Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Easy as Pie

I'm not sure who coined the term "easy as pie", and if you've ever tried to make a tender, flaky pie crust that looks pretty too, you've probably wondered the same. The usage likely originates from a time when pies were made weekly because I have found that practice definitely makes perfect when it comes to pie crust. I have the luxury of a mother who made pies quite often when I was growing up, so the process has become old hat to me. What has changed are the ingredients.

As food trends have evolved with the discoveries of cholesterol and later trans fats, so has the preferred fat for my pie crust. In my first attempt at making pie back in the midst of the eighties' "no cholesterol" craze, I chose to use Crisco shortening in place of the lard my mom used in her pies at the time. It was thought that Crisco, a man-made fat, was healthier than the natural lard my mom used. Sounds ironic looking back, doesn't it? Now that we understand that trans fats raise cholesterol levels and actually deplete the good cholesterol, a flaky pie crust is not reason enough to keep Crisco in your kitchen. I as a rule do not use unnatural or artificial ingredients so of course the new fully hydrogenated shortening that is being marketed these days as "trans fat free" does not cut it in my kitchen either.

As a replacement in my pie crust, I had considered going back to good ole lard, but found that commercially available lard is also partially hydrogenated to help preserve it. I suppose I could have rendered my own, it's not behond me, but that was a whole other project and I wasn't convinced that was the best choice for the fat in my pastry. I therefore went back to basics and used an old French trick for my Amercian pie crust....why not use all butter? After researching old recipes for American pie crusts, I actually found that butter was commonly used for fruit and sweet pies and lard was more commonly used in the crust of savory meat pies. After a few tries, I settled on the following recipe.

All Butter Pie Crust

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
12 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
6 to 10 Tablespoons cold water
1 Tabelspoons white vinegar

In a small cup or bowl, mix 6 tablespoons of ice water with the tablespoon of vinegar. Set aside. In a large mixing bowl, mix the flour and salt. Add the cubes of unsalted butter and rub the butter into the flour with your fingers until you have some grains of butter mixed with flour, some pea-sized bits of butter and a few larger chunks of smeared butter. These various levels of butter mixed with flour are necesssary to have both a tender and flaky crust. Then, using a fork, start mixing the water and vinegar mixture into the dough, one spoonful at a time until the dough collects into a ball, using additional water if needed. Be careful not to add too much water. You may have to help to form it into a ball with your hands.

Form the dough into two 4-inch discs and wrap them separately in plastic wrap. Let the dough rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or longer.

When ready to make the pie, roll the first disk out on a floured surface with a rolling pin or dowel into an even thickness until large enough to fill your pie pan. Fill the bottom crust and if making a two crust pie, do the same with the second disk, covering the filled pie. To seal the crusts together, you can crimp the trimmed edges with the floured tines of a fork and then form the edge of the dough into a ruffle. This might be easier to show than tell, but once you got it, trust me, it'll be easy as pie.

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