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help me overcome by piephobia

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i'm generally a pretty competent baker, but i have an irrational fear of making pies. or rather pie crust. i blame my mother, who convinced me at a young age that making a good pie crust was an inordinately difficult task that should not be tackled by a mere amateur baker.

but i'm finally ready to address my piephobia head-on. can anyone direct me to a good, simple-ish, summery pie recipe with which to begin my therapy? i'm thinking something with berries. thanks very much.

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  1. Martha Stewart's basic pie crust is standard 4-H, and if you have a food processor, it is as foolproof as it gets.

    Frozen bags of fruit work fine, and would be good to start out with - I mean instead of worrying about the peaches you just drove to the country to pick, or being scared to mess up the blackberries you just scratched your arms up picking, right? (I'm blackberry picking in the morning, yea!) Just toss the fruit in a little flour or cornstarch or potato starch (cooks illustrated's preference) a pinch of cinnamon, some sugar if your fruit needs it, and about a TBSP of butter cut up on top. I usually brush the top crust with milk and sprinkle with sugar. Good luck and please let us know how it goes.

    1. There are lots of good basic recipes out thre, and they're all the same thing:

      -fat (butter, lard, or shortening)
      -flour
      -salt

      Whatever recipe you end up going with, keep everything COLD! Cold butter, cold utensils, cold surface is possible. Run your hands under an icy faucet and dry off quickly before you begin. Chill the crust if you're in a warm kitchen and it begins to get soft. this made a heap of difference when I first started making pie crusts. But other than that, it's not hard and you don't need any special tools. Crust made with fingers tastes the same to me as crust made with forks, knives, pastry cutters, or food processors.

      1. You'll get a lot of responses, I suspect. I argue for 1/2 butter, 1/2 lard (or non-transfat-type shortening). Butter gives flavor, the lard makes the crust crisp. Some like all one or all the other - I think it's a personal preference (except to the degree to which my preference is right, of course). I find using an egg in the crust makes the dough particularly workable, most people don't bother. A touch of vinegar is another trick some people swear by and others forgo. I always use my fingers, because I have cold hands (pastry hands). If you have warm hands (bread hands), you might do better with a pastry cutter or two knives.

        What is essential? Pei is right - keep everything cold. Ice your water, have your butter cold and cut into chunks before you cut it into the flour. Then, don't overwork the dough. Gentle, gentle, handle as little as possible. A rest/chill before rolling is a good idea, as is a quick chill after rolling and before baking.

        The best little book for pies I've ever found is the Little Pie Company of the Big Apple's Pies and Other Dessert Favorites. They walk you through the details of crust-making for beginners. They also have great recipes for rumbs pies and so on. I've never made a bad pie from that book, and I never hear it mentioned, which is too bad. Great book for a beginner.

        1 Reply
        1. re: curiousbaker

          I don't have this book, but I can tell you they make some of the greatest pies I've ever eaten. Especially the sour cream apple.

        2. For a failproof and satisfying recipe, use more fat than your recipe calls for, if you want to be immediately rewarded with a tasty tender dough, or don't trust your ability to keep things cold. I made awesome crusts on a 100% humidity, 85 degree, electricity-free island for a year by using flour and animal lard... some of the best crusts I ever made, b/c I was *REAL* generous with the fat to flour ratio... just something to think about. In my experience, lard is also easier to work with than butter, for what it's worth.

          1. I agree with all the posts which say to use lard. However pure lard with no transfats isn't easy to come by unless you have a good Hispanic grocery. I made my own when we got a whole hog. Before that it was a slog to get the stuff.

            If you can't find lard, go with 100% butter which is delicious, just not as melt-in-the-mouth tender as a lard crust.

            4 Replies
            1. re: cheryl_h

              I use the Malgieri all butter recipe. He adds a 1/4 tsp. baking powder for a 2 crust pie. It helps a bit with the flakiness and crumb when the lard is left out.

              I used to swear by Crisco and have not tried the new trans fat free variety. Has anyone?

              1. re: Candy

                Yeah I used Crisco too, for years. I probably cut a few years off my life expectancy. No, I haven't tried the new variety. It'll take a while to work through my lard supply - by then the jury should be in on new Crisco.

                Interesting that such a tiny amount of baking powder will make a difference. I should try it with my next round of pies.

                1. re: cheryl_h

                  It surprised me the first time I tried it. I use Rumford BP and it is always quite fresh. It does help.

                2. re: Candy

                  I have tried the Crisco trans fat free, as well as some other trans fat free brand from Whole Foods. They both performed just as well as old fashioned shortening. Like cheryl h, I think the jury is still out on how much "better" it is for your health.

