All photos/art by Heath Robbins
Pies are such an important part of this holiday season — especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas — and everyone has a favorite. In my family, we could go back and forth well until the football games are over before deciding on just one.
For Dad, it has to be mincemeat; for Aunt Ginny, it’s apple with sharp Vermont cheddar on the side; for me, it’s pastry chef Erika Bruce’s maple-pumpkin.
We make three or four pies for our family feast, and by sunrise on the fourth Friday in November or the day after Noel, there’s nary a one to be found.
Whatever the filling, we do agree that a flaky yet sturdy pie crust is the key to pie happiness. But as much as I love pies, I confess that baking them doesn’t come naturally to me, and just thinking about it has led me to ruin a perfectly good manicure. The “ringer” ingredient used to be shortening, but with all the bad health news about hydrogenated fats, we don’t go near it anymore.
What’s a pie lover to do? I’m happy to report that after a lot of trial and error, I’ve finally cracked the pie-dough code. With some help from Ken Haedrich, author of Pie (Harvard Common Press, 2004; $27.95), and the good folks at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont (800-827-6836; kingarthurflour.com), I figured out that it’s really all about just three key steps:
1. Keep your ingredients well chilled. It’ll help prevent the butter from mixing uniformly with the flour, so that pockets can form among the flour particles. Translation: flaky crust.
2. Use a combination of pastry flour and all-purpose flour. Different flours have different amounts of protein (a.k.a. gluten), which forms strands, which form layers, which form…you guessed it…flakes.
3. The third trick is in the mixing. Once the butter gets down to pea-sized pieces, use the heel of your hand to smear them into streaks as you mix the dough. Try that, and you’ll turn out delicious, flaky pies every time.
Read more: Comfort of a Pie, with seven pie recipes at the end
What’s your favorite pie? Submit your comments below.