
- Pie came to America with the first English settlers. Over the years, pie has evolved to become what it is today “the most traditional American dessert”. Pie has become so much a part of American culture throughout the years, that we now commonly use the term “as American as apple pie.”
I am convinced that we would all be eating more pie if making a pie crust did not terrorize so many, but why?
Let’s Talk Fat:
Pie crusts were historically made with lard, rendered pork fat. (Check out Art of the Pie on using pork leaf lard, http://artofthepie.com/leaf-lard/) Rolling out a piecrust with lard is SO easy. It is less temperature sensitive than butter when handling. And, most pastry chefs will tell you, the flakiest piecrusts are made with lard.
Today, my pie crusts are all made with butter. Butter crusts deliver on taste but, sadly, not on flakiness. Butter softens at room temperature, so to keep everything cold I need to work fast when using butter. I perceive using butter, to make pie crusts, elicits “pie crust fear” because of its temperature sensitivity.
I do not use shortening, it has no nutritional value and it has the potential to have small amounts of trans fat. (MSNBC: “Crisco still has a small amount of artificial trans fat but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows any product with less than 0.5 grams trans fat per serving to list zero grams trans fat in its nutrition facts.”) And, for the same reason, I do not use lard. Almost all lard I see in the grocery store is shelf-stable because it has undergone an hydrogenation process. My grandparents would not recognize lard sold today. If you can get your hands on artisanal lard, go for it. It will be the flakiest crust that you have ever made. Pie making experts roll their crusts using a combination of butter and lard, the best of both worlds.
(More on artisanal lard: http://modernfarmer.com/2014/08/rise-artisan-lard/)
Now, Let’s Talk Flour:
Most recipes call for placing pie crust dough in the refrigerator after mixing. Why? It is to relax the gluten and keep the butter solid until baking. When protein in wheat flour combines with water, gluten forms. Gluten formation, while great for bread making, is less important for pie crusts. Higher protein flour equates to more gluten, more gluten means it will be harder to roll out. I avoid bread flours and all-purpose flour made from hard red wheat, where the protein content is high (10-16.5%), for making pie crusts.
Steps to Make a Great Crust:
I will –
- Keep everything cold.
- Use a food processor, set on “Dough” and then blend in 1 inch butter cubes using only the pulse button. Pulse until you see butter is the size of a marbles.
- Slowly stream in icy, cold water, again using the pulse button, just until the dough pulls away from the sides.
- Then dump dough out on counter, form a ball (or two) and knead dough 2-3 times. This is very important. Pie crust flakiness comes from laminated, layers of fat. When the crust bakes the butterfat melts, and moisture in the dough and butter turns to steam. This creates pockets in the crust and makes it flaky.
- Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes before rolling, especially if using higher protein flour.
- Give dough a rest on the counter if it starts to crumble while rolling it out, it is probably too cold.
- Blind bake (or bake without filling) all single crust pies using beans or ceramic weights according to directions. Brush the bottom of the crust with an egg yolk wash before blind baking. For double piecrust pies, the recipe should call for a high temperature at the beginning of baking process to set the crust quickly.
For beginners, I recommend:
- Using pastry flour or all-purpose flour (from soft red wheat) with lower protein (which means less gluten) to help you easily roll dough out. Both flours have protein content between 9-11%.
- Rolling dough out between two sheets of parchment paper.
Making great pie crusts takes practice and more practice means less fear.
Health Benefits of:
(Artisanal) Lard is mostly monounsaturated fat and has 10% polyunsaturated fatty acids. It is a rich source of vitamin D.
Butter is a natural fat, rich in fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K as well as important trace minerals. It also has an undeserved reputation as being unhealthy when the reality is that it is a healthy, natural fat. Recent studies have shown that saturated fats, like butter, have no link to increased risk of heart disease. (http://peelerspansandpeppers.com/food-blog/blog-7-its-trans-fat-not-saturated-fat-new-study-says/) The process of making butter is “physical” versus “chemical”. (You churn thick cream to make butter.) Shortening, vegetable oils, and processed lard all use chemical and/or heat to process resulting in few nutritional benefits.