Pie-makers' family formula has the secrets of a perfect crust


Among culinary traditions in my family, the art of making pie crust is about the foremost. My grandmother taught her three daughters, and they in turn taught their offspring how to measure the ingredients, how to blend them, what the mixture should look like at each stage, how to roll out the dough, place it in the pan, crimp the edges.

The recipe in my file is in my younger sister's handwriting, labeled "cherry pie" (our favorite). But it doesn't mention the two secrets that make this crust such a success every time: Use ice water; and don't handle the dough more than absolutely necessary. Apparently, to get those two bits of information, you had to be standing at the elbow of the teacher.

Making pie crust is a little tricky, but it's not impossible to learn. If it seems like too much time and trouble, you can buy a packaged crust. According to product development specialist Marlene Johnson, the Pillsbury Co. spent 10 years figuring out how to get a perfect rolled crust into a package; there's no real need to spend a minute longer.

However, for those who want to make a pie from top to bottom, here's my family's tried-and-true formula for homemade crust:

Pie crust

Makes two 9-inch crusts, or one crust and lattice strips.

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons solid shortening, room temperature

3-5 tablespoons of cold water

Fill a glass or measuring cup with 1/2 to 1 cup cool water; add an ice cube or two and place in the refrigerator until needed. Add the salt to the flour and mix. Using a pastry blender, two knives, or a fork, cut the shortening into the flour mixture until it resembles crumbs. The bits should be about the size of rice grains or tiny peas, depending on your implement; the point is to make them uniform without over-mixing. It may take some practice to do this efficiently. If you under-mix, the pastry will fall apart; if you over-mix, it will be tough. However, once you know what it's supposed to look like, it's easy to keep doing it over and over.

When the flour and shortening mixture is the right consistency, get out the ice water. Add 3 tablespoons to the mixture and blend, using the same implement as before. Pastry is ready to roll out when it just holds together in a ball. Again, don't over-mix, and don't add too much water, or you'll end up with tough crust. If you need more water, add it 1 tablespoon at a time.

Divide the dough into two balls and roll out separately. Roll out on a floured board with a floured rolling pin or between two sheets of waxed paper (to keep the bottom sheet from slipping, wet the working surface slightly before putting it down). When the dough is roughly circular, and roughly 12-13 inches in diameter, transfer it gently to a 9-inch pie pan. Some people roll it up on the rolling pin, or fold it; if you're using waxed paper, remove the top sheet, slip hand under the bottom sheet and carefully flip it into the pan. Then carefully remove waxed paper. Press crust gently into the pan. Try not to stretch it. Use one hand to lift dough, so it slides down side of pan; press it gently into place with the fingers of the other hand.

If you're baking a two-crust pie, repeat the rollout process. Fill the pie, then place the top crust over the pan; crimp edges together, pinching or trimming off excess dough as you go along.

If you want a lattice top, roll the second ball of dough into the rough circle shape, then use a knife or pastry wheel to cut out the strips. Unless you're entering the pie in a contest, there's no need to weave the lattice.

You can make a lattice top out of a second frozen prepared pie crust. Let it thaw, then turn it out on a piece of waxed paper. Flatten it gently (if it breaks, press it back together) and cut out lattice strips.

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