Considering how many people practically recoil in fear at the idea of making pie dough, it’s a wonder how the phrase “as easy as pie”–became such a cliché. We all know what the perfect crust should be. Shatteringly flaky, buttery, gently browned and crisp, setting off whatever delicious filling it is cradling. We all fear what our efforts will result in: a crust that is limp, soggy, greasy, undercooked or burnt (and if we’re really lucky we’ll manage part charred, part raw!)
I’ve actually gotten fairly comfortable making pie dough, but though I don’t have The Fear, my dough has rarely wowed me. It’s been fine, I think, and what’s more, I’ve always managed to roll out the dough without too many tears (that’s tears, in dough, and tears, from your eyes). But…
I’ve been making my dough in the food processor, which is an unintimidating, almost foolproof method. (Almost, because I have on occasion not used truly ice-cold water and ended up with dough sludge on the bottom of the mixing unit). You pulse the flour/sugar/salt mixture together with the butter until you get something resembling cornmeal, then you trickle in ice-cold water until the mixture forms a ball. Chill, roll, bake, eat. Simple enough.
I recently found Deb’s (you know, that Deb at Smitten Kitchen) series of posts on pie crust, and was convinced to attempt my next pie crust the old-fashioned way: no food processor, but just a pastry cutter, spatula, and bowl. (Deb rightly points out that if you think this sounds like a lot more work, consider the fact that you don’t have to wash your food processor. As someone who finds soaping up all those pieces incredibly annoying, I must admit that this alone was probably enough to convince me to try her method).
But Deb also points out that making dough by hand also results in a flakier crust. Yes, of course it does–isn’t that always the way with making things by hand? I’m might be rolling my eyes a little as I say this, but am also nodding along penitently. I should have known better as I even took a baking class two years ago where we made crust by hand, and it’s that amazing pie crust that I’ve never been able to replicate. Duh.
The reason “by hand” is better is as follows: when you’ve managed to break down your butter to the ideal texture, you don’t want to break it down any more when you add the water. It’s the fineness of the butter that “makes or breaks” you on flakiness and tenderness. If you add water in the food processor, those whirring blades continue to chop the butter more and more finely. If you stir in the cold water with a rubber spatula or spoon, this doesn’t happen. And a few irregularly streaky pieces only enhance the final product.
I’m not going to try to compete with the Smitten Kitchen tutorial, which I’ll link again to here. (Bonus pie tips from Kate McDermott at the Kitchn here). But let me tell you, I am sold. You had guessed as much already, hadn’t you? The method is easy, the dough was a delight to roll out, and the final crust was perfectly flaky. And no annoying food processor parts.
I’ve humbly included a few of my process photos (note how you can actually see the streaks of butter; it’s a good thing!), followed by a few (very important) tips of my own.
–Use a big heavy bowl that you aren’t afraid to bang away at with your pastry cutter. You’ll want to work fast, and you can’t work fast if you’re working gingerly.
–I usually mix over the divider in my sink (there’s a little platform at the corner where my bowl fits perfectly) so at least some of the inevitable clouds of flour settle in the basin. I like to think it speeds cleanup. Again, you need to mix quickly and you can’t do this if you are worried about making a mess. (Not that it makes that much of a mess anyway, but half of my reticence in the kitchen is psychological).
–It’s been said a million times before, but cold cold cold. For insurance I throw the butter in the freezer when I’m getting ready. I don’t use it completely frozen, but I figure taking the temperature down a few degrees can only help. Similarly, I have made the mistake of thinking the cold water out of the fridge water dispenser is “ice cold.” It’s not. Switch to the ice dispenser option, then add cold water. Then put it in the fridge for 10 minutes. Now you may proceed.
There’s still several months of fruit left just begging to be made into delicious pies. And if you really think it’s still too hard to make a good pie crust, let me show you one last photo: it really is “as easy as pie.” (OK, OK, my 3 year old did not roll out the pie dough. But he helped, or thought he was helping. And he’s a way cuter model than me).