“No way you really made this. Really, you made this? This is the most beautiful pie crust I’ve ever seen, the best pie crust I’ve ever eaten.”
The day I heard those gracious compliments I knew 1) my friend wasn’t lying 2) those words were well deserved 3) he couldn’t have said them honestly or deservedly a few years prior.
I remembered a time many years before, painfully trying to construct a crust. The paste of flour, butter, water, sugar, and salt was plastered to my moss colored countertop, and I could not move it. Cracking and crumbling it resisted any transfer. I was a good cook, but a lousy pastry chef. I scrambled the pieces into the pie plate cursing the bother to ever roll them out and haphazardly pressed the dough into a pie-shaped hockey puck pastry. Pastry dough requires a light touch and mine was resisting, toughening with my unskilled approach. Then it got worse. Light baking caused the sad sides to slide. Now I had a tough baked, cobbled, sloping sorry crust, one that was neither edible or functional.
I said, maybe I wasn’t a pie crust person. (But that was really a lie, I love good crackly pastry). I had the skills to make the inside delicious, but curse the crust, I was wrecking half of the pie.
That’s it, I said. I’m through making bad pie crust. I vowed the next time would be a little less terrible. Any progress counts as a win.
The next go involved a ridiculous amount of plastic wrap in an odd process I created. It wasn’t a good one, but it was better than the last attempt. I could make this week thing strong or at least a slightly more enjoyable task. Yes, I knew I could give up and give into prefabbed pie crusts (and no shame to those who do- I understand the appeal and simplicity, trust me) but I wanted to conquer the pastry beast.
I gave myself a year and graciously my mother gave me a pastry cloth. I read a lot of books. I lightened my touch. I stopped being so stingy and rolling the crust too thin. I dedicated a bag of dried beans to weigh down the pastry during light baking for open crusted pies (foil worked for a while, but parchment paper was even better for holding the beans and holding down the crust to prevent puffing and sliding).
The improvements and finesse grew from that year to the next and again. I was laminating and layering my way to perfect pie crust that I liked making. I was proud of myself. Maybe more than that. Maybe full of myself because I had mastered the thing that had been schooling me.
Sinking a fork through the shattering, flaky layers of the pear-almond pie I had made for the friends, it clicked: my satisfaction was in eating the evidence. That perfect crust was evidence of my wild improvement, that most anything can be learned. I’ve made ever so many pies in the effort of perfecting that one skill. Now I make them for pleasure and instruction, teaching others technique I taught myself.
So, here’s my best to you. Go forth and master that pastry beast.
All-Purpose, All-Butter Pie Crust
I typically work with whole grain flours and make this crust regularly with whole grain spelt flour or whole wheat pastry flour. Of course, it works well with white flour, but I prefer the nuttiness of the whole grain pairing with the pie filling. Go halfsies if you only have a regular whole wheat flour or another heavy whole grain flour. I’ve had fun with rye and barley or even just adding some bran flakes for a freckled look. But, that’s a personal preference, return to your simple white flour if you must or just because you like it best.
2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry or spelt flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter chilled (I like mine barely frozen)
1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water
Whisk or sift the flour, salt, and sugar together in a medium-large bowl.
Slice the butter as thinly as you can. If you do this on the butter wrapper it is easy to pick up and scoop into the bowl with the dry ingredients. Rub the butter into the flour mixture with your thumb and forefinger to incorporate the two, thinning and breaking the butter a bit, while working the flour into the butter lightly.
Using a rubber spatula gently pour in the water, a little at a time, lifting and folding the mixture to absorb it without working the dough much. Once the dough comes together, just barely moistened to the point the flour is held together by the moisture stop. Turn the dough ball onto a flour dusted surface, a pastry cloth or cool stone countertop works well. Now take a rolling pin (a large smooth surfaced bottle works in a pinch) and give the dough a few whacks to begin to flatten it. This part is fun, enjoy it. Pinch the cracking edges together if it splinters too much. Smacking the dough begins to form it without working it. You can now begin to roll the dough.
Roll it nice and large not worrying about measurement, but taking care to see that it still can be lifted and moved. Lift and sprinkle more flour underneath as needed, use a scraper or metal spatula to lift if it seems a bit stuck. So long as the dough stays cold it should not stick. (If the dough is too warm and tacky at any time, pop it into the fridge or freezer for a few moments, but don’t forget about it.) Take your nice rolled dough and now fold it in thirds like a letter. Now fold it again in thirds the other direction until you have trim, folded square. It’s fine if it tears a bit, you are going to roll it out again. Take a pause to chill the dough if necessary.
Reflour and whack that dough two to three times to flatten and then gently roll again. This process, called laminating, makes flaky layers and lightness so your pie crust can puff just a bit, like puff pastry. To make true puff pastry or croissants you do this many times.
Divide the dough, which is enough to make two crusts. Roll to fit your dish generously. With floured hands lift and set into the pie plate, taking care to push the dough into the edges and sides so it does not shrink. Trim the dough with one-inch overhang around the pan. Fold extra dough under the edge to make the outer crust of a single crust pie. Make a decorative edge as you please pinching or pressing with your thumb and forefinger.
Pre-cooked piecrust: To light bake the dough prick with a fork all over, line with parchment and fill full with dried beans to weigh down the crust while it light bakes, 400 degrees for 12 minutes.
To make a double crust pie: Line the pie plate with the first dough, but trimmed a bit shorter, fill the pie and then top with the upper crust. Trim the top crust longer to give room to tuck it under the lower dough edge. Seal the two together in any pinching or fork pressing pattern that pleases you. Cut a steam vent with a few slashes (at least 1-2 inches long) into the crust.
For a lattice top pie: Cut the top dough into inch wide ribbons. Pick up every other ribbon and place on the pie and then go crosswise with the remaining pieces, folding back and forward again to create a basket weave. (This makes the lengths of the ribbons cut from the circle of dough workout perfectly to fit the round pie.) Trim and tuck the ends to finish the pie.
Brush lattice and double-crusted pies with milk, cream, or beaten egg yolk for shininess, sprinkle with coarse sugar for fanciness on a sweet pie. Bake on a preheated baking sheet or on the lowest rack or the floor of the oven to create a crisp bottom crust.