After my last post on pumpkin pie, I had some requests for a pie crust recipe. Maybe I should have posted a crust recipe before a filling recipe, but I assumed many people already had a favourite pastry recipe. When we were studying pies in pastry school, so many of us said, “This is not how my grandmother does it.” Our Chef told us one of the problems of being a baker is always trying to compete with childhood memories. So even after two years of pastry school, my favourite pie crust recipe comes from grandma, written on the back of a cigarette package!
Pie crust is all about the fat. Fat is cut or rubbed into flour so that discernable pieces of it remain in the flour. As the pie dough is cooked, these fat pieces melt and the area rises slightly from steam that is released as it melts. This creates tiny layers in the crust, in other words a flaky crust. Coating the fat in flour also prevents the flour from becoming fully hydrated when we add the liquid ingredients. This helps to limit the amount of gluten produced. Too much gluten leads to a tough pie crust. We also limit the gluten produced by not overmixing once the liquid is added (for more on the science of gluten, see my previous blog on Wheat Flour & Gluten).
The larger the pieces of fat, the flakier the crust will be. For the flakiest crust, you should work your fat into the flour until the fat pieces are between the size of peas and walnut halves. If you work the fat into the flour farther you will get what we call a mealy crust. This crust is denser and less flaky but does not get soggy as fast as a flakier crust. The mealy crust is good when you are making custard pies or quiches.
Remember that we want those little pieces of fat to melt in the oven and not in our hands while we are mixing the dough. Here is how we optimize the fat particles:
- Work cold. Make sure all your ingredients (and tools if it is warm outside) are all well chilled. If you tend to have warm hands, run them under cold-water before starting or use a chilled pastry cutter.
- Work quickly. When mixing and rolling your dough, work swiftly to ensure your fat stays cool.
- Do not add too much liquid. Only add half to two-thirds of the liquid to start. Too much liquid will break down the flour coating the fat particles. It will also make your dough too sticky to handle.
- Do not overmix. When the liquids are added, some of the fat pieces will break down farther, so mix only until the dough is crumbly. It will come together as your work it.
- Rest your dough. Let your dough chill-out in the refrigerator for at least an hour before rolling and again before filling the pie crust.
Now to the most important part, what type of fat to use. Many people use butter as it adds the most flavour. I can agree with this and I often use all-butter recipes, however, my favourite crust uses two fats, lard and butter. Butter for the flavour and lard to give us the flakiest results. Lard has a slightly higher melting point then butter, so it makes it easier to distribute it into the flour without it melting. I never use shortening. It has a very high melting point which makes the resulting dough easier to work with and easier to get flaky layers. However, that high melting point means it does not melt in your mouth and can give you a waxy-mouth feeling. It also has very little flavour on its own.
Resting your dough also prevents shrinking.
Although we try not to create too much gluten, the gluten strands we do create are tightest right after mixing and rolling. If we don't let those strands relax, they spring back as the crust starts to cook causing the crust to shrink
You should also roll our your pie crusts in all directions. If you only roll in one direction, the gluten will stretch unevenly and may cause extra shrinking in that direction.
This is an enriched crust recipe which means the pie crust contains more than the usual fat, liquid, flour and salt. It includes and egg for added flavour and to help bind the crust. It also has a bit of vinegar and some baking soda to give the crust extra flakiness. I will be honest, this is not the easiest crust to work with, but in my opinion, it is the best balance of texture and taste. If you have never made pie crust before, take a deep breath, give yourself some time, dust your surface with lots of flour and do a practice run before you attempt this for guests. Follow the tips I have provided, and don’t worry if a first you don’t succeed, you can always call Mona’s Table and set up a baking class to work on your technique!
*Note: My grandmother’s original recipe was enough for 10 single pie crusts (because as she would say, “Why would you bother with less?”). I have cut the recipe in half, so you have enough for five single-pie crusts. However, I suggest dividing it into four pieces, which gives you a little wiggle room when you are rolling it out. Scraps can be used to make decorations for the pie. I do no suggest reducing the recipe any further. Extra dough can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and frozen for up to three months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight when ready to use.
Grandma’s Pie Crust
(makes 4 to 5 single-pie crusts)
2 eggs, cold
80 (⅓ cup) very cold water
15ml (1 tbsp) white vinegar
625 g (5 cups) flour
5 ml (1 tsp) salt
2.5 ml (½ tsp) baking soda
454 g (2 cups) lard, cut into large pieces and chilled
114 g (½ cup) unsalted butter, cut into large pieces and chilled
In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, water and vinegar. Place in refrigerator until ready to use.
In a large bowl mix together flour, salt and baking soda. Using a pastry cutter or your fingers, cut the lard and butter into the flour mixture until the pieces of fat are about the size of a pea. Slowly pour about ½ of the water/egg mixture over the flour while tossing and mixing lightly with a fork. Add more water/egg mixture 15ml (1 tablespoon) at a time until the dough just holds together when lightly pressed.
Shape dough into a ball and divide into four or five pieces. Shape each piece into a flattened disc, cover tightly with plastic wrap and allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. At this point, dough can be frozen for up to three months.
When ready to roll, dust surface with flour and begin to roll out a circle shape ensuring you lift and turn the dough to roll in all directions. Use additional flour for dusting as needed to prevent sticking. Transfer dough to pie plate making sure not to stretch the dough as you do so. Trim any excess dough with a sharp knife. Any tears that appear can be dampened and patched with a piece of the excess dough. Chill dough for one hour before filling.
For a double-crust pie, fill the pie then roll out the second crust from another disc of dough. Cover the filling with the second crust and crimp the edges of the pie. Chill pie for one hour before baking.