A brief treatise on pie

November 20, 2010

Last year at this time, I used this space to sketch out a few basic thoughts about the one element of Thanksgiving even more crucial than turkey: pie. In hopes of spreading the gospel of the homemade crust — and in recognition of the fact that, according to The New York Times food section, pie is finally starting to get some of that hipster cred that's been over-lavished on cupcakes — I've taken the opportunity to revise and reprint some of my earlier observations. After all, Butterball has a hotline for turkey advice, but when it comes to delicate, flaky goodness, you're on your own.

In an episode of Bravo's "Top Chef" this year, pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini judged a challenge in which the contestents, all extremely accomplished in the savory arts, were required to make a pie. When one of them failed miserably, he scoffed, "This is Top Chef. My grandmother can make a pie." I'm sure she can, and so can my grandmother. In fact, grandmothers are ideally suited to pie because they had all those years before you were born to practice.

Any first-timer in piemaking is sure to conclude that whoever coined the phrase "easy as pie" probably did so while picking up some pre-fab pie shells in the freezer aisle of the supermarket. I have heard that the Pillsbury pre-rolled pie crusts in the refrigerator section of the grocery store aren't horrible, but I have never sought to find out, owing to my desire to remain in my father's will. He, like any pie aficionado, will tell you, pie fillings are well and good, but they're really just an excuse to eat crust. There is nothing inherently complicated about pie crust — one part butter or shortening, two parts flour, some sugar, a little bit of salt and enough water to hold things together — but it is one kitchen activity that definitely rewards experience. To that end, I offer my own, doubtless incomplete and surely debatable, pieces of advice.

• Ingredients: The first choice in piemaking is the kind of fat you cut into the flour to make the basis of the dough. The old-school approach is lard, though this is generally hard for the modern palate to accept. A more conventional option is a mixture of shortening, such as Crisco, and unsalted butter. Crisco gives unparalleled flakiness and tenderness, but it's essentially flavorless. It's also loaded with trans-fats, the bugaboo of modern dietary science, created in the process of taking something liquid (vegetable oil) and turning it into a shelf-stable solid. Butter has the virtues of being a mere one step removed from something that occurs in nature, and it provides flavor to boot. These days, many people (myself included) are moving to all-butter recipes, but if you're inexperienced, the resulting dough can be more difficult to work with, so it might be a good idea to use a two-thirds/one-third butter-to-shortening ratio.

• Fat and flour: There are several different ways to combine the fat and flour, the easiest of which is probably a food processor. If you toss small chunks of shortening and/or butter into a food processor with your flour, sugar and salt, it will do an efficient and even job of producing a mixture that resembles coarse sand with some small pebbles in about 10 1-second pulses. The downsides are that it doesn't work as well for large batches of dough, and, if you're not careful, you can overwork things and overheat the dough, a big no-no. (More on this later.) Option B is to use a pastry blender, the brass knuckles of the kitchen. The cheap kind are like a series of round wires bent in a C-shape and connected to a handle; better are ones in which the metal resembles little flat blades. Either way, you cut through the flour and fat in a rocking motion until you have the same coarse sand consistency. The ultimate throwback is to smoosh the fat into the flour with your fingers. It's the gentlest approach, and the most tactually satisfying, but not good if you have warm hands.

• Liquid: Like so many things in life, the water in pie dough is absolutely crucial and beneficial unless you have too much, in which case it will kill you. Too little, and your dough will be crumbly and impossible to roll out. Too much, and the dough will be tough and chewy, not crisp and flaky. What to do? The fine folks at Cooks Illustrated hit on an unusual solution a couple of years ago: vodka. Seriously. Because much of the liquid in vodka is alcohol, not water, it provides the moisture necessary to hold the dough together when it's cold but evaporates in the oven. It gives you a lot more margin for error on the side of too much liquid. The magazine recommends a 50-50 ratio of water to vodka, and the cheapest rotgut you can find is perfectly fine. Whatever kind of liquid you use, it is imperative that it be ice-cold and that you add it slowly, gently mixing it in with an instrument no more forceful than a rubber scraper, preferably with your hands, until the dough holds together.

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