pie dough with the eggbeater

November 19th, 2006

Pies are all about the crust, which is to say they’re all about the dough. Well, not really. At least half the fun is eating the gooey sweet fruit that fills the buttery cavern of your pie. But the best filling in the world won’t save a poor crust, turning an otherwise tasty pie into an abject failure. Knowing this, and with Thanksgiving just around the corner, I signed up for Shuna’s pie dough class in Berkeley. Let me tell you, having been to that class, I now recognize all the horrible errors I had previously thought were standard pie-making protocol.

For example:

  • Fancy, high-fat, European style butter isn’t necessarily better. If you do use fancy butter, cut back a bit on the amount you use (six ounces rather than eight is a rule of thumb).
  • Processing the dough until it forms a ball is a very bad idea. If your dough has formed a ball, your crust will be be tough.
  • Roll your dough from the middle outwards, not from the edge.
  • Once a crack, always a crack. If your dough starts cracking as you begin to roll, the cracks will stay and grow. To fix the crack, gently mush together the cracked dough back together with the blade of your hand.
  • Rotate pie dough frequently when rolling so as to avoid it sticking to the work surface.
  • Lightly rolled dough produces a light crust. A large, fairly heavy rolling pin is preferable, and easier to use. It requires less physical effort on your part, resulting in a flakier crust.
  • Use a whole lotta beans. When baking blind, fill the entire shell with beans.

These are just a few salient points. By touching the dough at various stages of processing, listening to it (a dough that makes lip-smacking noises is not only rude, it’s way too wet), tasting it blind-baked and non-blind baked, I began to see pie dough as its own unique creature. A professional pastry chef is a dough psychologist, gently coaxing the dough to wellbeing while working through its potential for multi-faceted neuroses. Warm pie dough is insecure, resulting in a melted, self-conscious crust. Over-working the dough results in an aggressive, tough pastry. A dough might look perfectly well-adjusted in the mixing bowl, but do anti-social bits of flour and butter lurk at the bottom?

The ingredients themselves have their own unique personalities. Flour must be aerated and weighed. Butter must be kept as cold as possible and chopped coarsely. Water must be absolutely ice cold. Understanding the behavior of each ingredient—and why it behaves the way it does—is just as important as understanding the whole. A pastry chef is both scientist and artist.

After all you learn about pie-making, Shuna’s pie is magic. How can flour, butter, sugar, and water produce such ethereal flakiness? And how do crunchy apples become sweet, buttery velvet in your mouth? To me it’s alchemy.

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