Here's one thing I know about learning to cook. It takes a long time. Like, a lifetime long time. Half a lifetime ago, standing on a high stool at the counter, I'm intoxicated by the scent of peaches, butter, sugar, and nutmeg, and my granny gives me pie crust scraps to roll out. Turning dough into pie crust people with burned-raisin eyes is such deep pleasure--look, I made that!
But of course, that was just the beginning. With cooking, knowing how doesn't stop the learning. In the long years since that summer afternoon in my granny's kitchen, I've made a thousand pies. I've remembered the way her hands were both light and decisive with the dough, but I've tried new recipes for dough and watched other people's hands too. And just last Saturday, I sat in on a pie class at Metier, and learned more yet again from my friend Jessica, someone who seems to know everything about baking. Put just a splash of vinegar in your dough. Overfill the rolled out crust a little so that the peach or berry juices run out and turn jammy as it bakes. Sprinkle a little flour and sugar on the bottom crust before you fill the pie to keep the bottom from getting soggy.
But the parts that can't be written into a recipe are the most important--the light but sure touch with dough, the trick to intricately weaving a lattice crust, the best way to crimp the edges, and most importantly, how to fix my little failures along the way. Jess shares not just what she knows in her head about pies, but also what she knows in her hands. And I leave, knowing a little more, ready for another half a lifetime of delicious learning. (Scroll down for the recipe.)
BASIC PIE DOUGH (yield two pies or a top & bottom crust)
2 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
8 oz. cold, unsalted butter (low water content, like Plugra)
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. vinegar
1/2 - 2/3 c. iced water
Directions: Cube butter (about the size of a small grape) and place into a freezer-safe bowl. Place in freezer until ready to use (at least 15 minutes).
Measure out the dry ingredients into the bowl of a food processor. Using the pulse button, pulse in the butter in about 5 additions, pulsing about 4-5 times between each addition. Do not overmix! You want large pieces of butter in your finished product.
After the butter is added, pour in the water & vinegar in a thin stream while pulsing. After half the water is added, use a spatula to make sure the dough is evenly mixed. Add the rest of the water and test the dough by taking a small handful and squeezing it to make sure it holds together. At this point, the dough should be very crumbly. Pour out the dough onto a flat surface and mold together into a ball. Divide the dough in half, wrap each piece in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours before using. If not using both pieces, freeze one piece in a freezer bag until you want to use it.
When you’re ready to roll out the dough, allow it to sit at room temperature until it’s pliable enough to roll. The dough will be crumbly, but it will come together as you roll it. Spray your preferred pie pan with a little non-stick spray or softened butter. Use a little flour to keep the dough from sticking to the flat surface, then roll it into about a 10” round. Using a pastry brush, dust off excess flour from both sides and roll the dough onto your rolling pin. Unroll the dough over your pie pan and use your hand to press the dough evenly into the bottom and the sides of the pan. Fold the dough hanging over the sides up under itself, then use your fingers to gently crimp it, first from the outside, then again in the inside (I will demonstrate how to do this). Put the the pie pan in a freezer for at least 30 minutes while you prepare your filling.
If you are using a top crust, roll out both pieces of dough, place the top disk of dough and the pie pan in the refrigerator until your filling is ready, finish your dough application, then place in the freezer for 30 minutes before baking. Freezing the dough will help it crust keep its shape at the beginning of the baking process. You can also refrigerate it if you don’t have freezer space, but freezing is most effective.
Alternatively, if you are using a fruit filling, you can also make hand pies or a slab pie, which are more free-form. These are prepared the same way, just without the pie pan.