Ah, pie: that uniquely American creation that is currently having a hey day akin to the one cupcakes had several years ago (and continues to have, it would seem, though I will never understand why). Here in Seattle, a number of pie- specific shoppes have opened within the past few years, and I swear there are more and more locally made pies at the grocery store every time I go. The other day I saw some from a company in Portland! No thanks, I like my pies fresh.
And the best way to have a fresh pie is of course to make it yourself. My local NPR station has a fun weekly food segment, and on this show they recently featured a way to make pie dough that allows you to avoid touching the dough at all–by dumping it from the food processor directly into plastic wrap–and that in doing so you will make the flakiest, best pie dough you thought you could never make. This wasn’t news to me–I think this hands-off trend may have started with Cook’s Illustrated magazine, who popularized the method in their seminal Best Recipe cookbook (Boston Common Press 1999). The matter-of-fact manner in which Christopher Kimball and his recipe-perfecting team explain their reasoning for all of their recipes, including pie, makes you feel like a fool for doing it any other way–at least that’s how I reacted for quite some time after I purchased the book. And they say, “You can make a pie dough by hand, but the food processor is faster and easier and does the best job of cutting the fat into the flour.” So there you have it. Then, in that same year, the book Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home also debuted, and wouldn’t you know it: both Julia and Jacques both say they use a food processor for their pies and tarts. That sealed the deal for me–have you seen this book? The heart-warming cover picture of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin sitting side by side, hands entwined, makes you feel like you’re got your favorite grandparents in the kitchen with you each time you open this large cookbook. And whose culinary advice do you trust if not your grandparents? Well, Julia Child’s and Jacques Pepin’s, that’s whose.
So, when my brothers gifted me a Cuisinart food processor as a high school graduation gift in 2000, I started to make my pie dough this way. And it works; I made pretty good pies. But then, as years passed and I delved deeper into food and cooking literature and then attended baking school and began to find my place in the culinary world, I found that using my food processor for pastry felt inauthentic and somewhat cheap. Like a frozen dinner as opposed to someone’s homemade supper,or an email as opposed to a hand-written letter. And I also noticed, as the pace of life continues to get ever faster and more convenient, that doing things in a slower, more intentional way has begun to feel counter-cultural–subversive even!—I don’t know about you, but I enjoy sticking it to the man in my own small way, especially if it involves butter.
Not into subversion? There are so many other reasons to make your pie dough by hand! Here are just a few:
1. It feels good.
The cool, malleable butter and satin-smooth flour against the fingertips and the quiet that comes over you as you rub the fat into the flour and watch intently for that moment when it is just right–even if you use a pastry blender instead of your fingers, pie dough is one of the most zen-inducing kitchen experiences in my book.
2. It is a mini spa treatment for the hands
When the dough is finished, I rinse the flour off of my hands and gently blot them dry with a towel, then rub any remaining butter into my skin. Oooo la la, smooth, supple hands–thank you, pie!
3. It is art!
Some people have painting, some have poetry, some have gardening or pottery or sculpture, some are gifted musically, and some of us have pie. For us, baking is not merely a means to an end but is a process through which we can express ourselves, show our love, find our passion, create new forms and discover. It is not to be underestimated, the art of pie. It has the power to transform you and perhaps even the people for whom you slice it.
So, in this season of pecan and pumpkin and apple and pear crumble and rum raisin pies, I encourage you to make one by hand, whatever that means for you It will be like a pen-and-ink love letter to those who eat it, and while it may not be perfect, I promise you will not regret it. Here’s how I’m currently making mine:
Pie dough, hand forged
makes enough for 2 single crust pies or 1 double crust
Most recipes for pie dough (aka pate brisee or pastry dough) rely on a simple ratio of roughly three parts flour, two parts butter, and one part water. So if you can remember 3:2:1, you don’t really even need a recipe, especially if you like to weigh your ingredients, which isn’t a bad idea. Although, if you really want to keep it low-tech, good old measuring cups will do just fine, and won’t put a damper on your artistic process either. Just be sure to “dip and sweep” to measure that flour to avoid compacting it and thus using more than you need. Beyond that, the most important thing here is temperature. Cold butter, cold water, and cold hands (or a pastry blender).
2 1/2 cups (348g) all-purpose flour
2 sticks (126g) unsalted butter, very cold
1 tsp. (5g) salt
2 tsp. (10g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (113g) ice cold water
Fill a one cup liquid measuring cup with water and add a few ice cubes. Whisk together the flour, salt, and sugar. Cut the butter into rough tablespoon-sized chunks (or smaller if you have the patience, which I do not) and toss them into the flour mixture. Then, using either your fingers or a pastry blender, work the butter into the flour to create a mealy texture with visible butter chunks the size of peas, some slightly larger, some smaller. It will look something like this:
At this point, if you feel the butter has become too warm for whatever reason, place the bowl into the fridge for 10 minutes before proceeding.
Next, measure out 1/2 cup of the water and drizzle it over the flour-butter mixture. Using a wooden spoon, begin to incorporate the water by gently tossing the flour mixture around in the bowl and then using a fold-and-pat motion to gather the dough together, adding 1 or 2 tablespoons of additional water if necessary. Then, this is the important part: it can be difficult to get the dough to come together, but you must resist the temptation to add more water than is needed or to knead the dough. Simply gather it together as deftly as possible and then divide it in two using a bench scraper or a knife. Pat each section into a disk about 3/4 inch thick and don’t worry if the edges are rough or if a few stray bits of dough get left behind. Wrap each in plastic wrap (or place in air-tight bags) and chill for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days. (Or freeze for longer storage).
That’s it! One of my favorite recipes using the dough to follow…