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Pie Crusts: The Secrets Revealed

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When I actually pull off this culinary endeavor successfully, I temporarily turn into a beaming pageant queen and insist on being photographed with the creation cradled in my arms. It’s that big of a deal.

The culinary masterpiece I’m referring to is a pie crust – made from scratch and hand-rolled by yours truly. In actuality I’ve never been a huge pie fan, but since I've mastered the art of crusts (and found some good filling recipes) I’ve baked holiday pies not just for Thanksgiving but for Christmas and Easter too, and anticipated making each with much excitement.

Making a pie crust entails a good 40 minutes and a clean, spacious counter or tabletop. It also demands patience. This is not easy (hence the victory photo shoot) and it’s likely you’ll have to throw away an attempt or four before you get it. Practice makes perfect.

The necessary ingredients are:

– 1/4 cup shortening
– 1 1/2 cups flour
– 1 cup of ice water
– pinch of salt

In a large mixing bowl measure out ¼ cup Crisco shortening and 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour. Now comes the fun part: with a table knife in each hand, make slashing motions from the center of the bowl out through the glob of shortening. This is called “cutting in” the flour. You’ll have to keep this up for awhile (long enough that you'll want to do this sitting down) until the shortening and flour are a moist crumbly mixture resembling cornmeal. For those of you with KitchenAid mixers, just add the flour and shortening to the bowl, put in the whisk tool and set it to medium – but remember you’re kind of cheating – unless you’re making 4-5 crusts like I have to.

Then add approximately 1 tablespoon of very cold water. Believe it or not, the colder the water, the better the crust will turn out. For this reason I usually fill a glass with ice and a little water and let it sit out and thaw while [the KitchenAid is] cutting in the crust.

Once you’ve added the water it’s time for the next fun part: mash it into the flour/shortening with your hands. It should become dough-like but dry, flaky, and still slightly crumbly. If it’s too dry, add a little more water, but if it’s slimy and soft, you’ve added too much and will have to start over. Beware of over-handling the dough – the oils from your hands will moisten it too much AND the heat will have adverse effects on the ice water and decrease the finished crust’s flakiness (assuming you make it that far!)

The only way to really know if you’ve gotten the water ratio right is by attempting the next step, also the most daunting and frustrating: rolling the dough out. I’ve tried rolling the dough on wax paper for transportation purposes and it doesn’t work. Your best bet is a dry tabletop or counter, covered with a generous dusting of flour.

Place your not-overly-handled ball of dough on the floured surface and, after sprinkling the dough with flour, use a rolling pin (also well-coated with flour) to flatten it out. I’ve found it most effective to start with short, brisk rolls in each direction until it’s about an inch thick. Also it’s better if you’re standing and the surface is below your waist – that way you can lean into the rolling pin and flatten the dough with less effort.

When you’ve rolled the dough to a quarter-inch thickness it’s time for the final moment of truth: transferring the delicate creation to the pie pan. In a perfect world, the crust would peel off the tabletop like a sticker. I’ve managed that once…in the seven years I’ve been making these things. You’ll probably have to piece the crust together in the pan like a puzzle – that’s okay, just press the seams together in the pan with a little water on your fingers (much like clay). Add whatever filling fits your fancy, bake and enjoy.

Be warned: the final crust will not have that pretty, scalloped edge that the store-bought ones have (unless you actually took the time to pinch the edge all the way around the pan…in which case you’re a little obsessive). The texture and taste, however, more than make up for a slightly un-impressive appearance. Plus there’s the wow-factor and sense of prowess when you tell those you’re feeding that you made the crust yourself. A very tasty pie, and bragging rights? Sounds irresistible.

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About C.R. Schudalla

  • Great article. And it works very well indeed. Been making pie crust like that for years. Learned from my Mother.

    Course now I have to make pie crust with butter to get away from the transfats, but hey, I as Sean Connery once said in Medicine Man “The palette remembers”