on being too tired not to make pie

Between things like my dog‘s recent emergency surgery (and subsequent weeks of round-the-clock dogsitting) and the fact that I’ve been writing stuff like this for a local alt weekly and the fact that I am a poor person, I’ll admit that any energy and resources I might’ve had for personal blogging have been a bit drained of late.

I haven’t been going out. I’ve mostly been cooking on autopilot. I’ve been even less likely than usual to pick up a camera. My junky Trader Joe’s purchases have been (mostly) limited to things I actually know I like*. The other day I ate a pile of chrusciki for breakfast. You know.

But what I have been doing is making pies, obviously, and that made me think I should share my pie crust recipe, because I think it’s awfully good. (As an aside, while baking a pie from scratch is a universal signifier of unreasonable toil, the act assumes a somewhat droopier meaning when you’re doing it only because you don’t want to walk the three blocks to the nearest pie shop.)

It’s also worth noting that pie is not really very hard to make at all. It might take a number of tries and tweaks to get the pastry exactly where you want it, but really, even the initial not-quites are still pie. And when you get it right, you’ll feel like some sort of competent adult.

So, what I’ve settled on is a mixture of shortening and butter, as well as a mixture of AP and whole spelt flours. The flour thing is just a personal preference—I like the texture, flavor, and substance—though it is lower in gluten than wheat flour, so I can’t promise you won’t need to tweak a bit further if you go AP-only.

I don’t use vodka, because I don’t keep vodka around and already love the pie crust I make without it, so it seems unnecessary to start buying the stuff now. While I love pie crusts made with lard and think good lard is a beautiful thing, shortening works for me and is cheaper and easier to obtain here, plus it keeps on the shelf for an awfully long time. (I use this organic, non-hydrogenated stuff, which I mention only for the sake of completeness, because I don’t know if its pertinent qualities are identical to those of Crisco.)

If you’re wondering whether or not you can make pie crust without a food processor: of course you can, but it’s not the most fun you’re ever going to have. You’ll have to cut everything in by hand, either with a pastry cutter or knives or your actual hands. (Hey, if it worked for Marion Cunningham, it works for me). I use the processor because it’s infinitely quicker, and because I tend toward hot hands. But I do usually finish the cutting-in process with my hands, to get a better feel for exactly where I’m at and sniff out any particularly large chunks of butter.

Now, the saddest pie fact of all: Pie (like most baked goods, if you ask me) is better if you let it cool for hours. In fact, it’s usually better the next day. Warm pie sounds nice, but in reality it usually means runny filling and a crust that, while good, hasn’t quite relaxed into its best self. So ideally, you’ll go back and make it yesterday, so that you can eat pie now.

* The ROSMGTIBATGS that will sadly never happen: all Trader Joe’s ice creams, ever. Why are they so bad? Pumpkin and the lemon-gingersnap one are especially offensive, but mediocre is as good as it gets in that freezer case.

So, here’s what I’ve settled on. This is enough for a double crust pie:

1 c. AP flour
1 1/2 c. spelt flour
7 Tbsp. shortening
10 Tbsp. salted butter
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. granulated sugar
8 – 12(ish) Tbsp. water

My method is pretty standard, but as is my wont, I’ll go into excruciating detail in case you’re looking for tips and specific guidance. (If you feel confident in the How of shortcrust pastry, you should be fine to skim or skip.)

Chill everything, especially if it’s at all warm in your kitchen. I measure out my dry ingredients, whisk them together, and stick them in the fridge; then measure out my shortening, stick that in the fridge; then take out my butter and cut it into small pieces, stick that back in the fridge; fill a cup with water and stick that in the fridge; then you can just get started. Most pie recipes specify ice water, but at the risk of sounding like a nut: I don’t have an ice maker and rarely have any ice in my freezer. I let it run cold and refrigerate until I’m ready to use it; it’s fine. Stick your food processor blade and bowl in the fridge or freezer beforehand if you want—quite frankly, that’s unnecessary, and more importantly I have never had that much room in my fridge or freezer, but some people do it. But you get the idea. Err on the side of the ridiculous here, because it doesn’t really add any time or effort and can only make the job easier.

Dry ingredients go in the food processor first, then the shortening. Process this thoroughly. Don’t go crazy, because it only takes a few seconds, and after that you’re just generating unnecessary heat. But incorporate it completely, so that you have uniformly coated flour. Then scatter the cold butter on top (in case you missed it, you’ve cut this into small cubes, maybe 1/4 – 1/2-inch square).

Pulse to begin incorporating the butter, but stop while you still have plenty of fairly large pieces. This might only take 10 or 12 pulses; it usually takes me more than that, but maybe my pulses are short. As far as what it should look like: to my mind, the oft-cited “coarse meal” sounds very wrong; it sounds way more well-incorporated than I want it. Other people will say “pea-sized pieces,” which is reasonable, and I’ll add that you specifically want it to look like it’s not done. Unless you’re an experienced piecrafter, you should be looking at it and thinking, “That can’t be right.”

It’s right. So dump the contents out into a large bowl to finish the dough. Sprinkle about 8 Tbsp. (1/2 c.) of cold water over the flour mixture and start folding to combine (I use my biggest silicon spatula). I think the whole grain flour takes a bit more water than straight AP, so I usually end up adding at least 4 more Tbsp., but do it gradually. Again, you should feel a little unsure that what you’re looking at could possibly end up as food. Add only as much water and work it only so much as you have to to get it to begin to come together. Press it down a bit with your spatula. It won’t easily hold together in a single mass. You don’t want any big, glaring pockets of completely unmoistened flour/fat mix, but it will seem sort of crumbly and a touch dry in spots. That’s ok, because it will come together more as it rests in the fridge, and even more when you roll it out.

- Alternately, you can add the water directly to the food processor and pulse gently to combine, but I find it’s very easy to overwork it that way. If you prefer it, start adding water while the butter is still a bit chunkier than you ultimately want, because the blades will continue bashing it up. (If you overwork it, especially with some whole grain flour in the mix, the crust will still taste good but will start to approach the texture of shortbread rather than flaky pie crust.)

Either way, dump about half of the mixture out onto plastic wrap and quickly pat and press it into a disc. You can sort of use the plastic wrap to help gather and shape it, but again, don’t go crazy trying to make it look perfect. Wrap it tightly, stick it in the fridge, and let it chill for about an hour. (You can leave it much longer than that, if you want.)

When you remove it again to roll it out, you might need to let it sit and warm up just a smidge; I often pat it out a bit flatter and use the heat of my hands to make sure it’s just workable, then start rolling. I roll on a silicon mat, having floured the mat and pin. It rolls out pretty easily, but you will see lots of chunks of butter (which will stick and try to come out if you don’t flour your surface). Go slow, and if cracks start to develop at the edges, just sort of lightly press them back together and keep rolling. The silicon mat serves a couple of purposes: mine has concentric rings printed on it to use as guides so you know how big your circle is, and it also helps to transfer the pie crust. If you’re careful, you can just flip the whole thing over and peel off the mat.

I like to roll out my bottom crust and fit it into the pie plate, then roll out the top and place it, mat and all, on a baking sheet. Put the plate and the sheet into the fridge for half an hour or so before filling, topping, and baking. I brush with milk, or you can use egg, or nothing. Baking time will depend somewhat on your specific pie, but for an apple pie, think 375 degrees F for about an hour. (One more thing: for this, I heat my oven up a bit higher than my baking temp – say, 400 degrees in this case – and then drop it back down as soon as the pie goes in the oven. I’m not sure there’s any good scientific basis for doing this, but I do it anyway.)

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