The challenge of pie crust
Pie crust is a balancing act between three key players: flour, fat, and moisture. Common problems that occur when making pie crust include:
1. The crust is too tough
2. The crust is too dry to roll out
3. The crust is too bread-like and not flaky
Problem 1: Too tough. The biggest cause for this is that the dough was simply overworked. Water combined with flour forms gluten. The more the dough is worked after adding the water, the longer these strands of gluten become and the tougher the crust will be in the end. When you are making bread dough, this is exactly what you want to happen, and is why it is necessary to knead the dough so long. However, for a pie crust application keeping the gluten to a minimum is desirable. Therefore, minimizing the amount of processing of the dough after the water is added is crucial.
Problem 2: Too dry. The reason that you cannot simply add more water to a crust is that additional water forms additional gluten from the flour, and we already know why that is bad. This is where the secret ingredient, Vodka, comes in to play. Alcohol does not form gluten in flour, but adds to the moisture content. This makes the dough wet enough to roll out easily, but not too tough. Vodka is the perfect alcohol for this, because it has a high concentration of alcohol (40% for 80 proof), and is tasteless. You can also experiment with other types if you desire. Apple Jack could add some good flavor to the crust, but I haven't tried it yet. Just keep in mind the percentage of water in the alcohol you choose, to get the mixture right (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol_proof ). Also, I use the cheapest stuff available for the crust. Save the good stuff for something better.
Problem 3: Too bread-like. To make the crust flaky, it is necessary to have alternating layers of gluten (yes, you will have some) and fat. To achieve this mix, some of the flour is reserved (set aside) while cutting in the fat initially, then added back in and mixed only slightly. This ensures that there is some flour in the mixture available to absorb the water, and some large chunks of fat to create the layers which make the crust flaky.
The entire process should take about two hours, with about 30-45 minutes of active time, and about 50 minutes in the oven. After baking, the pie needs about 2 hours to cool sufficiently to cut, so plan on starting about 4 hours ahead of when you want to eat.
This is for one 9" double crust pie, but I use it routinely for a 10" pie.
12 1/2 oz (about 2 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt (not kosher)
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/4 cup vodka
1/4 cup water
6-7 medium apples, about the size of a baseball. (for 10" pie, remove one for a 9" pie)
1/4 cup flour
1 cup sugar (more if using tart apples, less if using very sweet apples)
2 tablespoons butter (melted)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
To make the Crust
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. If you have a baking stone, place it on the lower shelf in your oven, and allow it to preheat with the oven. If you do not have a baking stone, place a sheet pan on the bottom of the oven instead. When it is time to cook the pie, this will help prevent the bottom crust from getting soggy from the fruit juices in the filling. It can take about 30 minutes for the stone and oven to be fully pre-heated, so it is a good idea to start this early.
Begin by placing the flour in a large metal bowl, and placing in the freezer for 30-60 minutes (or until it is chilled thoroughly). A metal bowl is useful here because it retains heat, or in this case, cold. This will help keep the butter from melting while working it in. Also, combine the water and vodka, and place in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Do not leave uncovered, because 80 proof alcohol evaporates quickly. You may need to measure it again after chilling to make sure you still have 1/2 cup of liquid total; top off with a bit more vodka if necessary. Measure the shortening, and place that in the refrigerator as well. I do not recommend freezing the shortening because it becomes too stiff to work with ( I managed to break my first pastry cutter).
After the flour, shortening, vodka and water are all well chilled, remove 1 cup of the flour from the bowl and set aside.
Add the salt and sugar to the remaining flour, and stir to combine.
Place the butter and shortening into the bowl, and cut in with a pastry cutter (1). Cutting the butter into chunks before placing in the flour can make this step a bit easier. The dough should have a coarse texture, and there should be no unincorporated flour.
Add the remaining 1 cup of flour to the dough, and cut in just until most of the loose flour has been incorporated, but no longer. It is important not to over-mix at this stage, because we want to have some flour coated with the butter and shortening, some chunks of butter, and some loose flour as well. This will give the crust its flakiness, and also keep it tender. The crust may be very wet and sticky at this point, which is good.
If you feel like your dough is warming up at this point, return it to the freezer for 10 minutes before adding the water and vodka.
