A slice of apple pie is pure Americana. But how often does a homemade pie appear on your holiday table?
Call it fear of pie crust.
You know who you are. You don't have to think twice to make lemon tea bread for the PTA bake sale, a feathery layer cake for a Sunday dinner treat or a batch of chocolate-chip cookies for the home-from-school-and-starving set.
But bake an apple pie? Surely, you jest. The filling is a snap, but, oh, that pie dough. Somewhere between adding the right amount of cold water and rolling out a dough that doesn't crumble or stick, the average baker has an anxiety attack.
"I think that so often they overwork the dough or add too much water, and it turns into a rock-hard ball," says Leslie Noury, director of professional education at the Connecticut Culinary Institute in Farmington. "Or when they roll it out, it tears. As simple as it is, it is difficult."
But it's not impossible, says Noury, who has taught culinary students how to make pie dough by hand and in the food processor. The two most important tips to remember, she says, are to "keep everything as cold as possible, and work the dough as little as possible."
A basic pie dough is a mixture of the most simple ingredients: fat, flour, salt and water. When worked into the flour, the fat remains in small pieces that are coated with the flour.
As the dough bakes in the oven, the moisture in the fat creates steam. The pressure of that steam causes the bits of fat and flour to puff up, producing a flaky crust.
All-purpose flour is the universal choice for flour, but the choice of fat varies. (Noury says a good pie dough recipe should use a ratio of two parts flour to one part fat.)
Lard was once the only fat that any self-respecting baker would use for a flaky, tasty pie crust. But it has suffered from a bad reputation. Today's choice is vegetable shortening. Some bakers favor a combination of vegetable shortening for flakiness and butter for flavor.
Whatever the fat, it should be chilled until hard. Vegetable shortening is the easiest to work with, Noury says, and butter warms more easily and turns soft more quickly than shortening. To make butter easier to work with when fresh from the fridge, Noury suggests pounding it with a rolling pin.
She also recommends using your fingers to work the fat into the flour. A pastry blender or two knives also will do the trick. Whether you use your fingers or utensils, the idea is to work quickly and lightly until the fat is pea-sized and coated with flour.
The water also should be cold, not room temperature or lukewarm. Noury uses cold tap water. She sprinkles the water over the flour-fat mixture, then uses her fingertips to bring the mixture from the bottom of the bowl to the top, in a tossing motion.
The water called for in a pie dough recipe is a guideline. Noury uses two tests to determine if there is enough water in the dough. If you can "squeeze" the dough easily into a ball, the mixture is moist enough. If you can't form a ball or if there is still a fair amount of powdery flour at the bottom of the ball, sprinkle in a bit more water.
Noury then takes the ball of dough and smears it on the board with the heel of her hand for three or four turns.
The next step is to gather the dough into a ball, flatten it into a disc and chill it, wrapped in plastic, for at least 30 minutes; several hours would be even better.
"You want to cool the dough to slow down the gluten that keeps stretching when the dough is warm," Noury says. The dough will be less likely to spring back during rolling if it has been chilled.
Chilling hardens the dough into a firm mass. If you try to roll it, the dough will break apart, Noury says. Instead, lay the dough on a lightly floured board, then flatten it slightly by hitting the top of the disc with the rolling pin.
Noury lightly flours her work surface and rolling pin. She rolls the dough from the center outward, picking it up and dragging it across the surface of the board to pick up some flour and giving it a one-quarter turn. She continues rolling and turning, adding that if the "dough is cold, it won't pick up additional flour."
The dough should be rolled out to a large circle, about 1/8-inch thick and about 2 inches larger than the pie plate. To easily transfer the dough from the board to the pie plate, lay the rolling pin on half of the dough and drape the other half over it. Transfer the dough to the dish and gently fit the dough into the plate.
Noury suggests cutting slits or cut-outs in the top crust while it is still on the floured board. The openings will be cleaner than if they are cut when the crust is already draped over the filling.
It's a good idea to refrigerate the pie dough before adding the filling. Chill the bottom crust, already in the plate, and the rolled-out top crust. Chilling will help to set the crust and prevent shrinkage during baking.