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What's in a pie?

My favourite dessert to bake is an apple pie! However, my big dilemma always is whether to make my own crust or to seek help from Mr. Pillsbury!
Gently ease the pastry into the pan

My favourite dessert to bake is an apple pie! However, my big dilemma always is whether to make my own crust or to seek help from Mr. Pillsbury! Because the misconception that I am a total “from scratch cook”, most of my guests assume that my crusts are home made. But, I must confess, starting a pie from scratch was a rarity for me. More often than not, my crusts have been store bought.

Truthfully, I have always viewed making pie pastry to be tedious and a step not necessary for great pies. But this all changed when I went on a “pie tour” through Alberta and sampled some of the best tasting prairie pies.

Though the fillings were all different, all the pies that I tasted shared one similarity; they all were made with an in-house made crust.

I experienced an epiphany of sorts. A beam of light was shining down on me, harps were playing and angels were singing! I heard the pastry gods saying “Madhu, the difference between pie and heavenly pie is a homemade crust!” Okay, the voice was actually a pastry chef explaining the merits of good pie pastry. This moment, however, did inspire me to reconsider the art of making pie crusts.

There are only four ingredients when it comes to making pie crust; flour, fat, water and salt. It should be simple, and yet flaky pie crust is elusive to so many.

Before looking into technique, the fat used in the flour must be considered. With choices from butter, shortening and lard, the type of fat you use will determine the outcome of your crust.

On my pie tour, no two chefs had the same opinion. Some claimed they always used butter because it adds flavour to the crust. Traditionalist, chose shortening because it always created flaky pastry. But they all agreed that real lard did produce the flakiest pastries. Real lard however, is hard to come by.

Whether you choose shortening or butter, it’s really a matter of preference and taste. Both have the same amount of fat and calories. Personally my preference is to use a combination of the two for the best flavour and flakiness.

When making pie dough, keeping the fat and the water cold is essential. Both help to keep distinct fat globules in the pastry. When the cold pockets of fat between the layers of dough hit the hot oven, they will melt to produce steam which will lift the surrounding dough apart creating flaky layers. If the fat warms up during handling, it will melt and be absorbed by the flour, creating a tough, chewy pie crust.

To ensure that the fat remains cold, it is best to place all ingredients as well as all utensils in the freezer for about thirty minutes before preparing crust.

Pastry chefs suggest cutting the cold fat into 1/2″ cubes before adding to dry ingredients and then using a pastry cutter to cut into the flour. A food processor can be used, but this is not recommended by the experts because it overworks the dough. The fat in the blended flour should be no smaller than a pea size. If you reach a coarse meal consistency, you’ve overworked the dough, and most of the pieces of fat will be too small. Therefore, no pockets will form during the baking process which in turn result in no layers and ultimately no flaky crust.

After the fat is cut into the flour, add ice water one tablespoon at a time, until the dough begins to bind together. The dough is ready, when you pinch a small piece between your finger and it sticks together.

Turn the dough out onto the counter. Using a rubber spatula or rubber dough scraper, fold the dough over onto itself 5-6 times. Do not knead the dough. Just fold and compress. This will help bring in the dry bits, and create a cohesive dough. After these few folds, the dough should look marbleized, with bits of flour and chunks of fat visible.

Finally, chill the dough. The fat needs a chance to re-solidify, and the flour needs time to absorb the liquids. Wrap the dough in plastic, flatten it into a disc, and chill at least 30 minutes.

When ready to roll out the dough, tear off two square sheets of wax paper. Lightly moisten the countertop with water and place one sheet of paper on it. This prevents the paper from slipping. Place dough ball on the waxed paper and cover it with the other sheet. Roll it from center out to the edges. Keep rolling until the pastry is larger than an upside down pie pan.

Peel off the top paper and use the bottom sheet to flip the dough into the pie pan. Gently ease the pastry into the pan, pushing down to the bottom and sides of the pan.

Trim edge, leaving about 1/2 inch overlapping pie plate. Use the flap to help create a crimped or fluted edge.

There were no harps playing or angels singing, when I served the apple pie with the home-made crust to my family. However, the rhythmic smacking of their lips as they gobbled down the pie, was nothing less than the heavenly praise.

Basic pie crust

Makes a 9 inch double crust pie

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, chilled

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup shortening, chilled

1/2cup butter, chilled

6 tablespoons ice water

Whisk the flour and salt together in a medium size bowl. With a pastry blender, cut in the cold shortening until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Drizzle ice water over flour. Toss mixture with a fork to moisten, adding more water a few drops at a time until the dough comes together.

Gently gather dough particles together into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for at least 30 minutes before rolling. Roll out dough, and put in a pie plate. Fill with desired filling and bake.

Apple Pie

1 recipe pastry for a 9 inch double crust pie

1/2 cup butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup white sugar

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon (more if you prefer)

8 Granny Smith apples - peeled, cored and sliced

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C). Melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in flour to form a paste. Add water, white sugar and brown sugar, and bring to a boil. Reduce temperature and let simmer. .Place the bottom crust in your pan. Mix the syrup with the apples. Pour into crust. Cover with other crust. Make slits on top to let the steam through. Place pie on a cookie sheet and bake 15 minutes in the preheated oven. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Continue baking for 35 to 45 minutes, until apples are soft.