Perfect Pies…

pieWe’re smack dab in the middle of holiday madness, pies are flying in and out of ovens, so it seems like a good time to talk a little bit about crusts and fillings. This Thanksgiving I felt as though I nailed the crust and filling of a fruit pie to the point that I wanted to share my success.

Let’s start with crusts.

I may have said this before, but years back I heard someone say, “I’m not afraid of much, but making a pie crust from scratch scares the hell out of me.” At the time I thought it ridiculous, but then I started making pies… You want a flaky, tender crust. If the fat is too soft you’ll lose the flakiness. If you add too much water or handle the dough too much it will be tough. If you don’t let it rest enough it can be porous and leaky, and it might shrink, taking all of your fancy trim work with it. And… if you use the traditional hydrogenated shortening most recipes call for, the crust will taste plain, artificial and greasy (that might just be my opinion, but crusts made exclusively with shortening just don’t do it for me).

For years I’ve been making all-butter crusts, but as good as they’ve tasted, they weren’t tender enough, and they can be difficult to work with. This year I added non-hydrogenated shortening, and suddenly the dough was easier to manipulate and when baked the texture was perfect. I think I still prefer an all-butter crust for savory pies, but for sweet, I’m officially switching to this recipe:

Two Crust Pie
2-1/2 cups (600ml) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (84g) unsalted butter
1/2 cup (56g) non-hydrogenated shortening*
6-8 Tbsps (90-120ml) ice-cold water
2 Tbsps (30ml) sugar
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
Egg wash: 1 egg, room temperature + 1 Tbp. (15ml) water

If the shortening you have comes in a tub and is not as easy to measure as sticks, you could use the water displacement method to measure. Add a cup of cold water to a two-cup clear measuring cup, add the shortening by the spoonful until the water reaches the 1-1/2 cup mark, drain and move on.

Cut the shortening and butter into small half-inch pieces. Keep separate, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Whiz the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor until combined.

Add the shortening and process in short pulses until the texture of coarse sand.

Add the butter and do the same.

Turn the mixture into a bowl, sprinkle 6 tablespoons of water evenly over the top. Stir together, pressing with a spoon or spatula to see if the mixture is holding together. It will be crumbly, but it should hold together when pressed. If not, add a bit more water until it does.

Divide in two and shape into flat rounds. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour. The dough can be made a day in advance.

To make rolling and transferring to the pie dish as easy as possible, roll it out on a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper (not parchment).

Have ready a baking sheet big enough to hold both dough circles. Sprinkle the plastic or waxed paper with a little flour, dust the pin, and roll to the appropriate diameter.

Place the dough circles on the baking sheet and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. This will allow the dough to firm up a bit before final shaping, and will give the gluten time to relax so the crust doesn’t shrink as much when baked.

Brush the finished crust–once filled and crimped–with the egg wash.

And now, the filling…

Nobody else seems to, but when it comes to berry pies, I cook my fillings a bit before they go into the pan. Why? Because I like to see the filling is setting. I don’t want to wait until I cut into it, and there’s nowhere to hide, to find out that what I have between those two opaque crusts is berry soup. Cooking the filling for a short while still leaves the fruit identifiable, I can see things are lightly set, and I can relax a bit. I would not do this with stone fruits or apples because they would lose their definition.

The pie I made for Thanksgiving was mixed berry: black raspberries, blueberries, boysenberries and sour cherries. I was out of cornstarch, which is what I usually use to thicken pie fillings. I had flour, tapioca, and potato starch, but my eye kept drifting towards the arrowroot. I read way too many online opinions about the thickening of pie filling, and most recommended staying away from arrowroot because it can produce a gluey texture. Flour and cornstarch can be chalky and make the filling opaque. Tapioca and potato starch may or may not set properly. Anyway, I went with arrowroot, and it was perfect. Clear and bright filling with a firmness that was just right. It didn’t stand up like gelatin, but it didn’t run all over the pan when cut.

For 1 pie: 1 quart fresh or frozen fruit (1 liter) + 1 cup (240ml) sugar + juice of 1 lemon or about 2 Tbsps (30ml) + 2-1/2 Tbsps. (37ml) arrowroot powder

Combine the fruit, sugar and lemon juice in a pan. Heat over medium until the sugar melts and cook for about ten minutes. In a small bowl, add a few tablespoons of the juice to the arrowroot and blend. Add the slurry to the fruit and cook at a low simmer until the filling thickens to the consistency of a soft jam. Let the filling cool before adding to the pie.

It’s always a good idea to put a parchment or foil-lined baking sheet under any pie in case it bubbles over. Baked-on fruit filling is a nasty mess on any oven floor.

Bake at 400F/205C for 15 minutes, reduce the oven to 350F/175C and continue to bake for another 30-40 minutes,  or until the crust is deep golden brown, and–if you can see it because you’ve make a cutout in the top crust–the filling is bubbling. If the edges are browning too quickly, cover them with foil. It’s a good idea to make your foil rim (you almost always need one) before putting the pie in the oven, so you can easily drop it over in the moment rather than having to form something over a piping hot dish.

Cool before cutting.