Flaky Pie Crust Revealed

Sent April 17, 2013

Dear Friends,

I like to think I’ve bungled around in the kitchen so you don’t have to. You thought I was born knowing how to make caramel that never crystallizes and soufflés that never fall?

Ha! My childhood was gastronomically deprived. The only thing my mother made well was pie crust, and even that lesson failed to stick.

That explains the leaden, crumbly pie dough that had me in a panic early in my food career. The pie was intended for a photo shoot the next day. Aaargh!

Exasperated, I finally gathered up the mess and carried it next door.

“What am I doing wrong?!” I asked my elderly next-door neighbor.

From a kitchen drawer she pulled a worn pastry blender with a wooden handle. She handed me her secret weapon and told me to never mix pie  dough with my hands again.

I was reminded of the lesson when an email arrived from Jenny Kuenzi of Green, asking for “the very best crust recipe you’ve ever made or were privileged to enjoy.”

I don’t have a favorite crust recipe. I usually just grab a recipe from a trusted cookbook and vary it according to the type of pie or tart I’m making. That’s because pie-dough making is all about technique.

Sure, lard will produce a lighter and flaker crust than shortening, and a bit of butter added to the lard will improve the flavor. But the best dough recipe in world can be a disaster in the wrong hands, and a plain crust of salt, shortening, flour and water can turn out great if it’s prepared correctly.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Chill the fat. Cut it into the flour and salt with a pastry blender until the pieces are the size of peas. Add the water while you fluff everything with a fork. Try to pinch some of the mixture together. If it won’t stick together, add more water until it does. Gather it quickly into a ball and flatten into one or two disks, depending on whether you’re making a one-crust or two-crust pie. Don’t handle the dough more than you absolutely have to because the heat from your hands will melt the fat, which will toughen the crust.

I’m one of those annoying people who always ask “Why?” and if you are, too, here’s the rationale:

If the fat remains cold, the bits will be encased in the flour mixture, forming separate little pockets of air when the fat melts in the oven. That’s what makes pie dough flaky.

Before you start sending me recipes for “foolproof” pie dough, know that I’ve probably tried them all. I’ve made pie dough with vinegar, pie dough with egg, food-processor pie dough, pate brisee (a butter-based dough), pate sable (cookie-like tart dough) and the water crusts used for Louisiana crawfish pie and British pasties.  I once recreated the secret recipe for the fabled Waterloo Restaurant pie dough, which is a cookie-like dough so tender it crumbles in your mouth.

None of those recipes produces a crisp pie dough so flaky it could win a ribbon at the county fair. For that, you’ll need lard and these directions:

DOUBLE-CRUST PIE DOUGH

  • 2 cups all-purpose or 2 cups plus 2 tbsp. pastry flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 2/3 cup chilled lard
  • 7 to 8 tbsp. cold water

Whisk together flour and salt in a medium bowl. Add lard in small pieces. With a pastry blender, cut the lard into the flour-salt mixture until the pieces of lard are about the size of peas. Use a knife to clean off the blades of the pastry blender occasionally.

Sprinkle the water over the mixture one tablespoon at a time, tossing with a fork to mix. Do not mix with your hands. After 7 tablespoons, pinch a bit of the mixture to see if it will stick together. If not, add remaining one tablespoon of water.

Working quickly so the heat from your hands does not melt the fat, gather the mixture into a ball. Do not knead. Divide in half and flatten into disks. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill an hour or more if possible.

Remove from refrigerator and warm to cool room temperature, until dough is pliable enough to roll. Flour each disk and place on a floured surface or between two pieces of plastic wrap. Roll each disk with rolling pin in strokes from the center to the edges to form a 9- or 10-inch circle. After dough is fitted into pie pan and crimped or filled, bake immediately. Unfilled pie shells may be wrapped in plastic wrap and refrigerated for baking later.

THE MAILBAG

From Diana:
My mom used to make hrudka on Good Friday morning and when we came downstairs, she had them hanging on a stick between two chairs with a pan underneath to let all of the whey drain out. Then she used the whey to make lemon pie.

My German husband discovered you can make hrudka and save your arms by making it in the microwave. YUM and easy!

Dear Diana: The microwave would sure save the arm muscles.

From Jan:
Can’t wait to try Tony’s pickled eggs!  Yum!  Reading that recipe made me wonder if you could help.  I bought a 1-quart jar of no-name-brand dill pickle slices… they are blah tasting!  No real discernible flavor… just a hint of dill.  I looked at the ingredients and it’s basically cucumbers, vinegar, salt, flavorings and then the preservatives you cannot pronounce.  No mention of garlic, mustard seed, celery seed, or even real dill you would find in a Vlasic jar.  Is there any way to save this jar of pickles or should I just pitch them out?  Thanks for your help!

Dear Jan: Sure, you can doctor up a blah jar of pickles. Feel free to toss in all the spices you want. Wait a week or so before tasting, to give the spices time to flavor the pickles..

From Geoff:
One of my favorite, and often underrated, sushi dishes is a well-made Japanese omelet called “tamago.”  I’d like to give a shot at making it but a proper tamago pan is important.  Do you or Tony know where I can go to buy one locally?  I’ve seen many on the Internet but I’d rather see the quality rather than take pot luck.  Perhaps an Asian store in Cleveland? Thanks for your help.

Dear Geoff: Not many sushi places make their own tamago (they buy it from vendors), but Tony does. He builds up the sweet omelet layer by layer in a heavy square pan he brought here from Japan. The tamago pans I’ve seen locally are thin and cheap-looking. The eggs would almost certainly scorch. Tony says the traditional square tamago pan is copper. He recommends Mutual Trading Co. in Los Angeles. I found a copper tamago pan in its catalog at http://www.lamtc.com/webcatalog/index.php.

From Susan M.:
Where can I get flake sea salt? It’s an ingredient in a bread recipe I want to try.

Dear Susan: Gourmet-food  stores such as West Point Market in Akron and Trader Joe’s should carry flake sea salt. So should health food stores such as Mustard Seed Market, Earth Fare and Whole Foods.

You needn’t go to that expense, though, for salt that will be dumped into a bowlful of flour and yeast and kneaded into a dough.

Flake sea salt is made by heating brine slowly until delicate crystals form. The flake sea salts I’ve seen have triangular hollow crystals, but the salt can also form as flat, ultra-thin flakes. The allure of the salt is its texture, so it should be sprinkled on foods just before they are brought to the table. To use it in cooking or baking would miss the point.

Any medium-crystal sea salt or even coarse kosher salt may be substituted.

From Michele Smith, Elkton, Md.:
Thanks for sharing the shrimp red curry recipe.  Red curry is one of my favorite Thai curries.  The recipe got me thinking also of one I found on the Taste of Thai recipe site for Spicy Shrimp and Asparagus–no coconut milk in that recipe, but still very delicious.

Since I’ve been living in Maryland, I miss some local Akron items.  When I used to travel home I would go to Yocono’s and buy a quart of their homemade salad dressing to bring back.  I know Yocono’s is gone–but do you think there is anyway you could track down a recipe for their Italian salad dressing?

Another odd request is for the chicken salad recipe from the old Bisson’s that used to be on West Market Street–a cruise down memory lane reminded me of that chicken salad which was a favorite of mine as a child.  I remember my mom bringing it home after work sometimes.

Dear Michele: Finding recipes from defunct businesses is tough. Occasionally a former owner or chef will see a request and respond, but that’s rare. I don’t recall ever having Yocono’s salad dressing recipe, or any recipe from Bisson’s.  If anyone has either recipe, please send me an email.

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