Daily Archives: November 18, 2010

The Best Basic Pie Crust

In my early baking days, I explored many pie crust recipes of staggering variety: blends of butter and shortening, sugar and salt, refrigeration or immediate rolling, standing mixer or food processor.  I’ve rolled with traditional American and French pins and tried buffering on the board with wax and parchment papers.  Recipes from mothers, aunts, grandmothers and cookbooks have all made their ways through my fingers.  But I’ve found the most delicious and easiest pie crust recipe to be an incredibly simple one from one of the loves of my Dusty Baking life, Williams-Sonoma.

This crust does not need to be refrigerated, saving time and the wretched skinny window of cold-enough-but-not-too-cold.  It only uses butter, so the crust is flaky and tender.  And it’s guaranteed to have its praises sung – everyone I’ve recommended it to has only returned their highest compliments.

Dusty Pie Crust Form:

  • Butter Temperature is Important! Make sure your butter is COLD, and handle it as little as possible.  When butter melts its moisture is released, which can develop the gluten in flour and causes it to be more tough than flaky.  Little pads of cold butter in your crust will melt and release steam while baking, creating delicious little pockets of air flaky-ness.
  • Salted Versus Unsalted Butter: Use unsalted butter, preferably organic.  Organic butter simply tastes better.  Salt pulls the water out of (any) food, so salted butter has a different moisture content to begin with and makes you have to vary the amount of salt you add to your crust.
  • Use ice-water: If your crust is dry and you need to add water, make sure it’s ice-cold.  Literally place a cube of ice in a small glass, add some filtered water and add one tablespoon at a time until your crust pulls together.
  • Handle with care: The more you mix your dough, the more the gluten will develop and the less flaky the crust will be.  The same goes with handling – try to keep your hands off the dough as much as possible to keep the ingredients cool.
  • When in doubt, roll with protection: Using wax or parchment paper can help your dough not stick to your rolling pin and flip easily into your pie dish.  Wooden rolling boards also help absorb excess moisture.
  • Play with your pie plate: Different types of plates yield slightly different crusts.  I love my Emile Henri 9″ pie dish.  It’s pretty much the only one I use now.  It’s extra deep so my pies are loaded with filling.  It heats evenly and the fluted rim contributes to gorgeous crusts.  And at $45, it’s an amazing investment.  When baking thinner pies, a basic Pyrex can’t be beat for heat distribution and ease of lifting slices out.  When doing a gluten-free tart, I go for tart pans with removable bottoms.
  • Experiment With Your Pin: I used to use my mother’s marble rolling pin until I realized I like the lighter weight of a traditional wooden pin.  Then, after a phenomenal gluten-free pastry course, I decided I also like the dexterous manageability of a French pin (a long, dowel-like pin with no handles/rolling on its own).  The weight and shape of a pin is up to the preference of the Dusty Baker, so have fun exploring.  NOT recommended are plastic pins, which stick more readily to any sort of dough.
  • Wash and Sprinkle: There are many options for topping your crust.  Washing with melted butter adds a bit more flavor and a golden color.  Egg whites or yolks give a shiny sheen.  Water does the trick for helping a sprinkle of sugar stick adequately.  Whichever you choose, wash lightly with a clean pastry brush and only add enough sugar for some added texture and shine.  Don’t forget to cut slits for steam to escape when necessary.

Basic Williams-Sonoma Pie Crust Recipe: (enough for 2 crusts)

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached flour
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 16 Tbsp. (2 sticks) unsalted, organic butter, cold
  • 6 Tbsp. ice-water, as necessary

Directions:

  1. If using a standing mixer, use the paddle attachment.
  2. Place flour, sugar and salt in bowl and toss to combine.
  3. Cut butter into small cubes and toss into dry mixture.
  4. Start the mixer on medium-low and combine until the flour resembles cornmeal-like crumbs.
  5. Add ice-water one tablespoon at a time until the dough just pulls together. Do not over-mix.  Divide dough in two.
  6. Lightly flour your rolling surface, and place half of dough on surface. With a rolling pin, tap the dough until it’s a relatively flat disk.  Turn dough over and roll out to a 12″ circle, adding flour as necessary to your rolling pin.
  7. Place in plate and fill, then repeat with top crust.

