Pies are hands-down my favorite dessert, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you which part of the pie I like best, the fruit filling or the crust. For some people, the choice is obvious, demonstrated by their plates scraped clean except for the neatly manicured crust edges pushed to the side. Or, as with my young daughter, by the sneak attacks she mounts on any stray chunks of crust sitting unprotected on our plates. When you get a pie right, however, you get a perfect balance of juicy, not-too-sweet fruit and buttery, flaky crust — making both parts of the pie irresistible.
While making a good fruit filling does take a little attention (and the right thickener), making the crust seems to be the part of the pie that inspires discomfort in many people. A double-crust pie needs a crust that’s easy to work with and that bakes into a very flaky, American-style crust, as opposed to a crumbly short crust that’s suitable for tarts. I’d like to help you feel comfortable making, shaping, baking — and eventually perfecting — this kind of crust.
Thickening the juices means more flavor in every bite
As fresh fruit cooks in a pie, it releases lots of juices — delicious but thin juices that, if not thickened somehow, will make the crust soggy and pool up on the plate.
Some cooks use flour to bind and thicken the juices, but I find that the texture can be a bit gritty and that the flour turns the juices slightly cloudy. I prefer to use a mix of cornstarch and quick-cooking tapioca, which both set clear when fully cooked and cooled. Using all cornstarch would make the filling gummy, and all tapioca would make it seem dry, but the two balance each other. The cornstarch thickens the juices, while the tapioca adds texture without making the filling too gummy. If the texture of the tapioca is too pronounced, next time try grinding it to a powder in the food processor first.
Butter’s better, as long as it’s cold
One of the big debates concerning pie crust is what kind of fat to use. Shortening produces a tender and very flaky crust, but it lacks flavor. Some bakers say that a butter crust isn’t as flaky as a shortening crust, but I disagree — with the right methods, you can get great flakiness with butter. Besides, flake isn’t the only measure of a delicious crust. I always end any debate by asking, “Would you spread shortening on your toast? Then why use it to wrap around your pie?”
Since butter is key to this crust, choose a high-quality butter, one with a low water content. This generally means choosing a brand-name butter rather than a supermarket brand.
The size of the butter chunk is critical. I like to have quite a few chunks in the dough that are at least pea-size. Big bits of butter translate into big flakes, as the moisture in the butter turns to steam and puffs up that section of pastry. If the butter pieces are too small, you may get a tender pastry, but one more crumbly than flaky.
The temperature of the butter is really important, too. Make sure you use it right from the refrigerator (or pop it in the freezer for a few minutes if you’re working in a hot kitchen). Cold butter keeps the dough cool, which helps prevent the development of too much gluten in the flour. Just as important, cold butter stays solid longer in the heat of the oven. If the butter starts off too warm, it will immediately melt in the heat of the oven before it has a chance to do its flaky thing.
A stand mixer gives more control
I’m a little different from some bakers in that I prefer to use my stand mixer rather than a food processor to make pie dough. I find that the mixer allows me to complete the dough quickly with a minimum of mixing but still retain control of the dough’s consistency. I think the food processor tends to overwork the dough when mixing in the water, so if you want to give the processor a try, use it to cut in the butter, but then dump the flour into a bowl and mix in the water by hand.
Whichever method you use to make the dough, it’s important to check your butter and flour mixture to make sure it’s still very cold and malleable before you add the water to the dough. Here’s a good way to test. When the butter and flour mixture is blended to the desired “pea size,” quickly pull out a small amount and play with it. Is it firm? Can you mold it into a small cube without your fingers getting greasy? If so, your butter is still cold enough and you can proceed with adding the water. If the butter feels soft and your fingers look greasy, put the mixture — bowl and all — in the refrigerator for 15 to 20 minutes until the butter and flour pieces are firm again. This is a great tip to remember when you’re baking on hot summer days.
Shape and roll the dough
Rolling the dough right away means no struggle and a tender texture
The next step in my process may seem like heresy to some experienced pie-makers, but trust me, it works beautifully. Once you’ve added the water to your dough, most recipes have you shape the dough into a disk and then refrigerate it for a period, in order for the butter to get firm again and the gluten in the dough relax. This is all well and good, except than now you’re left with a disk of very hard, chilled dough that will take so much muscle to become malleable enough to roll (we’ve all seen bakers banging their disks with a rolling pin) that the dough gets overworked and tends to crack. I find that rolling out the dough, shaping the pie, and chilling the assembled pie for 15 to 20 minutes before baking produces the perfect texture. But if the dough rounds seems to be getting limp or greasy as you’re working, you can just pop them into the refrigerator (on a piece of parchment or a baking sheet) until they’re cool enough to work with again.