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.
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.