Add the chilled water and vodka by sprinkling over the crust. Work it in with your hands, mixing it as little as possible to bring the dough together. It's ok if a little bit of the flour remains unincorporated, but you should be able to form a cohesive ball. This step should be done as quickly as possible, to avoid transferring too much heat from your hands to the dough.
Divide the dough in half, and shape into approximately 4" disks, wrap with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. This allows the dough to chill again, ensuring that the butter will not melt, and also gives the flour time to absorb the moisture in the dough.
(1) If you have a food processor, this step can be done in there instead, and is even recommended by Cook's Illustrated. I, however do not have one so I use the pastry cutter. To use the food processor, put the chilled flour (minus the 1 cup), salt and sugar in the food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter and shortening, cut up into 1 inch chunks, and pulse until there is no remaining loose flour. Then, add the remaining flour and pulse 3-4 times, but stop before all of the flour is incorporated into the dough. Then remove from the food processor, and mix in the water and vodka by hand, to prevent overworking the dough.
Classic Apple Filling
While the dough is in the refrigerator, it is time to make the filling. Any fruit filling would be delicious, but I have a soft spot for the traditional apple. I like to use fuji or gala apples, because they are cheap, easily available year round, and they taste good. If you use a more tart apple like a granny smith or viking, you will have to increase the sugar by about 1/4 cup. Conversely, if you use a very sweet apple like a honeycrisp, you may want to reduce the amount of sugar.
Combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a small bowl.
Peel and slice the apples. Try to make the size of the pieces as consistent as possible for even baking. An apple peeler/corer/slicer is very handy here.
Pour the melted butter, and the sugar mixture over the apples, and stir until they are coated evenly.
Before removing the dough from the refrigerator, assemble your hardware. You will need a small cup of cold water (for sealing the edges), a small knife (or kitchen scissors), a rolling pin, a pie plate, flour for dusting, and your pie filling. Parchment paper or wax paper can also be helpful for transferring your dough to the pie plate after rolling.
Begin by dusting your counter (or a large piece of parchment paper) with a generous portion of flour, concentrating on the middle of the surface where the dough is the most likely to stick. Place your disk of dough on top of the surface, and lightly dust the top to prevent sticking to your rolling pin.
Start rolling the dough out, turning the dough slightly every few rolls. Continue rolling until it is about two inches larger than your pie plate.
If you used parchment paper, place one hand underneath, and the other on the top side, and gently turn the dough over on top of your pie plate (see video). If you did not use parchment paper, then using a spatula, gently scrape underneath the dough all around to make sure that it is not sticking to the surface. Then, fold the dough in half, and lift onto your pie plate with your hand and the spatula, or two large spatulas if you have them, and gently unfold.
Place the pie plate with the bottom crust back in the refrigerator or freezer while your repeat the process with the top crust.
After the top crust has been rolled out, fill the bottom crust with the filling. Dip your fingers in the cold water, and gently brush the edge of the bottom crust with the water along the rim of the pie plate. Then, using the same flip technique with the parchment, or the fold technique with the spatulas, place the top crust on the pie. The dough should be moist enough to allow you to gently reposition it if you don't get it right in the middle the first time.
Trim the edges of the crust, leaving about a 1" overhang all around. Fold the top crust underneath the bottom crust, and press gently against the rim of the pie plate to seal. The edge can be crimped with your fingers, or pressed with a fork for a decorative pattern.
Cut several slits near the center of the crust to allow steam to escape. This prevents the crust from ballooning up, making a huge gap between the filling and the top crust.
Adding an egg wash to the crust is optional, but it looks pretty and the proteins in the egg give the top of the crust a nice brown color. To do so, lightly beat an egg, and 1 tablespoon of water in a small bowl. Brush a thin layer of the egg wash on top of the crust, and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of sugar.
Place the pie plate directly on the baking stone or sheet pan, and cook at 425 for 20 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 375, and continue baking for another 30-40 minutes. You may have to wrap the edges of the pie with foil about 30-40 minutes into the baking to prevent them from browning too much. You can tell the apples are fully cooked, if a toothpick can be inserted into the filling easily.
After baking, let the pie cool for at least 2 hours, otherwise you will get a soupy mess of filling.
Top with homemade whipped cream, or ice cream, or caramel sauce, or nothing at all! Enjoy!
Cook's Illustrated "Foolproof Pie Dough" - http://www.cooksillustrated.com/recipes/detail.asp?docid=11572