My first pie, made at age 10 or 11, was far from perfect. I used unpeeled (and under-sweetened) green apples filling a crust that was cracked and so tough and dry, an asphalt roof shingle would have been more tender. Despite getting some of the most common pie-dough pitfalls (too much flour, over-handling and under-baking)) out of the way early, I remained a little haunted by what could go wrong. But over the years, the pleasure of making pie crust — particularly at Thanksgiving — overrides any source of “pie anxiety.”
Erin Jeanne McDowell, a Lecompton and Lawrence native and author of “The Fearless Baker: Simple Secrets for Baking Like a Pro” (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2017) and “The Book on Pie: Everything You Need to Know to Bake Perfect Pies” (to be released on Nov. 10), began baking pies with her grandma as a youth and shared, via email, that the challenges are one of the things she likes best about pie-making.
“Baking is thought of as being very precise — and that’s true, to an extent. But pie-baking (and bread-baking too, in my opinion) is as much about feel and muscle memory as it is about that science. The dough will change in a matter of moments, and if you’re paying attention to it, you can respond in kind. If you’re not, or if you try to rush the process, it’ll show,” McDowell said. “That’s the thing I love most about it — even the prettiest pies are a little wonky, and even the not-so pretty-ones still taste incredible.”
In her book, “Made in America: A Modern Collection of Classic Recipes” (Andrews McNeel Publishing; 2015), which she co-wrote with her husband, Colby, Megan Garrelts, proprietor and executive pastry chef at Bluestem and Rye restaurants in Kansas City and Leawood, writes that “patience and practice are the key,” to making good pie pastry.
So if you care to practice your pie-making skills this holiday season, consider the following tips for success.
Use good ingredients: “Never skimp on quality and freshness of ingredients,” Garrelts advised, via email. “Use high quality fats — high butterfat butter, fresh lard and shortening, fresh spices, rich cream, large fresh eggs, fruit for fruit pies in the right season.”
Keep everything chilled: For great pie pastry, Garrelts also said keeping everything cold is key. “The butter, lard or shortening should be cold when working with your pie crust in addition to everything else — even the bowl!” she said. “I generally scale out all my pie ingredients: the fat, flour, sugar, salt and ice water, then refrigerate the ingredients, the bowl, the bowl scraper and any other utensil or equipment that I plan to use.”
Mix dough minimally and let it rest: In their cookbooks, both McDowell and Garrelts emphasize not over-mixing or overworking pie dough. Most pie dough recipes call for just enough mixing and kneading to bring everything together. “Remember, once you begin to incorporate the ingredients for the crust, you will create friction and friction equals heat, which can impact the performance of your flaky crust,” Garrelts said.
Dough should be shaped into flat disks (with smooth edges to avoid needless cracking when rolling out) and should be chilled for one to two hours or up to two days. The chilling time allows the dough to relax.
Chill — yourself and your pie — at any point in the process: McDowell suggested chilling at any point can offer the baker a break, too.
“Sometimes I think folks panic because parts of the process take longer than they expect them to. But that’s one of the beautiful things about pie, if you ever need a break, just throw the pie (whatever stage it’s at) in the refrigerator,” McDowell said. “A pie can never be too cold. Cold dough is also easier to handle. So there’s also that element of patience, not rushing the process.”
Easy on the flour when rolling: McDowell offered these tips for rolling out pie pastry:
- “Don’t use more flour than you need to — remember that flour will work its way into the dough, which can ultimately make it tough!”
- “Start in the center and apply even pressure pushing away from you, then return to the center and roll toward yourself. This can feel awkward at first, but helps you to get more even rolling.”
- “Move the dough around as you work — rotate it, flip it upside down on your work surface, etc. Moving it around helps prevent it from sticking without necessarily needing to use more flour.”
- “Use the pie plate as a guide — you want it to extend 1 1/2 to 2 inches from the edge of the pie plate if it’s turned upside down on the dough.”
Doneness and soggy bottoms: Making sure the pie is done and not soggy on the bottom are often concerns of pie bakers. One tip is to use a clear glass pie plate (also good for heat conduction) for a window to doneness, which McDowell also suggests in “The Fearless Baker.” Garrelts offered some creative tips to avoid soggy pie bottoms:
- “For fruit pies or any custard baked pie, it’s important to par bake your crust with a light, even coat of egg wash to make a barrier from the bottom to the filling.”
- “For fully baked crusts that have a pastry cream or similar baked and cooled custards filled over top, evenly coat the baked crust first with a thin layer of white, milk, or dark chocolate and chill to set before adding the custard.”
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
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