              2. For the lazy type, consider the prepared pie crust at Trader Joe's. Normally, I don't like already-prepared pie crusts, and definitely not frozen crusts (unless I'm using the bottom crust only), but the Trader Joe's pie crust is amazing! It doesn't taste chemically, like the regular frozen ones do. It actually tastes sweeter than most pie crusts. It's found in the refrigerated section (NOT frozen section) at Trader Joe's.

                1. Here's my encouragement: First of all, it isn't hard. Second, people are always VERY impressed when you make pie because they think it's so hard. Third, even if it doesn't come out perfect, it's going to be vastly better than any pie you'd buy at the store or most restaurants, most of which are absolutely awful. Finding good, pre-made pie is virtually impossible.

                  I'm a half Crisco, half butter girl myself. But do it a few ways, see what you like.

                  1. I agree with everyone above. I cut my teeth on my grandmother's pie crust recipe which called for just Crisco but the crust that I usually make is made with mainly butter and a bit of Crisco. I try to stay away from it for obvious reasons but it makes a foolproof crust. A great recipe is the blueberry lattice pie from a Bon Appetit a few years back. It may be on the Epicurious site, if not let me know if you want it. I love it because it thickens beautifully and the crust is delicious. Good luck and just think, you and your family will be the recipient of all those pies you make through trial and error!!! P.S. I've found that because I blog on this site I mistakenly think EVERYONE cooks like me or much better and then whenever I bring something somewhere, I realize that this is not true, especially where I live...NO ONE makes true homemade pies so even one of my less flaky crusts tastes great in comparison to the local bakery pie!!!

                    1. Thanks to the advice on this board I baked my own first pie and have since used their pie crust tips to make other pies and desserts!

                      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                      Here's my post detailing that first pie and a link to the pie recipe from epicurious. Their Easy Pastry Dough recipe could not be easier and more yummy and flakey (Lots of butter, a bit of crisco! :))

                      --Dommy!

                      1. I feel strongly about what type of pie crust tastes the best.

                        Butter gives a deep flavor and if handled correctly, sufficient flakiness. Pie crusts made with tastes-like-cheap-bakery-crisco are easier to work with and very flakey but bleh-- I don't like the way they taste at all.

                        I have a good friend who makes pies with glorious fruit from the farmer's market but she uses crisco in the crust-- whenever I sample them I always think, geez, what a waste of time and good fruit.

                        I use both a simple method and simple set of ingredients. The quality of the butter used is important. Try and find a European-style butter with a slightly higher fat content. I use Plugra.

                        Ice water really does help. So does keeping everything cold.

                        I make at least 25 pies during the summer which is why I tend to use my kitchenaid/whisk attachment for the part of the process. When I make a single pie (rarely) I use a pastry blender. Unbaked pie freezes very well and can be baked straight from the freezer.

                        It is tempting to overfill fruit pies but resist the temptation. Overfilled pies take forever to bake and never seem to sit properly.

                        2 c. unbleached all purpose flour
                        1 t. salt
                        3/4 c. butter, cut into small pieces and well chilled
                        7-8 T. ice water

                        Cut the butter into the flour into pieces the size of peas remain and the rest of the butter is distributed throughout. It will look like lumps in the middle of moist cream-colored flour. Add 3 T. ice water and fluff with fork. Add 3 T. more ice water and fluff again. Depending on the weather you may need 1-3 T. more. Too much water makes the pastry tough. Too little makes it a nightmare to roll out. Err on the side of too much. Squeeze the dough gently together and divide into two sections. Wrap quickly in plastic wrap and gently smoosh into a wide, round patty. Chill both pieces for 30 minutes in the refrigerator. If it starts to crack when you roll it out wait another 2-3 minutes for it to warm up. Add filling, top with a pat of butter, cover with top pastry, add vents to the top, and chill for thirty minutes if baking. Place directly in freezer if freezing.

                        Finally, I prefer plain old pyrex for pie pans. Emile Henry and some of the other brands are pretty but I never like the results as well. (Except for the mini pans they make-- I love those.)

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: JudiAU

                          Hear, hear! I agree 100% on Crisco evilness, trans fats or no trans fats, and use Plugrá too. The rest of the advice is sound too.

                          For a slightly richer crust that's easier to handle but still plenty flaky, I add an egg yolk. Oh and I add a tablespoon or so of sugar, as well. (Bittman says so...)

                          1. re: JudiAU

                            AMEN to you, JudiAU!

                            I read this post so happily as it's almost word for word what I was going to post. Your recipe is almost exactly my grandma's all-butter recipe that all women in my family have been using forever. I've definitely screwed it up a few times (mostly because she always said it only took 3-4 Tbsp of water, but it always needs a little more!), but **nothing** beats a good all-butter crust. I refuse to buy pie at stores and bakeries because of the gross-tasting crust. I also have tried other pie pans and think Pyrex is the best, at least for these crusts.

                            My only addition is sprinkling a little sugar on top of the top crust after poking vents with a fork.