CLICK HERE for the recipe on Williams-Sonoma

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Apple Pie Filling

Creating your apple pie filling should be a personal quest that requires little more than a keen sense of taste, an imagination, the internet, and a little voodoo.  Almost like magic, blending apples with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg becomes a little bit like your holiday calling card – it may vary a bit from year to year, but it should always be true to your sense of originality and flair.  Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  And her name is Dusty Baker. (Or his name, if you’re a man…)

So, from one Dusty Baker to another, here are some tricks for coming up with your own apple pie filling that will wipe out memories of pies of old and create new mainstays on your holiday table.

  1. Peeling/Coring/Slicing: If you bake apple pie at least once a year and aren’t too strapped for space, consider purchasing an apple peeler/corer/slicer.  You can get them for about $20 (Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Tabla, and most stores like T.J. Maxx and Home Goods and discount stores all carry them) and they save you SO much time, especially when slicing enough apples for a deep apple pie.
  2. Pick at least two kinds of apples. There are no best apples for apple pie, but blending a variety and knowing what you’re putting in there definitely helps.  Have fun exploring what is local and seasonal so that your pie is unique to the hills and plains of wherever you’re camping out during the autumn season, and try to blend three kinds together: an apple pie mainstay like Granny Smith or Golden Delicious, something tart like Empire or Cortland, and something that’s sweet and refreshing like Mutsu or Honeycrisp.  No matter the apple, if it’s local, try it.  Look for apples that are firm and as consistent in shape as possible, which makes them easier to peel (if they’re too soft they’ll fall apart when being sliced, and if they’re lumpy the peel will come off unevenly).
  3. Par-bake your apples before filling: Par-baking the apples helps them soften and become more infused with flavor.  It also shrinks them so that, after they’ve been placed in a pie shell, there’s less collapsing and the crust isn’t suspended in mid-pie-air.  AND it helps to reduce some of the liquid that could potentially puddle inside a pie.  To par-bake apples, prepare them by peeling, coring and slicing them thinly.  Lay them out on 2 cookie sheets with deep rims, sprinkle with your blend of sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and toss to combine.  Then place them in an oven preheated to 350 degrees and bake for about 15 minutes, until they’re just soft.  Let them cool while you prepare your crust.
  4. Not all cinnamon is created equal. In fact, what is commonly sold in the market in the United States is not cinnamon at all, but rather Vietnamese cassia, one of the many kinds of Cinnamomum but not true cinnamon itself.  One day I grabbed several types of cinnamon from Penzeys and went to work tasting them purely and blindly to pick what I felt would be best for my personal apple pie blend.  For mellower pies, I choose mellower cinnamon.  For the Punch Yo Mama Kentucky Apple pie, I chose a blend of mild Ceylon cinnamon (the only true cinnamon, evidently) and Tung Hing China cinnamon, which is darker and packs the punch delivered in the title of said Kentucky pie.  As cinnamon is very good for you (it aids digestion and circulation and helps regulate blood sugar levels ), I’d say have fun and explore.  CLICK HERE for a nifty article from my favorite food mag, Saveur, who devoted a gorgeous spread last year to the spice.
  5. Use whole nutmeg: When possible, have a nutmeg or two on hand and grind yourself right onto the apples.  They’re not expensive and easily found in grocery stores, and the flavor will be much more full.  In general, ground spices have released the oils original to the spice and lose flavor rather quickly.  Buying your baking spices in the fall is a great way to make sure they’ll be fresh through the holiday season.
  6. Be creative with your sugar: In general, I suggest finding an alternate sugar that you’ll use when baking instead of white cane sugar; it obviously requires a good deal of insulin to process and wreaks havoc for those with blood sugar problems such as diabetes and hypoglycemia.  Alternatives such as palm sugar, date sugar, xylitol or maple sugar will be enough to sweeten your apples.  Or go completely au-natural and omit sugar altogether.  I drizzle molasses onto my apples when they’re filled in the crust to add some complexity, and don’t add any additional sweetener as a result.  If you are going to add sugar, add as little as possible.  This will also let the true nature of your apple blend shine forth!
  7. Play with the amount of spice: The amount of cinnamon and sugar needed to best season your filling depends on what kind you use.  Consider tasting your sweeteners and spices, then your kinds of apples, and estimate the amount you’ll need from there.  2 teaspoons of cinnamon may be adequate for a mild pie with many apples, but 1 tablespoon may make it zing.  Nutmeg and clove are easy to overdo, so go sparingly and maybe add more after the apples are par-baked.
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