Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Little Christmas Present

I haven't been around much online lately, and I really don't feel very Christmasy this year (for example, I just sent grumpy mail to a service I (monetarily) subscribe to which likes to spam me. There is no setting on their website for "please stop sending me emails." Bah humbug. Except I am feeling guilty now. MERRY CHRISTMAS!)

But in order to redeem a small amount of my karma, and because it might be useful, especially at the moment, I offer you:

How to make a pretty good pie crust

I am not a food blogger, nor a professional baker. I've just made a few of these. This is what works for me.

This is not a how-to (see #1 - get a good recipe). I guess it's "tips". It's things they don't always mention.

I'll preface this by saying I make crusts from shortening & butter. Shortening for flakiness, butter for taste. I haven't ever had a lard crust but that seems like a cruel trick to play on the vegetarians so I'll stick with shortening/butter. If I knew how to make an all-butter crust that didn't have a crappy texture, I'd do that, just for the taste, and because not a year seems to go by without some new study about how hydrogenated fats are the spawn of Satan and will KILL US ALL. They probably will, but not because of a once-a-year pie crust. OK, maybe 2 times a year? Surely less than 10.

When I say shortening, I mean Crisco. Not the butter-flavored kind, the blue-wrapper kind. I've been messing around with the palm oil shortening you can get at some stores, but haven't had enough results to say yea or nay. If you try it, let me know.

I do not use olive oil or vegetable oil. The point of the hydrogenated fat is that it is solid at room temperature and has a higher melting point than butter. This gives you the flaky part of flaky tasty crust.

1. Find a good recipe

I use an old Cook's Illustrated recipe (yes, I'm a fanboy. I like that someone tried 50 different combinations of all kinds of fats with different ratios to flour to find what they liked best. Saves me work). But I'm sure there's lots of good recipes out there.

Make sure it has a high enough fat/flour ratio. The one I use is a 3:2 butter/shortening ratio with about a 1:1.25 ratio to the flour. That's going to be a lot of fat (maybe too much, I might need to experiment myself a little). Just don't let anyone in the kitchen to see. You don't let them see you make fudge, do you? (lordy, another crazy amount of butter. but so good). Not enough fat and you'll get a crispy cracker crust.

I use only flour, salt, sugar, butter, shortening, and water. That's all. I am not on the vodka bandwagon, but you might want to try it and see if it work for you. Vinegar just tastes weird. An egg white just was kind of unnecessary.

2. Better living through technology: Use a food processor

I know, special tools. But the food processor can do in 10 seconds something that takes me minutes. The key here is that you want everything to stay cold. I've started wondering if it'd be better if I refrigerate the flour. I am not kidding. The faster you can get it chopped in, the better. Also, the processor is much better at cutting things up than I am and doesn't leave chunky bits.

If you don't have or can't beg, borrow, or borrow one, I recommend using a pasty cutter. I mean like the one at the top of Smitten Kitchen's post, and not one of those flimsy wire things. You need something you can GRIP and that can CUT. Also, hell is full of people trying to cut cold hard butter into flour with 2 forks (while the flames melt the butter of course). Betcha didn't know that about hell.

3. Mix early, mix often

This is the one I just figured out, on my own. I've never seen it mentioned anywhere, but it works for me and it's absolutely necessary for me unless you want to go the vodka route.

When you are sprinkling on that ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time? Add a tablespoon, then MIX IT IN. Repeat until the dough just comes together (shaggy but it should hold together in a ball. Should NOT feel wet).

I just use my fingers. I never got the hang of using a rubber spatula for this (although it would be better, as my hands are warm)

I started off just as turning the watered-up flour/fat bits over so I wouldn't just dump water in the same place, but then I found that I magically could use LESS water than the recipe called for. Key thing: don't overwork it. Just kind of fold it in, maybe mush a little with your fingers. More mushing is required the more you add, to try to get it together.

All I can guess is it seems to distribute the water a lot better than sprinkling all the water in at once.

Oh, and don't be tempted to do this in the food processor. That magical food processor action will mix it up too much. This is one case where gentler is better.

4. Let 'er rest, part 1

After you get that ball, wrap it up in plastic and smoosh it down with your fist into a thick flat disc, about an inch thick. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (I really prefer an hour).

This step is crucial because you are letting the water seep its way through the whole dough. It will come out more pliable and less dry than when you put it in, although it's kind of subtle.

You are also letting the dough get nice and cold again. Remember that bit about keeping it cold? The goal is to not melt the butter. It's also easier to roll out if it's cold. If you take it out and find it is too mushy, try putting it in the refrigerator longer.

Oh, this is also that point at which I will throw the crust in the fridge and then finish it the next day. Those discs will keep for a few days. If you'll be longer than that, wrap it in another layer of plastic wrap, then one of aluminum foil, then write the date on it and what it is and throw it in the freezer. Should be good for about 6 months. Hoorah!

(P.S. If it's been in the fridge for more than 2 hours, it does need to get a little warm again before you can roll it out. Leave it out on the counter & check it every 30 min or so)

(P.P.S Frozen crusts need to warm up in the fridge for ~1/2 day, then room temp for 30 minutes (maybe more) to make them pliable. Just chuck it in the fridge if you suspect a pie in your near future)

5. Let 'er rest, part 2

After you've rolled out the dough, and put it in the plate, or tin, or whatever, cover it back up with plastic wrap and refrigerate for another half hour. If you are really in a hurry, the freezer works too, for about 10-15 minutes. It should be cold again. Mmm, butter.

I KNOW. Pie crusts: not fast. But this step is also crucial. If you do not do this, you end up with a sad shrunken pie crust if you pre-bake or par-bake. Ask me how I know! And since this is partly a blueberry/apple/pumpkin/wonderful goodness delivery mechanism, you surely want to have as much room as possible in the crust.

6. Bake it with a pan

This is an extra. It's not really about the crust. But save yourself a headache and possible fire alarm triggering and put it on a sheet pan. I use those commercial aluminum jelly roll pans which are the bomb for making cookies, but a regular cookie sheet is also fine. Or a roasting pan. SOMETHING. If it drips, it will drip in the pan (which it ALWAYS does. So I am not a pretty crust maker. Not enough patience. It will, however, taste good). No need to scrape the oven or turn on the fan because of the rolling smoke.

7. Practice

This one isn't popular, but there's kind of a finesse to this and the more you do it the better you get. You get to recognize the signs and feel of the thing. I don't know. But that doesn't mean the first one you do won't be good. If you feel uncomfortable working fast, just shove everything in the fridge while you figure out the next step. My personal belief is if you can keep that butter cold until you put it in the oven, and you don't add too much water, you can't go that far wrong.

Hope this helps someone. I just felt the need to share #3, as it's worked beautifully for me. I could never figure out how to add such a little amount of water as all these recipes say. It never held together with only 4 tablespoons or whatever. And then I started to mix it in as I went and MAGIC. I'm still trying to adjust to it, I keep making crusts that are too wet and sticky. wack.

Hey look, I've totally rambled for a huge amount of text!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Solstice, or Happy Holiday whatever you choose to celebrate or not celebrate. May all your crusts be tasty ones. If you're able to, hug someone you care about; they might not be there to hug tomorrow.