Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Perfect Pie Crust

So. Pie crust.  It's one of those things that only takes a few basic ingredients, but everyone has a slightly different recipe and it seems that for no reason at all, sometimes the crust turns out and sometimes... well, it doesn't.  (Hard and tough?  Doughy and droopy?  And how in the world do you
get those perfect flaky layers?   Yeah, don't tell me you haven't run into one of these problems trying to make pie crust.  I know I have!)

This recipe is my version of pie crust that I have perfected over the years.  It started with my grandma's crust recipe, but then I added a couple of secret ingredients that help with that elusive flakiness factor, and I have developed a couple of tricks to make sure it all turns out just right.

So now I share my tender flakiness with you.   Ok, I mean I have here documented all of the pie-crust wisdom I have gained over the years here in this post for your benefit.  Resist the urge to buy a crust from the store.  It's so much more satisfying to make your own.  And this recipe and the tricks I've learned will help propel you on your way to pie crust greatness.  

This recipe makes four single crusts.  (I figure if you are going to get your counter-tops all flour-y, you might as well make extra.  The crust freezes just fine, so next time you can just pull it out of the freezer.)  So here we go....

The Step-By-Step

Mix the Dry Ingredients

Ok, before we start, throw four sticks of butter (2 cups or 400 grams) in the freezer.  It's best if they are completely frozen, so you can do this as far ahead of time as you want.

Next, mix the salt and sugar into the flour. 

Cut in the butter

SECRET TIP #1:  Ok, now take that completely frozen butter out of the freezer, and grate it.  Yep, you heard me.  It'll take a little muscle, but this trick ensures the butter will all be in the perfect pea-size bits and it will also keep your dough cold.  These are two things that pie-crust experts are always harping on.  Pea-sized butter and cold dough.  So there you have it, a foolproof way to accomplish both.

PS, you don't need the full 2 cups, you need 2 cups minus 2 Tablespoons.  So that little bit that you can't grate without shredding your fingers in the process?  That's your extra 2 Tablespoons that you do not include.  Use it on your toast.

Dump the grated butter into the flour mixture.  It'll look like a lot more butter than flour, that's because it's all grated and fluffy, so to speak.

Now you need to work the butter into the flour.  Give it a couple of stirs with a wooden spoon, just to coat the butter pieces with flour, then drop the spoon and use your hands.  

What you want to do is rub small handfuls of the mixture between your thumb and fingers to kind of work the butter into the flour.  

You don't need to do a lot of this, since the butter is already in correct-sized bits.  You will still be able to see pieces of the butter.  That's the way you want it. 

Mix in the liquid

SECRET TIP #2:  Not even my grandma knew this one.  Something about the chemistry of egg yolk and vinegar together in a pie crust magically creates flakiness.  Crazy, right?  

So we're going to add 2 egg yolks and 4 teaspoons of vinegar  (Ukraine friends just use 2 teaspoons - the vinegar is stronger here) to a glass measuring cup and stir together with a fork.

Now add enough COLD water to the egg-vinegar mixture to make 2/3 of a cup total.

Pour the liquid into the butter a little at a time and stir it in with a fork.  

With all of the liquid incorporated, the dough will probably still be a bit floury and crumbly.  Like this.

Add more water, a tablespoon at a time, until you can form the dough into a ball with your hands that won't fall apart.  

SECRET TIP #3: Don't get carried away here.  When the dough has the right amount of liquid in it, it will still seem pretty crumbly.  Only add enough liquid for it to stay together.  Barely.  I think I added about 3 more Tablespoons to this batch.  If you add too much water, the dough will be sticky and not hold it's shape.  Then it'll droop down the sides of your pan and it won't be pretty.  And you don't want ugly pie crust, do you?

Form the Pastry

Now form the dough into 4 balls, roughly equal in size.  Don't squish and squeeze and work it too much though, that'll make it tough.  

Whatever you aren't using immediately, cover with saran and put in the refrigerator.

Flour your counter-top and roll out the dough.  Smush the ball down into a flatter circle, and then start rolling.  Start with your rolling pin in the middle and roll out to the edges in all directions.  It should be about the thickness of a Ritz cracker.

SECRET TIP #4: When you are ready to transfer the crust to a pan, use your rolling pin.  Roll the crust around the rolling pin, like I'm doing in the photo, and then lift up the rolling pin and move your pan underneath.  Then unroll the pastry onto the pan.  Voila! 

Now you are going to want to refer to your recipe as to how to proceed.  Some recipes call for the crust to be baked first, before adding filling, some ask you to fill the raw crust and bake it all together.  

A few last things about pie crust:

If I'm not going to use all the crust immediately, I like to roll it out and then fold it in quarters with pieces of parchment or waxed paper in between the folds.  Slide into a zip-top bag and freeze.  When you want to use the crust, just thaw to the point you can unfold it into the pan. 

If you have rips or holes in your pie crust, just smush little pieces of leftover dough into the holes.  

For a really professional looking finish on a top crust, brush the pastry with an egg wash (one Tablespoon water whisked into one egg) and then sprinkle with coarse sugar.  Or if it's a savory pie, like a pot pie, you can just use the plain egg wash, or sprinkle a few dried herbs on top.  The egg wash gives it that shiny, golden finish.

There you have it.  Perfect pie crust.  Worthy of any pie you care to make.  Flaky, tender, delicious.

The Recipe


4 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
2 cups minus 2 Tablespoons real butter (frozen!)
2 egg yolks
4 teaspoons vingear
cold water

Freeze the butter.

Mix dry ingredients in a mixing bowl.

Grate the frozen butter and add to the flour mixture.  Toss to coat, then use your hands to work the butter into the dry mixture.  Set aside.

In a glass measuring cup, mix the two egg yolks with the vinegar.  Then add cold water to make 2/3 cup.  Add the liquid to the dry in small amounts, gently mixing in with a fork.  Once it's all combined,  try to form some of the dough into a ball.  If it's too crumbly to hold together, add one Tablespoon of cold water at a time and mix in.  Once you can form a ball that will hold together, stop adding water.

Divide the dough into four balls.  While working with one portion, cover the rest with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  Roll the dough out in a circle and use in the recipe of your choice.  Repeat with the other portions.

If you don't want to use it immediately, fold the rolled-out dough in fourths with pieces of waxed paper in between the folds and seal in a zip-top bag.  Freeze for later use.