Guest Post: Perfect Pie Crust

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Hi Everyone. I’m Dawn Viola, food writer, recipe developer and award-winning competitive cook. I recently won the apple category in the professional division of the 2009 Crisco National Pie Championships and am excited to share my pie crust secrets with Recipe Lion readers — thanks for inviting me!

The perfect pie dough is characteristically an oxymoron – flaky, crispy, layers compress under your tooth and melt into a tender, buttery bite.

So how can pie dough be flaky and tender at the same time? Through a pretty neat series of chemical reactions that occur during the mixing process, and steam produced during the baking process. It sounds fancy and complicated, but it’s really as easy as, well, pie.

There are three important rules to remember when making pie dough:

  1. Keep it cold.
  2. Keep it short.
  3. Keep it chunky.

Keep it cold: Traditional pie dough (pate brisee) contains four simple ingredients: flour, butter, salt and water, with American versions incorporating varying amounts of sugar. Fats include butter, lard or vegetable shortening, used exclusively or in combination with each other. Regardless of the fats used in any recipe, the fat must remain cold at all times. To give the fat a fighting chance in your warm kitchen, place the fat in the freezer for a minimum of 30 minutes before using, chill the remaining ingredients in the freezer for at least 10 minutes before mixing, and use ice water instead of room temperature water. Cold fat will produce a flaky crust by creating small pockets of air between the layers of flour as it melts in the oven.

Keep it short: Pie dough is known as a “short crust” dough, getting its name from the short strands of gluten that make up the texture. Short strands of gluten contribute to a flaky texture; long strands of gluten, found in bread, produce a chewy texture. Your main goal when mixing pie dough is to keep the gluten from developing into long strands. Fat interrupts the form of gluten, which is why shortening is called shortening — it “shortens” the gluten strands. And then there is a secret weapon in the fight against gluten development: acid.

Acid, in the form of vinegar, lemon juice, or even vodka, is like an added insurance policy for perfectly flaky pie dough, assisting the fat in stopping the form of gluten. Vinegar and lemon juice will impart their own flavor profiles into the dough, so no more than a tablespoon for a double crust recipe is recommended, with half that amount for a single crust recipe.

Keep it chunky: In addition to keeping the ingredients and fat cold, the fat should be chunky, in varying sizes. Most recipes will instruct you to cut the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse meal, with pea sized pieces of fat. By the time you reach a coarse meal consistency, you’ve overworked your dough, and most of the pieces of fat will be too small to create the noticeable flakes we crave in a pie dough.

Instead, cut the cold fat into 1/2″ cubes and then add all at once to your dry ingredients. Break up the fat with a pastry blender (by hand), until it just barely begins to crumble. Now it’s time to add your ice water. If making a double crust (see recipe below), begin with 1/4 cup of ice water; if making a single crust, begin with two tablespoons of ice water.  Continue to crush the mixture with your pastry blender, incorporating the water one tablespoon at a time, until the dough begins to come together. Most of the chunks of fat should be no larger than a nickle, and no smaller than a dime — variety is key. It’s OK if some of the fat is smaller than a dime, as long as the majority of pieces are much larger. After about six tablespoons of water have been added, test your dough by holding a piece in your hand and gently squeezing it. If it holds together, it’s ready to be gathered and wrapped to rest in the refrigerator. If it crumbles, continue to add more water, one tablespoon at a time, until it barely holds together.

A few other tricks: Knowing when to stop mixing can be tricky. Using a wide, shallow bowl and cutting the fat into the flour by hand is a great way for  beginner bakers to assess how much water has been absorbed into the dough. Using a tall bowl will distribute the water unevenly, leaving many dry crumbs in the bottom of the bowl. A food processor can be used, but not recommended for beginners as it leaves little control over how the chunks of fat are cut or how moisture is distributed. Allowing the dough to rest overnight will produce the best finished product, by allowing the water to fully hydrate the flour. An overnight rest not only aids in the flaky, tender texture, but also prevents the dough from shrinking in the oven.

Vanilla-Vanilla Bean Roasted Apple Pie
Recipe courtesy Dawn Viola
First Place, 2009 Crisco National Pie Championships, Professional Division

Note: The method below uses a food processor. Beginners should follow the hand mixing method described above.

For the crust:
2 1/2 cups Organic all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting/rolling
2 teaspoons Salt
1 tablespoon Vanilla powder
3 tablespoons Organic sugar
1 Vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped
2 1/2 sticks unsalted Danish butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes
1 tablespoon White vinegar, chilled
6 – 8 tablespoons Ice water (plus more if needed)

For the filling:
4 tablespoons Danish or European style butter
12 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, sliced in large chunks
1 Vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped
2 teaspoons Ground cinnamon
1 cup Organic sugar
4 tablespoons Organic all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Salt
2 teaspoons Vanilla extract
1/2 cup Apple cider
1 tablespoon heavy cream

For the egg wash:
1 egg
1 tablespoon of cream
Coarse sugar

Measure out all ingredients and place in the freezer for 15 minutes. Place the food processor blade and bowl in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Make the dough:
Place the food processor bowl back on the motor with the blade, as directed by the manufacturer. Combine flour, salt, vanilla powder, sugar and vanilla bean seeds in the food processor; pulse to mix.

Add butter cubes and pulse 10 times, or until most of the butter is in varying sizes, no larger than a nickel, no smaller than a dime.

Add the vinegar and pulse to mix. Add one tablespoon of water at a time, pulsing to incorporate, until the mixture begins to clump together. Pinch some of the dough in your hand. If it sticks together, the dough is ready. If the dough does not stick to itself, add another tablespoon of water, pulse, and pinch the dough together again. Repeat until the dough holds together without being overly wet. Dough should be slightly crumbly, but hold together when pinched.

Remove dough from the food processor and transfer to a work surface. Divide the dough into two equal parts and gently shape into two flat round discs. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Prepare the apples:
Preheat the broiler. Add apples, vanilla bean seeds, cinnamon and 2 tablespoons of the sugar to a roasting pan; toss apples to coat. Broil until the tops of the apples begin to brown. Apples can burn easily under the broiler, so don’t walk too far away. Toss apples as soon as you notice browning. Once apples are caramelized (but not cooked through), remove from heat and add the remaining sugar, the flour, vanilla extract and salt.

Add the apple cider and cream, stir to incorporate. Taste for seasoning add additional salt, sugar, vanilla or cinnamon to taste.

Finish the pie:
Place a 9” pie plate into the freezer. Remove one dough disc from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for 5 – 10 minutes, or just long enough for it to become easy to roll, but still chilled. Lightly flour your work surface and roll dough out to a 12″ circle, between 1/8 – 1/4″ thick. Place in the bottom of the chilled 9” pie plate. Return to the refrigerator to chill. Remove after 5 minutes and add apples. Dot the top of the apples with remaining butter.

Remove second dough disc and roll out to a 12” circle on a lightly floured surface. Place on top of the apples and pinch the top and bottom dough edges together to enclose the apples. Add decorative edge if desired, and slice 1” air vents around the top of the pie.

Make the egg wash:
Beat the egg in a small dish and mix in cream. Lightly brush the egg wash over the top of the pie and along the edges. Sprinkle with coarse sugar.

Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. Cover edges with aluminum foil if browning too quickly. Turn the pie in the oven, and continue to cook for another 15 minutes. Continue to cook in 7 minute intervals, as needed, until the crust is golden brown and flaky.

Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes. Cover edges with aluminum foil if browning too quickly. Turn the pie in the oven, and continue to cook for another 15 minutes. Continue to cook in 7 minute intervals, as needed, until the crust is golden brown and flakey.

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