MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH PIE CRUST
Getting to the Bottom of it: My love affair with Pie Crust
What was the big deal about making homemade crust? Most everyone I polled agreed that yes, a good crust made the difference between pie and heavenly pie. I was not intimidated with baking bread, cakes or even coffeecakes.... but PIE? I was determined to get to the bottom of this.
The pies crusts I had baked were semi-disasters. The first: burnt edges, the second: ultra thick edges; and the third; a sunken heap of burnt and ultra thick edges. Why was the bottom always falling out from under me???
Each time I looked up 'PIES' in one of my favorite cookbooks, my eyes glazed over and my palms got sweaty. Julia Childs’ Classic; Mastering The Art Of French Cooking only reenforced my fears: the pie dough instructions were 21 pages long!! I envied my friends. They told me about their moms who baked them the usual classics for birthdays and holidays: lemon meringue, cherry, apple and pumpkin.
When I saw magazine covers emblazoned with the most glamorous, plumpest, juiciest, reddest fruits for glossy pie photo shoots I could hold out no longer. I closed my eyes and imagined myself wowing my dinner guests with one of my homemade pies...I heard myself saying: "Sure, it would be no trouble at all. Let me just whip one right up..roll it and pat and it and mark it with an A just like we learned in grade school.
Once again, I sought adventure. I began my pie quest with asking a few favorite pastry chefs their pie crust making secrets Their answers: "butter, butter and more butter." One chef gave me a slight variation by emphasizing "chilled butter." I then asked some of the grandmothers around, they all said: " Just Watch me!" adding somewhat encouragingly that there was really nothing to it.
I wondered wether this quest for pie crust perfection had anything to do with my gramma Gretls apple strudles.. She mounded flour on a marble slab, cracked and separated yolks from whites, poured the yolks slowly into the deep pocket of flour ...her bracelets jangling loudly as she worked to form a smooth dough. ...She let me feel the dough for a quick second when she thought it was, as she said "getting there." When the dough was ready, she wrapped it in waxed paper and put it in the fridge. She said the dough needed to "rest." After what seemed like an eternity, she rolled the chilled dough into a square, then draped, stretched and pulled , letting this ever thinner elastic sheath hang over her knuckles until she formed a huge rectangular piece of transparent dough/ cloth. Lastly, she filled it with sliced apples, cinnamon, sugar, lemon rind, buttered bread crumbs, and, with a few quick flicks of the underlying cloth, turned it into a 4 foot long roll!! I was forever hooked.
I spent a few weeks taking refuge in bakers catalogs. I gazed longingly at the indispensable products...the magic links connecting me to tasting righteous crust! The burlap pastry cloth! (absorbs excess flour) the pastry blender (cuts butter into flour into the perfect pea-shaped size) pie weights(necklace of metal beads to keep crust from sinking) a PIE BIRD ( allows steam to escape underneath a top crust to prevent the horror of SPILLAGE!!
So, After the tenth time reading the directions for pie crust in The Complete Book of Pastry, I was back at the pastry board (or if you are really lucky..a marble board) with the words of grammas and chefs buzzing around in my ear: , The visions of sugar plums and sour cherries were now long gone from my mind, I was now working under very strict commands: "KEEP IT MOIST, BUT NOT WET!" WORK DOUGH QUICKLY, THEN RELAX IT!" "SQUEEZE IT DON'T NEED IT!" as I plunged deeper into unknown territory.
"Next...let the squeeze-shaped dough rest in the refrigerator for 4 to 24 hours...the gluten sheets will relax and mellowing enzymes will help absorb the moisture fully."
TRANSLATION: AVOID SHRINKAGE! My heart pounding and my hands flour-soaked, I read on;
"The temperature will protect these tiny pea sized particles of butter and flour. In the oven each flour-coated bit of moist fat will create small burst of steam to expand and flavor the dough and provide flakiness."
TRANSLATION: KEEP DOUGH COOL AT ALL TIMES!
I needed to get my hands off this dough as fast as possible...while at the same time coax it into a ball and get it into the fridge. All my natural instincts were being tested and I finally realized I had been giving this creature far too much attention. Little did I know that "if you activate the proteins in the gluten they will bind together, get trapped.
TRANSLATION: YOU DON'T WANT A TOUGH DOUGH!
I invested in a marble board on which to roll out the dough and then fit it into a pie plate.
"marble conducts heat away from objects twenty times better than plastic or burlap cloth helping the dough to stay cool. I had no idea that 1/4 thick was so thin. After I finish rolling out the dough, I fold it in half and drape it into a pie plate leaving a 1/2 inch overhang which I use to make some sort of crimping design for the edges. I grab my trusty reenforcements, the foil filled beans and pie weights to keep this dough from toppling over and bake the crust to "set" it in its proper position..Will the dough hold up?? or will it slip down, like so many times before, leaving me dejected, defeated...doomed. But.... here I am, once again, hand on the oven door, ready to face the truth: I crack open the oven and there it iS:...A CRUST STANDING STRAIGHT AND FIRM AND SLIGHTLY GOLDEN...I am more than half way home. "Take it out now," I yell aloud to myself. "Take it out now!"
After letting it cool, I put in the cherry filling. When the fruit is gurgling and bubbling I take it out. Will it make the cut? My fork pierces thru the bottom effortlessly and scoops up a pillar of shimmering cherries. I close my eyes. I taste flakiness, the tart/sweetness, creamy butteriness and, as I reach for another bite, I think that this is almost as good as I imagined it would be.