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.