Monday, October 18, 2010

Fear of pie crusts

Now, I grew up listening to my mother complain about her pie crusts, they were never good enough and just too hard to make. At some point she found the pre-made crusts that looked like sticks of butter that just had to be rolled out to make the crusts and that was the end of her attempts at perfecting a pie crust. So I was imbued early-on with a fear of pie crusts. My few attempts were never particularly successful, and led me, like my mother, to use store-bought substitutes, either roll-'em-out or already formed.

My French teacher, Fatima, in Amstelveen also gave cooking-in-French classes. From her I learned to overcome my fear. It was simple. Put all the ingredients in a big bowl and use one hand (with cold fingers) to mush it all together. When it's crumbly, not smooth, but crumbly, it's ready to moosh into a disk, cover with plastic, and pop in the fridge. When it's good and cold, roll it out and line your dish. Alternatively, pop it in the freezer. The crust dough freezes really well. When you expect to make something with a crust in the evening, put your dough in the fridge to defrost. When you're home from work, it's there waiting to be rolled, filled, and cooked.

I didn't like Fatima's recipe. It used vegetable shortening, which is so full of chemical crap that I refuse to have it in the house. Lard is supposed to be the best, but is very difficult find.

The first recipe I found that I used frequently was Jeannette Seaver's in Jeannette's Secrets of Everyday Good Cooking. (BTW, I love this book. She's French, married American, and strove to keep the French attitude towards food alive in her home. And, of course the French are masters of using pie crust to dress up dinner, either the main course or dessert or bits of leftovers presented in a new way.)

My Basic Pie Crust
Jeannette's Secrets of Everyday Good Cooking, p38
My basic pie crust, which I use for countless dishes from quiche to tarte aux pommes, has the virtue of being extremely easy, quick, and realiable.

For an 8-9-inch pie mold you will need:
4-ounce package cream cheese
2 cups flour
1-1/2 sticks butter (6 ounces)
In a bowl, mix all the ingredients with our fingers to form a smooth dough. It should take you not more than 3 to 5 minutes. Refrigerate for 30 minutes (or more) before rolling out and baking. If you are not going to use it immediately, you can of course freeze it for later use. If you want to double or triple this recipe and set some aside for later use, I suggest you divide the dough into balls each enough for one pie, and store in the freezer in plastic bags. Label accordingly. It can keep two or three months in the freezer. It will take little or no more time, and will assure you of a ready supply for any emergency or unplanned meal. If you freeze the dough, move to the refrigerator what you expect to use any given day in the morning before you leave the house, or leave out at room temperature on hour before using.
Kaye's notes:
  • Have everything cold when you start to work.
  • I often made multiples of this, since it's so handy to have available.
  • Adapting for the package of cream cheese I can buy, I needed 150g package cream cheese, 250g butter (less a thin slice), 2-2/3 cup flour. This makes about 695g of dough.
  • The unchanged recipes make more than enough for an 8" pan.

The big deal in crust making, I've read, is to keep everything cold and to not melt the fat. The idea is to have little flakes of fat (whether it's cream cheese or butter) that will melt as the crust bakes, making layers within the crust.

More lately, I've been using the recipes in Judith Jones' The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. This is bit messier to clean up since the food processor is involved, but a snap to put together.

Tart Dough
The Tenth Muse,p256
I've found the food processor such a blessing in making pie doughs, particularly those that are rich with butter, that I would never go back to using my fingers for the initial mixing although the final fraisage with the palms of the hands is still an essential step in making these doughs.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 table spoon sugar (only for a sweet tart)
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (4 ounces)
3 tablespoons ice water
Enough for 8-inch tart pan
Mix the flour, salt, and sugar, if using, in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into small pieces, drop them through the tube of the processor, and pulse long enough to say "alligator" fifteen times. Pour in the ice water and process long enough to say "alligator" ten times. Transfer the dough to a work surface, preferably marble, and smear it out in small increments with the heel of your hand, then gather the dough together into a round. Sprinkle with flour, wrap with waxed paper, and refrigerate at least 20 minutes or until ready to use.
Kaye's notes:
  • The alligator counting is a good way to use the pulse and not melt the butter. You'd be surprised how warm the flour gets if you just run the processor.
  • One batch of this dough covers my 10" (or more) quiche dishes.
  • Marble, schmarble. I use my tupperware sheet for rolling out crusts laid out on the counter. A cold surface is nice, but who can afford such a thing?
  • I've never made the sweet version of this. I just use the plain dough for a sweet pie.

In neither of these recipes, by hand or by processor, does the dough come together like a bread dough. When it's ready, you have a bowlful of flakes, like miniature granola. These can be smooshed together to form a solid mass. I expect what is accomplished by Jones' fraisage, a term I've not noticed elsewhere, is the smooshing together (technical term, that). I generally start out heel-pressing and then just give up and press it all together with my fingers. Form into a thick disk, cover tightly with plastic cling wrap, and refrigerate or freeze. (To freeze, I put the disks in a freezer-quality ziplock.)

This makes a wonderful, flaky pie crust. My mother would be surprised that I could do anything like this. I'm still surprised. My crusts aren't pretty, since I haven't yet mastered the art of making clever edges, but they so taste good.


  1. Thanks for this Kaye. I'll definitely have to try these recipes and techniques. Pie crusts are a great way to dress up something.

  2. I'll be trying out the cream cheese crust recipe later today, to have ready for Thanksgiving. I'll let ya know how it turns out!
    XOXO to you and Ed.