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Baking Classic American Pies

Team a flaky but manageable dough with flavorful fillings for anxiety-free holiday pies

Fine Cooking Issue 29
Photos: Mark Ferri
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I teach baking classes throughout the year—fancy tortes, tricky tarts, involved cakes, delicate custards. But I’ve always noticed that students get the most freaked out when it’s time to make simple pies. Just mention pie crust to most cooks and they cringe—I call it pie anxiety. Will the dough roll out without cracking? Will the crust bake up tender or flaky enough? Will the filling be thick and ample? Will I get a great-looking, tasty slice of pie?

Armed with a few tricks and pointers, pies can be problem-free and delicious. I’ve developed a supple, easy-to-handle dough, flavor-packed fillings, and, as a bonus, toppings that give flavor twists to the traditional apple, pear, and pumpkin pies I love to serve at Thanksgiving. I’m including a southern guest in the mix, too: Chocolate Pecan Pie. Sure, it’s a break with tradition, but I always find myself wishing for just a little chocolate on Thanksgiving.

Mix an easy-handling crust that comes out both tender and flaky

The dough I’m using here is soft and easy to roll out, but it still turns out tender and flaky. I’ve added a bit more water than most pie doughs call for, and I’ve used about half the weight of the flour in total fat. You could go to a higher fat-to-flour ratio, but too much fat can make the dough fragile and difficult to manipulate.

For a flaky crust, make sure butter, shortening, and liquids are very well chilled. If you have a hot kitchen, chill your flour, too. Here’s why.

  • Cold fat creates steam, thus flaky layers. According to food scientist Shirley Corriher, cold fat melts slowly in the hot oven, giving the dough a chance set on either side of it. When the fat does start to heat up and melt, the resulting steam puffs layers apart, creating flakiness. Shortening, with its higher melting point, helps the fat stay firmer longer.
  • Cold liquid stimulates less gluten formation. Strong gluten is good for bread, but it makes pie crusts tough.

Add a little lemon juice to the dough, too, because the acid can help shorten the gluten as well.

Use a food processor for quick, hands-free mixing. The goal is to quickly combine ingredients and cut in the fat with a brief pulsing, just until the mixture is crumbly. This way, you don’t overwork the dough, warm it with your hands, or add more water—all of which can make pie crust tough and chewy.

Parchment is key to fearless rolling

Fear of rolling seems to be the main complaint I hear from students in my classes. My secret: roll the dough between large (24×16-inch) lightly floured sheets of parchment. The paper keeps you from overflouring. It also protects the dough so you can move it around often and easily, keeping your hot hands from warming the nicely chilled dough.

Roll from the center out, turning the paper clockwise a little after each roll. If the paper buckles or curls, lift it and dust with flour. For a crust that’s even all over, ease up slightly on the pin as you near the edge to prevent a flattened edge. And if the dough gets too warm, just slide the dough and paper onto a baking sheet and into the refrigerator for 10 minutes.

You needn’t roll a perfect round. A circle is an unnecessary goal, because you’ll trim the dough when it’s in the pie pan. Just make sure your rolled-out shape is about a 14-inch-diameter round and about 1/8 inch thick for a 9-inch pie pan.

Lift the paper every few passes of the rolling pin to check for sticking. Dust with a little flour if needed.

Now comes a real pie anxiety moment—getting the crust into the pan. So, now you’ve got this thin, beautifully rolled out pie crust: what if it rips or creases on its way to the pie pan? Loosely rolling the dough around the pin and slowly unfurling it over the pan eliminates what can feel like acrobatics; it’s much smarter than lifting bare-handed. This pie crust recipe allows you to transfer easily.

As you ease the dough into the pie pan, press it gently against the bottom and sides. Avoid stretching or pulling the dough—this is often why pie crusts shrink back during baking. Pie weights, which keep the crust from puffing as it bakes, are essential. No reason to buy fancy ones—tin foil filled with dried beans or raw rice works just fine.

The recipes starting below give plenty of dough and filling to line a 9-inch Pyrex pie pan, the only kind I use. I like to see the bottom crust browning through the glass. And since I always use the same size, I know exactly how much dough and filling I need (having too much filling—or not enough—is really annoying).

Roll the dough around the pin to transfer it easily to the pie pan.

The Pear-Raisin Pie is topped with a lattice crust—one more source of pie anxiety. But assembling the lattice in advance on a sheet of parchment makes the process much easier. Start out by rolling one of the disks of dough in the Classic Pie Crust recipe into a rectangle slightly larger than 14×9 inches. Remove the top sheet of parchment. Trim the dough to an exact 14×9-inch rectangle. Cut 12 strips that are 14 inches long and 3/4 inch wide, and proceed as in the photos below.


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