On the occasion of my pastry epiphany, I felt amazement, gratitude and liberation -- an awakening to a new world order, a world in which I'm free from pie crust anxiety.
It is a freedom born of desperation. I was desperate for a pie crust and didn't want to drive to the supermarket for a package of Pillsbury's best.
Perhaps it was just my time. After years of frustration, I unexpectedly found myself blessed with "the touch."
I can now make a pie crust that is flaky and tender with a pretty fluted edge. One that doesn't tear when fitted into the pan.
It hasn't always been so.
For most of my life in the kitchen, I have been pie-crust-challenged. Mediocre was my high bar. More often, thin, uneven and tough were the results.
But not for lack of trying. I've tried many recipes, some with butter, some with oil, some with shortening, some with cream cheese.
I've used two knives to combine or "cut in" the fat and the flour. Also a pastry blender and a food processor. I've even tried blending with my fingers in hopes I'd acquire the touch. To no avail.
Recipes with a touch of vinegar didn't help, either. Wrong touch, I guess.
Of course, I tried chilling the dough to make it easier to handle -- that and every other trick I'd read or heard about. I've watched experts, touched their beautiful, malleable dough that baked into melt-in-your-mouth layers. Still I didn't have the touch.
I pretty much accepted being forever deficient. Kind of like my ability to carry a tune -- beyond remedial help.
But a moment of desperation proved to be a turning point. I don't know whether absolute necessity contributed to success, but something changed.
I used a basic recipe: flour, salt, shortening and cold water. The difference? Besides attitude?
A couple of sticks of premeasured shortening.
After my success, I pondered what could have possibly made the difference. There's always Hale-Bopp. But I don't think the comet altered my pastry karma.
While I'm not going to dismiss the shortening altogether, I'm not inclined to give it all the credit. Yes, the texture of premeasured shortening is much lighter and fluffier than canned shortening, butter or cream cheese.
It looks and feels a lot like the best, but verboten, pastry fat of all: lard. And it joined with the flour as if newly wed.
Surely this means I've acquired the touch.
But maybe the difference also was sifting the flour before measuring it, then sifting it again. That would have aerated it, producing a lighter, fluffier flour, easier to blend with shortening.
While I didn't go so low-tech as to blend with my fingers, I did use an old-fashioned pastry cutter. Nor am I going to tamper with success and try it anytime soon with a food processor.
And, yes, I did refrigerate the dough for a good hour. It rolled like a dream.
About the only variable in this basic formula is the amount of water, and that truly does depend on weather, the kind of flour you use and your touch. Start out with the least amount and feel your way to a manageable dough a tablespoon at a time.
The dough should be damp enough to hold a ball shape, but not so soggy as to feel wet.
May "the touch" be with you.
Basic pie crust
Makes 2 single crusts or 16 servings
3 cups sifted flour (sift before measuring)
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups shortening (preferably premeasured in stick form)
8 to 10 tablespoons cold water
Sift together the flour and salt.
Cut shortening into 1-tablespoon pieces and add to sifted ingredients. Using a pastry cutter, blend the flour and fat until it reaches the consistency of cornmeal.
Add 8 tablespoons water, mixing, first with a spoon, then with hands to form a ball. If pastry seems dry and crumbly, add up to 2 more tablespoons water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until dough will hold a ball shape.
Wrap dough in plastic or cover bowl with plastic and refrigerate for about 1 hour.
Divide dough into 2 pieces. Return one to refrigerator.
Lightly sprinkle a board with flour. Rub a rolling pin with flour. Flatten dough into a disc and roll into a circle, about 2 inches wider than the pie pan you wish to fill.
Roll pastry around the rolling pin and place on pie plate. Unroll to fit the plate. Gently push dough against sides. Alternatively, you may fold the circle in half, then in quarters. Place it in the pan and gently unfold.
When fitted into the pan, you should have about a 1/2 -inch overhang. Turn edges under to make a smooth, even edge that aligns with the lip of the pie plate. Using your fingers, flute the edge or decorate as you desire.
Repeat rolling process for a second crust to top the filling or to line a second pie plate. Fill and bake as recipe directs.
For a pie with a top crust, lay the top crust over the filling. Then seal edges of dough by pinching together, and decorate edge.
To pre-bake a single crust, heat oven to 450 degrees. Prick bottom and sides of crust with a fork. Cover pastry with foil and weight it down with dry rice or beans. Bake for about 10 minutes to set the crust. If golden edges are desired, omit foil.