Thursday, December 11, 2008

A short treatise on pie crust

Roughly ten years ago, returning from a fall apple picking excursion, I stood in my tiny apartment kitchen in Marlborough, Massachusetts and stared at my brand-new copy of The Joy of Cooking. It was open to page 859, the recipe for Flaky Pastry Dough.

The resulting apple pie was enough of a flop that I remember it still. The apples were juicy and sweet, the spices just right, but the crust was as hard as concrete. I chalked up my failure to using pure butter and not Crisco, an error I rectified in later attempts. By the time we left Boston, I could make a respectable pie crust, one even my mother would be proud of.

Then we moved to France. No more Crisco! Not only could I not find it or anything resembling it in the supermarket, but the whole idea of a white, tasteless, odorless vegetable fat was suddenly revolting to my husband’s French palate. I had no choice but to go back to butter.

Much to my surprise, the results were good, light, and tastier than my old 100% trans-fat version. It definitely wasn’t concrete. But it still wasn’t flaky.

I was happy enough, until I tasted my husband’s aunt’s crust and I knew that pastry perfection could yet be attained.

Read closely, because I am going to share with you the French secret to a flaky, melt-in-your-mouth butter pie crust.

You know how all the cookbooks tell you to make sure to keep all the ingredients cold until the moment you use them? According to the Joy, this is “age-old advice.” Forget it. My husband’s aunt takes the butter out of the fridge a good half an hour before starting to make the dough. In cold weather, she leaves it sitting on the radiator. You see, it must be soft enough to work into the flour. She cuts it in with a knife (I use a pastry blender) and then finishes working it in by rubbing it between her fingers. Once the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal, she adds ice cold water to bind it.

After it is formed and pressed into a ball, the crust should be chilled for at least fifteen minutes before it is rolled out. Soft butter, cold water, chilled crust: that’s all you need to know.

This weekend I made a tarte tatin for my in-laws using this method, and I once again wondered why it took me five years to defy the Joy and try it out. Pastry heaven, I tell you!

I apologize that it’s a little late for Thanksgiving, but try it out at Christmas and let me know what you think.


Baking Novice said...

please post the entire recipe!!

Mom in France said...

I will try it! I was happy to leave behind the crisco 6 years ago and have been doing butter-only tart crusts since then. They are good...but not great. My problem is shrinkage in the oven.

Isabelle said...

Yes, I've always heard that when baking, ingredients should be at room temperature (the eggs too).
Do you know Vegetaline? I guess that it could be like crisco... Not that I'm advising you to use Vegetaline instead of butter when doing some pastry! There isn't anything like butter :)

Isabelle said...

@ Mom in France: your crust shrinks in the oven because it's not cold enough (therefore the "visit" in the fridge before puting it in the oven).

Snickollet said...

I hate making pie crust with the passion of 1,000 burning suns. Hence I make a lot of fruit crisps. But perhaps your revelations on how to make *good* pie crust will turn my attitude around.

I haven't been by in a while. I'm having fun catching up. Joyeux Noël to you and yours.


caramama said...

Oh, I will definitely try this! I'm always looking for tips to make pie crusts better (and easier).

I have a good one to share: roll the dough out right after mixing, put it in the pie plate, and THEN refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before filling and cooking. This tip ended my constant battles with rolling the dough, and the crust is still delicious.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

Hey Snickollet, I didn't know you read my blog! How cool!

@Baking Novice, I don't have a specific recipe that I use but tend to switch. They're all more or less the same. I'm posting a part II to the crust with more info shortly

@Caramama, I bet the chilling in the dish would help with shrinkage, too.

@Isabelle, I've heard that Normandy butter works differently from other butter... have you ever heard of this?

Patrick said...

Pâte brisé for like 50 centime at the hypermarché -- almost as good a freshly-made, but 1% of the work.

Isabelle said...

@ Parisienne: Normandy is THE land of cows, rich pasture and good cheese. So I guess its butter is also loaded in good "fat" molecules!
Butter from Charentes-Poitou is also known as being excellent.