Last night I made a Potato Bacon Torte (which can be found in the recipe section). The recipe for the pie crust was made exclusively with butter and I was reminded of a conversation with a friend who stated that if you want to a make “real” pie crust you must only use butter. I usually use Tenderflake, the “no fail” recipe right on the box . I have never been a fan of snootiness when it comes to cooking and even less so if that snootiness causes others to a) not attempt to cook or b) causes them to think their cookery is somehow inferior. Perfectionism has wiggled its way into enough of our daily lives that I feel like when it comes to the kitchen there should be a “you shall not pass” sign above the stove. With that said, I was very intrigued when I began to read about the history of pies.
Reference to “pyes” as food items appeared in England as early as the 12th Century. In the 14th century, it made its way into the Oxford Dictionary under the name pie. Interestingly, pie was originally made with pig fat, commonly known as lard. People would get their pig lard from a farm and render it for pie making. After the industrial revolution, Crisco made its way into the market in 1911 convincing women that this substitute was healthier and was clearly easier to access. With all we know now about trans-fats it is obvious that this was not a healthy alternative. But butter, historically was never used in early English pie making. Butter was introduced much later in pie making and was thought to be healthier than lard and more flavorful, but in actuality lard has less saturated fat, more unsaturated fat, and less cholesterol than an equal amount of butter by weight. Also, Tenderflake (shortening) has followed the rules about trans fats and is now a safe, viable choice. This clearly means that the definition of making “real” pie is much more fluid in its execution. In fact, chefs today are going back to the pig fat for their pies for that authentic early 19th century flavor.
So, what is my opinion on pie making? To begin with, there are many options that are not to be frowned upon. You can buy a crust from the grocery store, I guarantee your family will not scrutinize you over it. You can buy the Red Robin mix where you just add water. Finally you can make it from scratch. The last option I want to demystify immediately. It is not that hard to make a pie crust. As far as what to use, shortening or butter (I am assuming you are not going to a farm for pig fat), my research indicated that for the best pie, use both, half and half. Famous pie lady Kate McDermott (The Art of Pie) uses exactly that and she in known far and wide for her “perfect” crust. Last night I used only butter. It can be a little trickier to work with but the flavor it renders is pretty fantastic. Seriously though, the “no fail” pie recipe on the box of Tenderflake has never let me down. What is most important is that you know the steps and have a feel for each of the stages.
So here goes: How to make pie crust with whatever recipe you are following:
Firstly, get a big glass of water with ice in it and keep it in the fridge until you are ready to use it. Also make sure your shortening or butter has been refrigerated. Cold is key but don’t obsess about it. The early settlers had no refrigerators..think about it.
Mix the flour and salt together.
Add the butter or shortening (Tenderflake, Crisco etc) by cutting it up into cubes into the flour mixture. Use a pastry blender and begin cutting it into the flour.
Keep blending until there are no huge chunks of butter or shortening but they have broken down and are fully covered with flour. Next, you need to use your hands. Keep blending the mixture trying to continue to break down the butter or shortening so that it looks like oatmeal, or a bunch of little round balls. It should look something like this at the end.
Next, get your ice cold water and begin to add it by the tablespoonful into the mixture. Every time you add water pull the mixture together. Remember you want pastry dough at the end. Keep adding water and pulling the dough together until it keeps together. It should just stick together enough to form a ball that again, holds together. The recipe might call for way more water than needed, so don’t keep adding water if you feel it does not need anymore. The recipe last night called for 8 tablespoons of water, I used 4.
Break the dough apart and make two even round balls. Put them in a plastic baggy and flatten them into two round disks. Put in the fridge for 30 min or not if you are making the pie right away. The key is to always keep the dough as cold as possible. When you are ready get a disk for the bottom of the pie and roll out the dough on a floured surface, making sure the rolled out dough is big enough for the pie plate…and so it hangs over the edge of the pie plate for sealing the pie together at the end.
Carefully, put the dough in the pie plate. I roll it up over the rolling pin and then roll it back over the pie plate. Do what works for you. Tearing, breaking, repairing, of the dough is all normal, you are not alone.
Once you have filled your pie up with whatever you want do the same as above for the top crust. And Voila…a pye!