I have a confession to make.
I can count on one hand how many times I was happy with the look of my finished pie crusts.
Yes, I’ve learned which recipe works best for me… and believe me, I had no idea how intensely personal a favorite pastry crust recipe could be to the seasoned home baker. Yes, I’ve learned how to chill the dough properly, turn it frequently during rolling to make sure it doesn’t get stuck to the countertops and tear to shreds, and crimp it so it looks as primped up as possible before popping it into that hot oven. Yet still something always manages to slip.
Maybe I’ll make that perfect-looking pie crust. Someday. Someday. Not in time for this year’s Thanksgiving, sadly, but I have a full year to practice until next time.
But back to that little thing called a pastry crust recipe. Traditionally, pies are made with the oh-so-crumbly and hard-to-work-with but oh-so-flaky pâte brisée, made only from cold, solid fat, flour, salt, perhaps a smack of sugar and the smallest trickle of ice water to get the darn thing to hold together. You pat the crumbly mess into a disc, wrap it in plastic, and tuck it into the fridge, where we humble home cooks must have faith that the flour will absorb the water and transform enough to roll out and place in a pie dish after about an hour.
Aside from traditionalists who stick with ye olde French pastry technique, there are a lot of tricks and tips floating around to get that crust to develop that perfect balance between tender and flaky. You can add a shot of vodka or vinegar to your liquids, which can both help the gluten in the flour relax while preventing dough shrinkage in the oven (ever have that problem where your dough falls from the sides of the dish and becomes a small disc at the bottom? yeah, me too). It also means you can add a bit more liquid than using just water; vodka and vinegar evaporate from the crust when the heat hits. You can use buttermilk or sour cream with your liquids, which can produce a puffier and more tender crust and help it hold together. Or you can do what I do:
Use an egg.
Just one, a whole, large, standard egg. Or hold back and use the yolk only.
The egg gives your pie crust more structure, which makes the dough a dream to roll out on a cool surface. It’s easy to pinch, easy to crimp, and easy to truss up. It will end up maybe a touch less tender than the traditional pâte brisée, but it’s strong enough to hold up to even the juiciest and gooiest of fillings. And best of all, it’s super flaky – especially if you work this crust entirely by hand. Please, for heaven’s sake, put the food processor away when you make your pie crust. I know it’s tempting to take a shortcut and give it all a whirl with some motorized blades, but I can guarantee you it won’t match the wonderful, layered magnificence of a pastry cut and blended entirely by hand. It’s worth the few minutes of extra work.
By the way, this year, I used my crust as a base for Butterscotch Pumpkin Pie and Chocolate Pecan Pie with Bourbon. The latter was such a hit at the table that I’ve decided to share with you the recipe for that today. But wait! Thanksgiving is over! Well. No one made any rules against making pies for the December holiday season, now, did they?
I hope everyone had a delicious Thanksgiving, but we’re not through with the year yet!Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook, and really, since this is the second recipe I’ve posted from that book, you should totally run to your nearest preferred cookbook vendor and buy the darn thing.
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup cake flour (can replace with pastry flour or all purpose, but the latter would be a little less tender)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, cold from the fridge
1/3 cup plus 2 to 3 tablespoons ice water (if necessary)
1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup cold lard, cut into cubes
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar, and salt; set aside.
In a large measuring cup or small bowl, beat the egg with 1/3 cup of the water and the vinegar.
Add the lard and butter to the flour and, using a pastry cutter (or two forks or even your fingers), cut it in until the fat chunks look like small peas. Switch your tool to a wooden spoon or silicone spatula and add the egg mixture, gently tossing and mixing with your hands or a fork until the dough is evenly moistened and just comes together. This might take a minute or two of gently pushing the dry ingredients around with the spatula. The less you warm up the ingredients with your hands, the better. You probably won’t need more liquid — I never do — but if it seems really, really dry, add more ice water 1 tablespoon at a time until it comes together.
Gather the dough together on a lightly floured surface and divide evenly into 2 balls. Wrap each ball in plastic wrap and flatten them with the palm of your hand into a disk. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill for at least 1 hour or up to 4 days. You can freeze the dough for up to 2 weeks if you wish, just thaw in the refrigerator the night before you plan to use it.
Now you have pie dough that is ready to be rolled out and tucked into a dish! Make sure you roll it out into a 12 inch diameter circle, walking it out with your floured rolling pin and turning it 1/4 turn with each stroke. This ensures that your dough will not stick to your surface and tear when you attempt to move it. If you find it sticking in some places, use a bench scraper or a spatula to gently separate it from your work surface. Transfer your rolled-out dough to a 9 inch pie dish and trim to leave a 1 inch overhang. Fold and tuck the overhang beneath itself and crimp or press decoratively as you please.
Always make sure you chill your dough again for about 30 minutes (in the pie dish) prior to filling or placing in a hot oven. That’ll help keep it from shrinking.
For pre-baking your pie crust: You might wish to pre-bake (or blind bake) your pie crust before filling it, such as with custard-based fillings. Pumpkin Pie is a good example. To blind bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the pie dish with the pie shell on a baking sheet and carefully line the shell with lightly greased aluminum foil or parchment paper. Fill the lined shell with ceramic pie weights, uncooked rice, or dried beans. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the foil and beans from the shell and bake for an additional 5 minutes, or until very lightly golden brown and dry (it should not color too much. Don’t worry! It will be set!). Let cool completely to room temperature before filling.David Lebovitz, who you might recognize as both an incredible pastry chef and the supreme expert in the realm of homemade ice creams. He currently lives in Paris. Color me jealous.
1 9-inch pie shell, pre-baked or not
3 large eggs
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
2/3 cup light corn syrup, rice syrup, or golden syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons bourbon (I suppose you could leave this out if you muuuust but I love the booziness)
2 cups toasted pecans, coarsely chopped (I left some whole for decorative appeal and arranged them on top. If you choose to do the same, don’t toast those like I did. They got a little bit too dark, but thankfully, they didn’t taste charred.)
3/4 cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and position the oven rack to the center of the oven. Place your pie shell (pre-baked or not) on a baking sheet.
In a large bowl, which together the eggs, brown sugar, syrup, vanilla, salt, melted butter, and bourbon.
Stir in the pecans and the chocolate chips then scrape the filling into the prepared pie shell. Arrange whole pecans on top of the pie if you wish to make a decorative statement. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes if your shell is pre-baked or about 50 to 55 minutes if it is not, until the filling puffs up slightly but still feels slightly jiggly and slightly moist in the center. It will set completely during the cooling phase.
Let pie cool completely to room temperature before slicing. Stores well at room temperature for about 3 days. Feel free to make in advance. Serve the pie with a nice dollop of cinnamon whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.