There are just about as many techniques and recipes for making pies from scratch as there are types of pies which make the process a bit daunting for the novice. Even an experienced baker will shy away from the process merely because of the time it takes to get from mixing the pastry dough to cutting into the finished pie. But no doubt, the first time you pull out bubbling berries in a flaky crust or a stunning meringue topped masterpiece, you will understand that pie making is really pretty easy and ultimately worth the time and effort. Here are just a few tips on how to make a pie that have helped me over the years. Hopefully, it will convince you to reach for your rolling pin the next time you have an occasion for pie.
PIE MAKING DO’S
The first “do” about pie baking is saying “yes” to the art of mixing, rolling, chilling and filling pie pans with tender pastry dough and seasonal fruit or creamy custards. We often talk ourselves out of anything unfamiliar, but making a homemade pie is a journey worth taking, whether you venture solo as a challenge to conquer on a Sunday afternoon or you get your family in the kitchen with little helpers to get their hands full of flour and take turns with the rolling pin.
Butter or Shortening? The first decision to make is what ingredients to use for the pie crust. You will find a myriad of recipes and opinions about what goes into the perfect pastry. All butter will yield a flavorful pastry shell, while lard or shortening makes a flaky crust. Or, using a little of both like in the Wilton Pie Crust recipe – combines plenty of butter with just a bit of vegetable shortening for the best of both worlds: rich, buttery flavor with a flaky texture that keeps those beautiful crimped edges in place.
PREP THE PASTRY
The technique of mixing pastry is important, but not difficult.
Make sure all your ingredients are cold, so keep the butter and the shortening in the refrigerator (or pop it in the freezer for a quick chill). I usually fill a small measuring cup with ice water so it’s nice and cold when I add the water.
“Cutting the butter into the flour” simply involves tossing the chunks of cold butter into the flour and incorporating the two with either a simple handheld pastry blender (see Wilton’s version), two knives or your fingers (but make sure your hands are not too warm). I have even made pastry in the food processor, but you need to make sure not to over process. It’s ok if all the butter is not the same size when mixing into the flour, but many recipes say to mix until the butter is the size of dried peas; some say it should look like cornmeal. The pieces of butter help to create the flaky texture of the crust so it’s important to see some butter in the dough.
When adding the water, work quickly and mix lightly, so as not to make the dough tough. Add just enough water so that the dough holds together without cracking or crumbling. Then form into a disc (one or two depending on your recipe) with smooth edges and wrap in plastic wrap.
Then chill! Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour or overnight as chilling is super important to let the dough (and you J) relax and keep all those pea-sized pieces of butter and shortening intact before rolling out.
ROLL IT OUT
Rolling out the dough is the fun part for me. Take the pastry out of the refrigerator about 10-15 minutes before you plan to roll it out. Roll the dough on a lightly floured surface, starting from the center and rolling to the edges with quick, short strokes with a floured rolling pin. Rotate the dough occasionally so it does not stick to the surface. Toss more flour onto the surface as needed, but not too much that it gets dry. If the dough starts to get a little dry and crumbly (which happens to me many times), I keep a small spray bottle filled with water handy and mist the dry spots until it comes back together. Once the dough is the size needed for your pie recipe, gently roll the dough up onto the rolling pin and lift over the pie pan. Unroll and place in the pan. (Or, some bakers fold the dough in quarters and place the tip in the center of the pie pan and unfold).
At this point, I usually refrigerate the pastry-lined pie pan while I repeat the rolling process for the top crust. Keeping everything chilled until the pie goes in the oven will help keep your pie looking just as good when it comes out of the oven as when it went in.
You can also take a breather at this point….get the pastry made and rolled out then head to the farmer’s market or your local grocery and find the best ripe fruit or mix up the filling of your choice. You can even refrigerate the unbaked pie crust overnight (helpful for entertaining); just keep it covered with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out.
The Upper Crust: Do experiment with decorating the top of your pie. Once you have decided what to fill your pastry-lined pie pan with—be it fresh apples chunks and cinnamon or jewel-like berries and sugar or even toasted pecans swimming in molasses–it’s time to top it off. The choices are seemingly endless as you can cover the filling completely with a top pastry (just make sure to cut some slits in the dough to allow the steam to escape) or weave a lattice top, or cut out pastry shapes with Wilton pie or fondant cutters to decorate the top crust or place directly on the filling. You can skip the top pastry all together, especially for custard or nut-filled pies or top with a crumbly streusel of butter, brown sugar, and nuts.
Crimp the edges: You will find all sorts of techniques for decorating the edges of your pie. Have fun with it and figure out what look you like best. Start by trimming the top and bottom dough to an inch or two beyond the rim of the pan and sealing them, rolling it under and building up an edge. (If you have just taken the dough-lined pan out to the refrigerator, let it warm up a little so the dough is pliable). The easiest crimp I know is to make V-shaped ridges using the knuckle of my forefinger on one hand, pushing the dough into the thumb and forefinger of the other hand (sounds like a crazy yoga pose, but it is really simple). The water spray bottle can help with crimping, too. If the dough has gotten a little dry or doesn’t want to hold together; just mist it a bit.
Bring on the Shine: Just before baking, I like to brush the pastry with an egg wash which gives the crust a golden shine. Different formulas will give you different looks, so DO try different combos of whole beaten egg, egg yolk, egg white with water, milk or cream. I usually keep it simple with a whole egg and a little water to make it easy to brush.
Bake the pie according to your recipe. I often put a piece of heavy duty foil on the bottom of the oven to catch any bubbling juices that escape from the pan. I don’t like to bake directly on a baking sheet as it seems to interfere with baking of the crust. Most of the recipes I use, start baking at a high temperature (around 400F) for 10 to 15 minutes to set the crust and then reduce the oven temperature to 350 F., baking until the crust is golden and the juices are bubbling.
PIE MAKING DOn’ts
There are less Don’ts than Do’s to pie making, but here are a few pitfalls to watch out for:
Don’t hurry: The one obstacle that often prevents me from making a pie is that it is not especially quick, but when I plan ahead and break out the process in steps, I find the pie making super relaxing and very satisfying … call it my culinary Zen!
Don’t stress: Don’t overwork– yourself or the pie dough. It’s important not to overdo…mixing, rolling, or worrying that something is not right. Handle the dough gently and patiently and all will be well.
Don’t Skip the Chill: Don’t eliminate chilling of the pie dough. It is very important to refrigerate the dough to keep the small pieces of fat solid before baking, as they create a flaky, tender crust.
Don’t pull and stretch the dough: When rolling and pressing the dough into the pie pan, make sure the pastry is large enough to fall gently into place. Pastry does not stay put if it has been stretched; it will shrink back to its original shape. Again, the chilling helps keep pastry from wilting or shrinking.
Don’t cut the pie too soon: Once your masterpiece comes out of the oven, it is tempting to dig right in, but it’s necessary to cool the pie to let the juices thicken. Sometimes I break this rule, and serve my pie just a tad bit warm (after an hour or two of cooling), but I know that there will be a pool of fruit juice spilling out in the pan. If so, I just bring out the spoons and let everyone catch the sweet, fruity juice as I cut the pie pieces. The good news is that you can make a fruit pie a day or two before serving and keep it at room temperature. (Custard pies should be refrigerated).