That said, moving on to tonight’s topic!
With fall having already *officially* started, the air feeling noticeably cool in the mornings, hoodies and light jackets starting to find themselves more in use, and Halloween costumes and decorations appearing in shop windows, those of us who know and love autumn find ourselves eagerly anticipating the true harbinger of the season.
No, not pumpkin spice (insert item here.)
…Nope, not piles of crunchy leaves.
Nope, not even the Great Pumpkin.
My friends, we eagerly await PIE SEASON.
I have always considered myself more of a pie fan than anything, and it took some time and navel-gazing to determine why. If you can think of a better product of introspection, I invite you to go after it and write your own blog.
The reason I love pies so much is because they are my food philosophy in a pure, recognizable, and delicious form. There are few things that recall memories of home, happiness, and simpler, warmer times more readily than a fresh-baked pie (Sweeney Todd and Miss Lovett notwithstanding.)
At the same time as they are quickly reminiscent of simple joys, perfectly crafted pies are works of diligence, care, grace, and finesse. The texture of the crust, the color and appearance, the seemingly effortless affectations of vents and fluting- all under the bakers control, with the precision and premeditation of a sculptor.
Simplicity with elegance, made physical.
It is not without reason that the old idiom goes “easy as pie.” Pies are, from their very origins, meant to be simple, efficient, and entirely self-contained. Savory meat pies can be an entire balanced meal sealed into a crust, all baked together at once.
When I discuss piemaking, the following issues are usually raised:
1. Don’t know how to make pie crust/ any good recipes.
2. Requires a special pan.
3. Takes too long/ they have no time.
4. Why not just buy it?
5. They don’t like pie.
#2 is a non-issue. A pie is, by definition, a filling baked in a pastry crust. You can use a reusable metal or glass one, a disposable foil pan, or make hand pies, crimped and baked by the sheet.
#3 and #4 tend to go together, and involve a critical misunderstanding about pie. Fillings can be made days ahead of time, dough (if frozen) can be months. Few pies take more than an hour to bake, and as was stated before- a well-made pie can be an entire meal in one plate.
Those who claim #5 are a lost people- let us not speak of them again.
Therefore, this entry will mainly deal with #1, which is entirely reasonable and easily remedied.
Pie dough is what is called a “short” dough- yes, akin to shortbread cookies. The reason it is called short dough is because the amount of fat in it (whether butter, lard, shortening, or oil) inhibits gluten bonds from forming as long as they might in other doughs (bread dough, for instance). Consequently, short dough has a crumbly, flaky texture. The amount of fat also makes it an ideal sealant- perfect for keeping the juices/gravies of your filling from running out.
The absolute basic short dough can be made using a simple formula:
3 parts flour
2 parts fat
1 part liquid
Those of you who read my series on kitchen math will have seen notation like this before- baker’s formulas are represented as ratios rather than recipes to allow for easy scaling (making different sized batches.)
This will create an extremely simple, all purpose short dough. Add sugar, it becomes sweet. Add herbs, it becomes savory. Switch the liquid from water to iced tea to juice to whatever you like. It will work. Towards the end, I will give you my personal favorite recipe.
Pie dough is also an excellent example for how the HANDLING of ingredients can make a difference in the final product- particularly the fat, in this case. If you’ve ever drooled the perfect flaky pie dough, or the melt-in-your-mouth crumbliness of shortbread, the difference is entirely in how the fat is worked into the dough.
As you will see in the recipe below, the butter is “cut” into the dry ingredients- meaning, it is worked in to the flour by cutting it down into smaller and smaller chunks. You can use your fingers, a pair for butter knives (if you are exceedingly patient), or a special device called a pastry blender (if you feel like getting one and pretending to be Wolverine.)
When working the butter in, if you leave relatively large solid lumps of butter intact, these lumps will form paper-thin layers within the dough, leading to the flaky perfection you seek in a pies top crust. If you work the butter into smaller and smaller pieces, the butter will melt more readily in the oven and absorb into dough, leaving a mealy texture- ideal for bottom crusts and shortbread cookies.
Here is my personal favorite pie dough recipe- with minimal tweaking, this makes an ideal crust for savory or sweet pies. It will make enough for one double-crust 9 inch pie, or two single crust pies.
2 1/2 cups (350 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon (30 grams) granulated white sugar (leave out if you want it savory)
1 cup (226 grams) unsalted butter, chilled, and cut into 1 inch (2.5 cm) pieces
1/4 to 1/2 cup (60 – 120 ml) ice water or other chilled liquid (experiment with different liquids to get interesting flavors!)
Herbs or Spices as you see fit
Mix all the dry ingredients together, and cut the butter in until it resembles coarse corn meal (or some pellets of butter the size of peas.) Add the liquid and continue to work until the dough forms. Dump out onto a lightly floured surface and work into two even-sized balls. Flatten the balls slightly and wrap in plastic. The dough can now be refrigerated or frozen until ready for use.
When rolling, roll the dough out on a lightly-floured surface and rotate 45 degrees with each pass. This will keep the dough from sticking as readily, and it will also even out your rolling (as you will instinctively press harder with your dominant hand.)
Tips and Tricks for Pie Dough
– The butter (and dough itself) should be kept as cold as possible while you work with it. If the butter is allowed to get too warm, it can melt into the dough too quickly leavve you with greasy, gritty crust. You can keep things cool by working quickly and lightly, and by picking a cold, dry surface to work on. Marble slabs are ideal, but expensive- a good quality wood tabletop will do fine.
– Keep an eye on your dough. You do not want to overwork it- despite the fact that it is short dough, gluten bonds HAVE formed. If you notice your dough shrinking back after you roll it, it is being overworked. Relax the dough by letting it sit covered in plastic for a few minutes.
– You will want to flour virtually every surface your dough comes in contact with while you work with it- your hands, the tabletop, and your rolling pin. You do NOT want to overflour, however- in the course of work, the dough will absorb the flour and get drier. Therefore, use the bare minimum flour you need to keep things from getting sticky.
– The best rolling pin to us
e is… the one you like. Pins come in all shapes and sizes- the best one for you will feel balanced in your grip, comfortable in your hand, and will be made from material that is easy to clean and doesn’t warp. Wooden pins should NOT be washed with soap and water- instead, they should be rubbed down vigorously with a clean cloth or paper towel.
That’s all for tonight! Next week, I’ll discuss a couple of my favorite recipes, as well as some aesthetic touches that will really make your pie yours.