                          2. I was just asked for tips on pie crusts, so I posted detailed descriptions and pictures here: http://pieandbeer.blogspot.com/2006/0....

                            I guess I fall into the shortening (plus some butter, sometimes, but never more butter than shortening), vinegar, egg, no-sugar, glass-pie-plate camp.

                            1. coupla tips

                              1- to keep the crust cold during kneading: use the heel of your hand or your fingertips. don't use the palm (the hottest part) of your hand.

                              2- knead and roll on a cold surface, preferably marble. if you don't have a marble surface, put a cookie sheet or a sheet pan in the freezer for a few minutes, then put the cold pan on your surface to cool it down. you can also put the pan over wax paper directly over your dough if you need to walk away or if you feel it's warming up.

                              3- the hardest part is rolling, in my opinion. to prevent the dreaded oblong shape, start with a well rounded ball. then flatten by pressing a cross into the ball. rotate the dough as you roll, rolling only in one direction, away from you or toward. to make sure you get an even thickness, use pre-fab roller bands or just equal twists of rubber band on either side of your pin to keep it a uniform space above the work surface.

                              4- to pre-bake, put a circle of parchment or a large coffee filter over the bottom of the pan and fill with beans (not coffee beans)

                              hey- if i can make puff pastry, then you can certainly make pie crust dough!

                              1. Practice, practice, practice!!! I had tart phobia but I resolved to overcome it because I really wanted to make a tart from Claudia Fleming's book The Last Course. So I bought a big bag of flour and 2 lbs of butter from Smart and Final and I made a crust a night. After about a week I got the knack for it. My MIL makes incredible pies, I asked her for her secret she says she owes it to the Cuisinart pie crust recipe and working in a resto where she made pie after pie.

                                1. thanks so much, everyone, for all the suggestions. i'm going to experiment over the holiday weekend and i'll report back.

                                  1. so i'm reporting back as promised. my experimentation over the holiday weekend was more limited than i had planned because it was HOT in los angeles. i just couldn't bring myself to spend a lot of time in my un-airconditioned kitchen, which at 80+ degrees was also not conducive to keeping things very cold as many of you advised. anyway, on the great crust debate i decided to split the difference and used the new basics cookbook recipe which uses both butter and shortening (slightly more of the former). and again because it was so hot out, warm pie just wasn't appealing to me, so for a barbeque yesterday i decided to make the fresh fruit tart from new basics which has a chilled cream cheese / whipped cream filling topped by fresh raspberries and blueberries. i bought european butter, which is what i always use in baking, and the no-transfat crisco, which was a first for me, and went to work, following all your tips plus the ones in the cookbook as best i could.

                                    the end result? the tart was absolutely beautiful - red, white and blue to boot - and pretty tasty too. i thought the crust could have been a little flakier - i'm guessing that was a combination of my adding a little too much water and working it a little too much, plus of course the losing battle to keep things cold - but everyone raved about it and said the crust was much better than store-bought. and the whole tart disappeared pretty quickly.

                                    so thanks again everyone for all your guidance, and i will continue my therapy sessions soon!

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: cookie monster

                                      By tart do you mean tart shell baked in a tart pan?

                                      Pie crust =/ Tart Crust.

                                      We've been talking about pastry for a classic American pie. You can use pie crust in a tart shell (it is pastry after all) but it really isn't the best choice. Tart shells usually need to be sturdier, have a higher fat content, use frisage to blend the butter into the dough, have more sugar, don't use shortening, etc. etc. They often have sugar or eggs to create a cookie/sandy flavor and texture. They are many difference in a superior tart dough.

                                      If you really want tart dough and not pie dough you might want to post again for different recipes.

                                      1. re: JudiAU

                                        i really did want classic american pie crust. the pie/tart terminology came from the cookbook, not from me. but the crust recipe itself was of the type you all have described here, baked in a pie pan.

                                      2. re: cookie monster

                                        I also made pie last weekend in my kitchen in North Hollywood -- but it was so humid that my recipe (which makes four crusts), which normally, in our dry under-10%-humidity climate calls for 13 tablespoons of water, only took 7! I ended up baking it out of the fridge at 5:30 in the morning on Monday because I couldn't bear to have the oven on during the day, even with fans and the air-conditioning going full blast.

                                        My pie crust is all-butter, and as such it is VERY prone to melting; I always have to chill it thoroughly before rolling it.

                                        If you add the aforementioned 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder per crust (so 1/2 teaspoon per double crust) you will solve your flakiness issue, at least until you get the "feel" in your hands.

                                        I, too, use pâte brisée (the fancy term for an all-butter crust) in my tarts and they're always fine and flaky and light -- and I don't have to put any beans in when blind-baking.

                                        I had enough dough left over this time that I made sweet-cherry hand-held pies as well as the apple pie and the fresh fruit and vanilla cream tart.

