Photo by Paul Child
Even though so much has been written by so many who actually knew her, I could not let the month of Julia go by* without honoring her here. She was born and died in August. The movie that chronicles her early days in Paris with Paul and dogged earning of kitchen chops, Julie & Julia, has brought Julia's Mastering the Art of French Cooking to the top of the New York Times best seller list after 48 years.
In honor of Julia Child’s birthday, I want to give you a dose of her “what-the-hell attitude” in the kitchen, and fearlessly cook or bake something that has you scared. (For me, it’s yeasted dough, and butchery.)
I didn’t really understand the incredible affection people had for Julia until I read My Life in France, and I fell in love with her determination, endless curiosity, and persistence. Then I started watching the DVD version of The French Chef and realized that she was just barreling breathlessly through uncharted territory, laughing at lobsters getting away from her on the butcher block, and shooting the episodes live on tape (in one shot), whether the omelette had flipped correctly or not.
Since it is probably the most common thing people tell me they are scared of baking, I thought I would give a few tips on making pie crust from scratch. [EDITED TO ADD: This should be called Part 1: The Dough, Before Filling!]
Of course, not everyone is scared of pie crust, but I would like to be a pie crust missionary for a day to reassure anyone who shies away from making pie crust or pastry.
It is so simple. In fact, as illustrated by Michael Ruhlman in Ratio, it's as simple as 3:1:2, the ratio for pie crust of Flour : Liquid : Fat (by weight). So you can apply these techniques to whip up your own crust, liberating you from the tyranny of any specific recipe.
However simple, good pie crust will take forethought. I agree with Shirley Corriher in BakeWise, "Pastry crusts are not difficult, but they are not quick. To make a good pie crust requires time and patience." Luckily much of the time is spent chilling and resting the dough (at least twice) so you won't be tied to the stove or rollling pin for hours.
Use the right flour. My current favorite for pie crust is 00 flour (the kind for pastry, low protein) from Italy, but cutting all-purpose flour with half pastry flour (even whole wheat pastry flour or Wondra flour) will help lighten the crust since it has less protein than all-purpose flour and will develop less gluten. You can also use 1/3 cake flour and 2/3 all-purpose flour. Don't use bread flour (it's too high in protein). Also, measure your flour carefully. This should be no problem if you use the 3:1:2 ratio! If you don't have a kitchen scale, make sure to spoon the flour in your measuring cup and level off the top with a straight edge (I use the back of a butterknife or a chopstick, but Ina Garten uses her finger on TV, so that seems legal.)
Chill all the ingredients: Butter** (or other fat) should be very cold and cut into fairly uniform pieces. Freeze about 1/3 of the butter for 30 minutes (chill the remaining 2/3). Freeze dry ingredients in a ziplock freezer bag for 30 minutes. I don't consider my pie crust mise en place complete until I have stuck a glass of ice water in the fridge. I know this is more than most recipes will tell you. This works,and doesn't take much time.
Don't Overwork It: Ironically, I find that the food processor helps me avoid overworking the dough, unlike Deb of Smitten Kitchen who switched from processor back to hand mixing to produce the most tender, flaky crust. Maybe it works for me because my indredients are so cold, and I learned from a very exacting teacher who gave mix times in seconds. But with my hands I feel all the different little butter lumps and just go nuts trying to get it even. When it's in the machine, my body heat cannot melt the dough, and I have memorized the sound of done. Yes, the sound of the motor changes (deepens slightly) and the dough just starts to pull away from the outer edges of the processor and toward the center, but not so long that it gathers together in the center in a dough ball. In most cases, by that time, it is too tough. All told, there is less than a minute of mix time, and I am generalizing here, but it's way faster than you expect. Look at the photo for the proper texture -- it looks like barely damp (but not wet) sand, but will pinch together between your fingers. (Sassy Radish has some beautiful pictures illustrating proper pie dough at this point in the process.) So many cookbooks have this pinching instruction, but so few offer a picture.
Before rolling, chill at least 45 minutes, or up to 2+ hours (or overnight): Once the dough comes together, flatten into a 6" disk, wrap in plastic. Then leave it alone. I prefer to do this the day before.
Roll out dough between layers of plastic wrap (lightly floured): Yes, this uses plastic. Sorry. To me it is worth it, because it prevents having to add excess flour to the dough to keep it sticking to the rolling surface, (which can make the dough tough from either excess flour or overworking), or messing with a bench scraper. To avoid plastic, you can roll between two Silpat mats, or two sheets of waxed or parchment paper. Ever since I discovered this trick via Rose Levy Beranbaum, I have never looked back and have only tender, flaky crust to show for it. And a clean counter! (I hate cleaning up after rolling directly on the counter.)
Rotate 1/8 turn every roll: Okay, so you aren't a robot. But make an effort to rotate the dough at least 1/4 turn each roll (preferably 1/8 turns) while working in confident, staccato strokes from the center outward, and your dough will cooperate with you. The more you practice, the less ameoba-shaped it will be. I find it helpful to picture the rolling pin rolling up off the dough before it reaches the edge, since the edge is prone to being too thin, and the center too thick. You don't want to bear down or lean forward too heavily.
After rolling, chill at least 30 minutes before baking: PATIENCE. It will be rewarded! The dough needs to relax before facing up to the hot oven. The dough will be less likely to shrink or be soggy.
Okay, these are the basics for any pie crust....wheher you will be blind baking an open face, single crust pie (like lemon meringue, or an open-faced blueberry pie) or whether you are making a double crust fruit pie, or a tart.
Now the road forks, but with a good what-the-hell foundation, you can sally forth in any direction you want, and be confident that you have a great container for that filling.
Oh, and I suppose there should be a whole separate post on keeping a bottom crust crisp and a fruit filling that holds is shape!
What questions do you have about pie crust or pie making? Ask me in the comments! I will answer anything, or point you in the right direction.
Other Resources for Conquering Pie Crust
Pie & Pastry Bible: I love all my online resources, but if you want to make pie, uh, any number of times, please get the Pie & Pastry Bible. Real Baking with Rose is a great site (Rose's blog) and also has a limited number of her masterful recipes online including this one: Rose Levy Beranbaum's Flaky & Tender Pie Crust recipe (Rose also has written the Cake Bible, the Bread Bible, as well as the just-published Rose's Heavenly Cakes.)
Smitten Kitchen has Pie Crust 101, 102, & 103. A lot of great tips there! And she uses a pastry cutter, so if you don't have a food processor, look there.
Epicurious also has a video on making pie dough by hand.
The Kitchn Pie Bake-Off had a lot of good tips, but I have a hard time navigating through their site sometimes.
Want to make a quiche or savory tart? This might just be the simplest way to ease into making your own pastry crust - Easy Olive Oil Tart Crust by Clotilde at Chocolate & Zucchini.
Oh my god, I just found this Pie Crust Bag via Dorie Greenspan. Wow.
*I guess I did because the clock says it's now September.
** My favorite pie crust is made with part butter and cream cheese, but you can use butter, leaf lard, or shortening. Plase note that shortening is a lot more cooperative, so if you can deal with the taste and texture, and many, many people love shortening, incorporating it may make things easier. I don't like the flavor or mouthfeel of shortening, so I don't use it.