Susan G. Purdy knows the troubles home bakers face. She knows the disappointment of rolling out pie dough only to watch it fall in shreds when it's lifted from the board. She understands the frustration that drives people to ready-made crust and store-bought pies.
That's why Purdy, cooking teacher, cookbook author and expert pie baker, set out to make the perfect, foolproof flaky pastry dough. She came up with a dough that is so tender and yet so sturdy that Purdy, demonstrating the recipe in the The Times' Test Kitchen, is now lifting the rolled-out circle and flapping it in the air.
"I have a real sweet tooth," she says as she pats the dough in a pie pan, "which is why I write about desserts and not salads."
She has written two books: "As Easy as Pie" (Collier Books softcover edition: $14.95), first published in hardcover in 1984 and just released in paperback, and "A Piece of Cake" (Atheneum, $24.95), which came out last year. As the titles imply, Purdy believes baking shouldn't intimidate.
"As Easy as Pie," for instance, gives the recipe for her foolproof pastry dough, but realizing that pie crust frightens many, she suggests an easier crumb crust for many pies. The combinations of crumbs, sugar and butter are not rolled but merely pressed onto the pie plate and chilled or baked. A three-page chart in her book tells at a glance how to make a baker's dozen of these.
Fruit cobblers and crisps are another escape from traditional pie crusts that meet Purdy's approval. These are easy because the topping is simply spooned or sprinkled over the fruit.
But for classic American pie, a pastry shell is a must. And if you're ready to tackle one, here is Purdy's five-point guide to success:
1. Have everything cold. Purdy stores butter and margarine in the freezer. She knows bakers who keep flour in the freezer and chefs who refrigerate the marble slab on which they roll out pastry. For liquid, use ice water.
2. Use lemon juice or white vinegar and an egg yolk as part of the liquid. The acid agent inhibits the gluten in the flour, and the egg yolk makes the pastry easier to handle.
3. Use a minimum amount of liquid. After adding the lemon juice and egg yolk, sprinkle on ice water a tablespoon at a time until the dough just starts to cling together.
4. Handle the dough as little as possible. If using a food processor, stop processing as soon as the ingredients form small crumbs. Letting it spin until the dough forms a ball guarantees an overworked, tough crust.
5. Place the pie in the oven at high heat--425 degrees. This will turn the water to steam, which will make the little flecks of fat and flour in the pastry rise and separate. If the oven temperature is too low, the fat will melt and be absorbed by the flour along with the liquid, resulting in a tough, pasty crust. Gauge the heat with an oven thermometer rather than trusting the oven control. "Most home ovens are irregular," Purdy says, and the actual heat may be substantially different from that indicated by the control.
Purdy typically starts a pie in the lower third of the oven, bakes it for about 12 minutes at 425 degrees, then raises it to the oven center and lowers the temperature to 350 degrees, or, for a custard pie, 325 degrees.
She suggests using a glass pie plate rather than a pan in order to check the browning of the crust. And she avoids heavy black pie pans. "They get the crust too tough," she says.
For Thanksgiving, Purdy suggests a rum-flavored pumpkin chiffon pie that is ideal for inexperienced cooks because it has a crumb crust and can be made a day in advance. Purdy herself sometimes omits the crust and piles the filling in wine goblets. "It's a soft, light mousse held together with a little gelatin," she said.
For Christmas, she's devised an unusual Cranberry-Pecan Pie. "The color is beautiful," she says, and the cranberries cut what she calls "the awful cloying sweetness of pecan pie."
Her choice for New Year's Eve is a Velvet Rum Cream Pie decorated with chocolate leaves. And for any occasion, she recommends an unusual concoction of dried apricots, raisins and sour cream that is baked in a pastry crust. "It's not too sweet, and yet it's quite rich," she says. "It seems to please everyone."
The basic pastry recipe that follows emphasizes the techniques that Purdy believes will yield the best results for a beginner. In it, frozen butter and margarine are used and the dough is mixed in a food processor. In her book, the recipe is given in greater detail, covering other methods for mixing and suggesting ways in which to vary the flavor by adding nuts, coconut, cocoa or, for savory pies, herbs and cheese.
BASIC ALL-PURPOSE FLAKY PASTRY
2 cups flour, sifted
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, frozen
3 tablespoons margarine, frozen
1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water