                                        Glad you saw that it's NOT that hard, and that the tales of leaden pie crust are just that, tales.

                                      3. If you want to completely obliterate any fears of making tough crusts, track down some unbleached pastry flour. Because of the low protein content, it's almost impossible to overwork the dough.

                                        And definitely, as has been previously mentioned, use a food processor. Not only are you cutting in the fat, you're cutting in the liquid as well, resulting in almost no gluten development.

                                        Pastry flour and a food processor will give you breathtaking crusts every time.

                                        Oh, and if you want especially flaky crusts... clarify your butter. Clarified butter gives you similar results to shortening, but without the nasty trans fats.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: scott123

                                          Interesting. I'm assuming you clarify and then re-chill the butter, right?

                                          1. re: julietg

                                            Yes, clarify and re-chill.

                                        2. I find that this is a great recipe -- it got me over my fear of working with the dough because it is so easy to handle:

                                          Makes 2 double pie crusts

                                          4 cups unbleached white flour (plus more for rolling out)
                                          1 Tablespoon sugar
                                          1-1/2 teaspoons salt
                                          1-3/4 cups shortening (or half butter, half shortening)
                                          1/2 cup water
                                          1 egg
                                          1 Tbsp. white vinegar

                                          Mix the flour, sugar, and salt; cut in the shortening.
                                          Blend the water, egg, and vinegar in a small bowl or measuring cup. Stir the liquid mixture into the dry mixture until the dough clumps together and there's not much flour remaining outside the clumps. (You may not need to add all the liquid.)

                                          Form four balls of dough, wrap them individually in plastic wrap, and chill for no less than 20 minutes. Each ball makes a single crust. Roll and bake according to your pie recipe.

                                          Note: If you make a half a recipe, you can use the whole egg without trying to divide it in half.

                                          1. I know I'm late chiming in, but I always use yogurt instead of ice water and vinegar in my piecrusts. I got this tip from the Pie and Pastry bible, which, incidentally I found in the FREE bin at my local bookstore -- an occurance that changed my life. The yogurt simplifies things, makes the dough easier to handle, and adds an intriguing tang to the crust.

                                            1. Sorry, a bit late to the game. But I have two tips to use regardless of the recipe.

                                              First, as directed, I would chill the dough before rolling it out. Then, it would crack like crazy and I'd spend half the time pinching the cracks back into the circle. Solution: the dough can sit out a few minutes to warm up a bit before rolling. The refrigeration isn't just about keeping the butter solid, but about hydrating the flour and relaxing the glutens. A couple of minutes warm up before rolling won't melt the butter, and makes rolling MUCH easier (you can also beat the dough with the rolling pin a bit to loosen it up).

                                              Second: With fruit pies, you almost always get a soggy bottom crust unless you seal it first. I either brush egg whites or melted white chocolate (mixed with some butter) on the bottom crust before filling.

                                              1. VERY late to the game.

                                                See, everyone says, "butter for flavour and lard/crisco for flakiness", but it doesn't work like that. Imagine pouring half a glass of milk (for flavour) then adding half a glass of water (to increase volume). The water dilutes the milk, and similarly, half butter half lard dilutes the flavour of pie crust. I use mostly butter, and a bit of cream cheese - which is tangy and helps with flakiness.

                                                To make the crust easier to work, an egg yolk is definitely the way to go.

                                                Here's my recipe, which I worked out by playing with the most popular recipes in the pie crust debate:

                                                http://capegooseberry.blogspot.com/20...

                                                1. A couple of thoughts on rolling out the dough:

                                                  My MIL is a pie maven, and turned me on to the wonders of using a pastry cloth. This is a thick cotton square that you flour generously and then roll the crust on. It truly prevents the crust from sticking, and yet the crust adheres to it so well that when it comes time to transfer the rolled-out crust to the pie pan, you can usually just lift the cloth and turn it over onto the pan, then peel it off the crust. This is the most foolproof method I've come upon yet.

                                                  Second best is to roll out on wax paper. Again you should flour it first. Wax paper is helpful because its 12" width provides a good guide to how big you should roll your circle. Some people roll with wax paper under and another sheet on top, but I've never had success that way. But if you're in a hot climate, it's a neat trick to roll out top and bottom crusts on separate pieces of wax paper, then cover them with more paper and put them in the fridge while you get your filling ready.

                                                  You're likely to hear about using a marble surface to roll out on, because it retains the cold so well. Do not try to roll directly on it without wax paper or a pastry cloth, because your crust will stick like the dickens.

                                                  I like using a tapered rolling pin because it helps keep the edges of the crust from getting too thin. With a tapered pin you don't have to just roll from the center; instead you can kind of roll in a circle while turning the crust often. This gives you a nice rounded result.

                                                  And as other posters have noted, a homemade pie with a lot of "mistakes" is likely to be plenty enjoyable.