Canadians love fruit pies -- and yet, it's a disappearing art. Though many of our readers are inspired by the abundance of summer fruit at this time of year, their pastry phobia -- anxiety caused from disappointing past results -- keeps them from taking the next step and making a pie.
Each summer, we receive loads of requests from readers looking to duplicate a favourite pie from their childhood. Often they even have the recipe (usually from a talented mother, grandmother, aunt or neighbour), and be it apple, blueberry, raspberry or rhubarb, the problem is always the same -- the pastry. What they remember is a pie with a light, flaky crust. What they get is a pie that is stodgy and tough. So what was the secret of these pie matrons and how can we achieve their flawless results?
Making perfect pastry is an art that requires patience and practice. The perfect pie will have a crust that is flaky, not tough, and just the right shade of golden brown. It must be rolled thin enough to bake evenly and so the bottom does not get soggy or stay raw. Tenderness, flavour and a sculptured appearance will all come with practice. Here are a few tips for making perfect pastry:
• There are several different ways to "cut" in the fat. Two knives, a pastry cutter, fingertips and even a food processor all use the same principle -- the fat should be in fine crumbs with a few larger pieces remaining. This will give the crust a light, airy texture, whereas mixing the fat completely into the flour (as you would with cookie dough) leaves it flat.
• Pastry ingredients combine best when chilled, and chilled fat solids expand during baking, separating the sheets of gluten and resulting in many airy layers. Whether you use butter, lard or shortening, it must be cold because warm fat releases its water content and moistens the flour, developing the gluten and making your pastry tough. If using your hands, work quickly and use just the fingertips because hands are too hot for pastry. Likewise, if using a food processor, pulse until just combined -- running the motor will heat up the blade too much.
Page 1 of 2
• Ice water helps keep the fat chilled, especially when using butter. Use just enough cold water to bring the dough together; this develops a small amount of gluten (warm water would develop too much).
• Overworking the dough makes pastry tough. Unlike kneading bread dough, pie pastry should just be gently gathered together to form a ball, flattened into a disk (for easier rolling later) and left to rest. Resting helps the pastry relax so that when you roll it out, it isn't bouncing back from the edge of the dish. Ideally, you should make your pastry the day before and let it rest overnight in the refrigerator. This way, the butter will be completely chilled and the pastry will shrink much less during baking.
• Traditional crusts include flour, salt, fat and liquid (water or milk). Sometimes vinegar or lemon juice is used as acids break down proteins in the dough and produce a flakier crust. Lard or shortening are commonly used in older recipes while recently there has been a movement toward all-butter pastry. Different types of fat produce different results: lard and shortening are neutral in taste and produce very flaky results, whereas butter has a richer taste and is more tender and airy. Butter is also a little trickier to work with because it melts quickly and chills quite firm. Using a combination gives you a bit of both worlds -- flakiness and flavour.
• Roll out pastry on a well-floured surface and keep flouring your rolling pin. Unlike cookie dough, pie pastry can take the extra flour. Roll dough thin (about 1/8-inch/3mm thick) until you have a round of dough slightly larger than the pie plate with enough excess to seal the edges of a two-crust pie or form a decorative edge on a single-crust (about 1/2-inch/1 cm overhang.)
• Trim overhang, pouring in the filling to allow the pastry to pull back slightly from the edge of the dish. For a two-crust pie, cut several slits in the top layer (close to the centre) to allow steam to escape. Juicy fillings may ooze a little from the top (which is good), so don't overfill. Brush the top with milk, cream or a simple egg-water mixture and sprinkle with sugar for a little extra flair.
If your appetite is whet, try your hand at some of these recipes. (Next week, we'll look at crisps, crumbles and cobblers.)
Page 2 of 2