The best-kept secret about pie-baking is how easy it is.
"I don't know why some people are afraid," said Eva Kenly, a cooking teacher. "It really is easy to produce a flaky crust every time."
The most important things to remember are that less is best and to keep the ingredients cold.
The less amount of mixing, rolling and flouring, the better the crust will be. And when the recipe calls for water, be sure to use ice water. Likewise, the butter or margarine should be used directly from the refrigerator.
Basic pie crust recipes call for flour, salt, fat and water. Then there are the crusts using nuts, graham crackers or crushed cookies.
"When creating a pie, be conscious of different flavors," said Leah Grossman, a consultant for a commercial pie company. "Sometimes people overdo it. Something has to star, so if you are doing an unusual crust, let it star and choose a complementary filling." For a basic crust, some purists advocate the use of pastry flour, a finely milled flour made from soft wheat. However, an all-purpose flour will work fine.
"The flakiest crust is made from lard," said Grossman. But many people don't keep it on hand, so she recommends using a combination of butter and vegetable shortening. By using 60% vegetable shortening and 40% butter, she said, a cook can achieve a crust with the rich flavor of butter and the flakiness typical of shortening.
Some pie makers substitute margarine for either the butter or shortening, but the resulting texture is not quite the same. Butter-flavored shortening does taste more like butter, but is not as rich as the butter-and-shortening combination.
Test the Shortening First
Remember that shortening doesn't last forever. If it has been opened for several weeks be sure to taste it to see if there is an oily flavor that will leave the crust with an unpleasant after taste.
Some recipes call for cream cheese, which adds a flavor all its own and provides part of the needed fat.
"Anyone interested in controlling the saturated fat in his diet can make a crust with safflower oil" said Jane Robb, program manager for the American Heart Assn. This recipe has become popular for others as well, because of its ease in handling, although some cooks believe oil crusts have a slightly oily taste.
For those who don't mind a few more calories, some recipes include a small amount of sugar for a slightly sweet crust. It is all a matter of taste.
Liquid serves two purposes in the pie dough. It helps dissolve the salt and holds the dough together. An egg yolk also can provide some of the liquid. "It adds more flavor and color, but be careful with the amount of water used," said Grossman.
The right amount of liquid is important. Too much and the dough will become sticky and tough, too little and it is crumbly and difficult to roll out.
"It is impossible to give the exact amount of water to be used, so be patient," said Grossman. "It is a learned thing." The amount is determined by the type of flour used and the atmosphere.
"Begin with the smallest amount of water necessary to hold the ingredients together," Kenly said. "You always can add more, but you never can take it out." Regardless of whether you use your fingertips, a food processor or a pastry cutter to combine the flour and fat, the ingredients must be cold and the work must be done quickly. The combined fat-and-flour mixture should resemble a coarse meal.
Kenly believes using the food processor fitted with a steel blade is the quickest method of making a dough and does a better job than one's hands, but she cautions it is best to use the pulse switch because it is easy to make a tough dough by overprocessing. She advises beginning cooks to take the mixture out of the processor befored adding the water.
The pastry cutter takes a little longer, but it affords the most control.
"Unless you're experienced with a food processor, it is best to cut the fat with the flour using a pastry cutter," said Grossman. "With this method, you are always in control and you are less apt to overmix the dough," she said.
The finished dough should resemble coarse meal with some pea-size pieces.
Warning for Warm Hands
Those with warm hands probably should not try mixing flour with fat using their fingertips because the heat from their hands softens the fat and it is too difficult to achieve the right texture.
"Never roll the dough when it is warm," said Grossman, who suggests letting it rest in the refrigerator for about half an hour before rolling it out--especially if the crust is made with butter. "A crust should be rolled only once or it will become tough," she said. When instructions specify to roll the dough out on a lightly floured board, the flour should not be more than 1/8-inch thick. Keep a little extra flour on hand to dust the rolling pin so it won't stick to the dough.