Pie. It's not the most complicated word in the English language, nor is the image that it conjures—a dough receptacle loaded with fruit or other filling, topped off with a dough roof. You grab yourself a slice of that sweet, buttery goodness, throw a scoopful of vanilla ice cream on top, and start scarfing. It's as easy to eat as it is to make, right? Well, not exactly. I recently bore witness to a failed experiment involving carelessly made dough and frozen berries. I write "failed" in the loosest sense of the word, of course—that particular sampling contained fruit, pie crust, and ice cream; three ingredients that taste good together no matter what you do. But I also realized there was a difference between this pie and the best pie I've ever had, and promptly made it a goal to find out why.
And because God smiles on me (all that prayer must be paying off), the good folks at Grand Central Bakery happened to invite me to a special pie-baking class right around the time I had my realization. With over 1,200 apple, pecan, and other types of homemade pies sold between its four different Portland locations every "pie season," it's safe to say that Grand Central is a legitimate place to head for such information.
Led by Grand Central Retail Production Manager and Pie Connoisseur Piper Davis, the class was nothing short of a revelation. As we watched a team of Grand Central cooks make pie after homemade apple pie with machine-like consistency, Davis pointed out a slew of seemingly miniscule details that, when adhered to, separate the good from the bad, and the great from the good:
(1) Keep all your ingredients as cold as possible. The goal is to keep the flour separate from the butter and water, which results, when baked, in the flakiness that every pie needs.
(2) To further aid this separation, don't over-mix the pie dough. Blend the butter and flour with your hands or with a KitchenAid into different-sized, semi-powdery dough bits, adding little splashes of ice-cold water, as needed. You want pieces that look sort of dry, but aren't, and can be stacked on top of each other and pressed down when put in the pie dish. Never knead your dough into a ball—rather stack and press the bits, then flatten them out with a rolling pin. Again, a succulent flakiness will ensue.
(3) Pyrex pie dishes aren't ideal—bake instead in aluminum, which causes the crust to firm before the butter can melt, once again keeping your ingredients from congealing and retaining that crucial flakiness of crust (are we sensing a theme here?).
(4) Use butter, not shortening. I don't care what Grandma says: Crisco = blech.
It's truly amazing the effects these subtle changes will have on your pie, and they're not that hard to pull off. Get that dough down, and you'll be able to throw in any filling you want and impress people, even your Crisco-lovin' grandma.
Grand Central All-Butter Pie Dough
Makes 1 pound of dough/1 large double crust pie or 2 single crust pies
2¼ cups unbleached flour
½ pound unsalted butter
2 tablespoons white sugar
1½ teaspoons salt
¼ cup icy water—you may need a bit more
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Chill a metal or ceramic bowl with the flour, sugar, and salt in it overnight. Cut the cold butter into half-inch chunks and mix it into the chilled dry ingredients by rubbing the chunks together with the flour. When the mixture gets mealy, stop mixing—the butter should be pea-sized. Drizzle in three to four tablespoons of ice water and lemon juice then combine with a fork. Pinch a handful—if dough sticks together you're ready; otherwise, add more water. It's very important to check your dough and stop adding water as soon as it will combine into a ball or a disk. Properly hydrated dough should come together with a deliberate packing. If it is crumbling, make sure all ingredients are still cold and add a touch more water.