07 June 2011

Perfect American Pie Crust

When it comes time for sweet things in Lisbon, pastelarias will do you just fine. Crisp puff pastry shells filled with custard, wodges of chocolate cake covered in chocolate sprinkles and oozing liquid fudge centers, gooey sweet sponge cake, little meringues called "kisses"... there is a whole compendium of sweets which Portugal does exceedingly well, and which perfectly explains their delightful ritual of the afternoon coffee.

Then, there are the times when all a girl wants is some pie. Pie that makes you feel comforted and at home.  Pie that is the perfect dessert when you have a bounty of fresh fruit in front of you.  Pie that makes you feel a little less homesick.

It's not that you don't see pie on the menu in Portugal, it's just such a different creature it is impossible to take comfort in the taste of it.  There are no pie pans here, only tart pans.  And inevitably the restaurant pie is an industrial-tasting concoction with plenty of gelatinous goop and hard slices of apple smashed in between two rather tough layers of dough, in which not an ounce of buttery goodness can be found.

So, what could I do except go old school and try to quell homesickness with a quest for the perfect pie crust?
My Thanksgiving Table O´ Pie 2010. The quest begins.

Luckily on this journey, I have the best baking mentor in the universe (and my brother's cougar celebrity crush): Rose Levy Beranbaum.  Her Pie and Pastry Bible is the single best baking cookbook on my crowded shelf.  She holds your hand every step of the way and demands perfection from your pie crusts whilst trying her hardest to help you get there without messing up.

Now, I have been wildly uneven in my pie crust abilities in the past. I might get a flaky tasty great crust.  Or I might get one so tough and/or mealy and/or grainy that I eat the filling and trash the rest in a fit of disappointment.  In the States, I could always buy the reliably tasty Pillsbury refrigerated crust and spare myself the uncertainty.  Nowadays-- well, I have my Bible.

I have begun to see that my problem was not respecting the science of a crust.  The Book According to Beranbaum states:

1. Measure by weight, not volume.
2. Use the right kind of flour.
3. If you want tender and flaky, you need to have some fat mixed in with the flour, and some in separate flakes.
4. There is no such thing as keeping your pie crust ingredients too cold.
5. Your counters need barely get dirty if you make proper use of plastic bags and clingwrap.

Once I wrapped my head around all of this, and realized it was, in fact, worth taking the time to measure properly and find the right goods-- my crusts started getting better and better.  Lighter, easier to roll out, truly flaky and delicious.  And miles better than Pillsbury.

I strongly suggest you buy the Pie and Pastry Bible and read it in its entirety!  It is magical. But in the meantime, here is the recipe for a basic flaky crust that will make you sigh and think of home, wherever you are.

Can you spot the doggie in the crust?  (Unintentional trick photography!)

Basic Flaky Pie Crust
from The Pie and Pastry Bible, Rose Levy Beranbaum
For even more detail than I can include here, including tips on baking the bottom crust perfectly crisp, which crust to use with which kinds of fillings, and much more: buy the book

One-crust 9" pie, or 10" tart, or 3 dozen 1 " tartlets:
8 tbsp unsalted butter, cold (113 grams)
1 1/3 cups pastry flour or all-purpose flour, using dip-and-sweep method* (184 grams)
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp baking powder
2 1/2 - 3 1/2 tbsp ice water (37-52 grams)
1 1/2 tsp cider vinegar (7 grams)

Two-crust 9" pie:
14 tbsp unsalted butter, cold (200 grams)
2 1/4 cups pastry flour or all-purpose flour, using dip-and-sweep method* (320 grams)
1/4 + 1/8 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
5 to 7 tbsp ice water (74 - 103 grams)
1 tbsp cider vinegar

*The dip-and-sweep method: Lightly stir the flour, then dip the measuring cup into the flour and sweep off the excess with a metal spatula or knife.

1. Divide the butter into two parts, about two thirds to one third:
For the one-crust pie: 5 tablespoons and 3 tablespoons
For the two-crust pie: 9 tablespoons and 5 tablespoons

2. Cut the butter into 3/4" cubes.  Wrap each portion of butter with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate the larger amount and freeze the smaller for at least 30 minutes.  Place the flour, salt, and optional baking powder in a reclosable gallon-size freezer bag and freeze for at least 30 minutes.

3. Place a medium mixing bowl in the freezer to chill.

4. Place the cold flour, salt, and baking powder in another medium bowl and whisk to combine them.  Use a pastry cutter or rub the mixture between your fingers to blend the larger (refrigerated) portion of the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse meal.

5. Spoon the mixture, together with the butter pieces from the freezer, into the recloseable gallon-size freezer bag.  Expel any air from the bag and close it.  Use a rolling pin to flatten the butter into flakes.  Place the bag in the freezer at least 10 minutes, or until the butter is very firm.

6. Transfer the mixture to the chilled bowl, scraping the sides of the bag.  Set the bag aside.  Sprinkle the ice water and vinegar onto the mixture, tossing it lightly with a rubber spatula.  Spoon the loose mixture back into the plastic bag. (For a double-crust pie, it is easier to divide the mixture in half at this point.)

7. Holding both ends of the bag opening with your fingers, knead the mixture by alternately pressing it, from the outside of the bag, with the knuckles and heels of your hands until the mixture holds together in one piece and feels slightly stretchy when pulled.

8. Wrap the dough with plastic wrap, flatten it into a disc (or discs) and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, preferably overnight.

9. Once you are ready to make your pie, roll out the dough between two pieces of cling wrap, and then transfer the dough to the bottom of the pie or tart pan.  Refrigerate, covered with cling wrap, for 30 minutes to 3 hours before filling and baking.  (This final refrigeration prevents a shrinking crust.)


  1. Man, I can always count on you to make my mouth water all day long..... I used to think Alton Brown (my favorite food guru/food geek) had a very good pie recipe, until I took a gander at yours (dying to taste it, *wink* wink*)

  2. Awww, thanks, Tony!! And I can always count on you to appreciate my kitchen efforts! :)

    I will definitely have a pie ready for you to dig into when you guys arrive on the 18th. You can tell me if you think it lives up to the hype!