The first time I tried to bake, I ended up scarred.
As we all know, baking can be an exacting science, often involving teeny tiny measurements, precise timing, and all sorts of other exhausting minutiae. That said, my error was embarrassingly amateur: I tossed apples with salt instead of sugar. I attempted to rinse the fruit and salvage the pie, but the end result was bland and barely edible. So discouraged was I that I dismissed pastry-making for a good long while. I was pie-shy, so to speak.
As of this month, however, I’ve changed. I’ve conquered that fear. I’ve climbed that mountain. Armed with a stainless steel pastry blender and even steelier determination, I made pie. But first — and, in my opinion, more impressively — I made pie crust.
This season, I was determined to master the art of that all-American art, pie. However, a quick Google search lead me down the rabbit hole of pastry dough perfectionism — and what a deep, dark hole it is. Butter, shortening, or lard? Food processor, pastry blender, or stand mixer? Vinegar, vodka, or neither? My world was in danger of spinning wildly out of control as I considered the options.
In the interest of simplifying my life, I decided upon a beloved recipe. Cook’s Illustrated’s dough has it all: both butter and shortening, a “secret ingredient” gimmick, and, most importantly, a “foolproof” guarantee. Deep breath.
I prepared myself before preparing the pie by consulting a variety of sources: Serious Eats’ in-depth article, Food52’s guide, and Smitten Kitchen’s post. This is one of those cases where it truly serves you to read the recipe and understand some of the culinary science beforehand. Anticipating hours of resting the dough, I started the process the night before dessert was to be served and finished right on time. Perfect.
Cook’s Illustrated’s foolproof pie crust
Equipment: We begin by incorporating butter and shortening into a mix of flour, salt and sugar. In almost all cases, food processors are the equipment of choice, but my Magic Bullet just wasn’t cutting it (literally). I resorted to using a pastry blender, knowing that it might put me at a disadvantage efficiency-wise — but at an advantage arm-toning-wise. It actually does the job just fine, as Smitten Kitchen will attest.
Texture: After a while, the mixture should begin resembling cottage cheese curds. No flour should be left uncoated, but there should still be visible flecks of butter here and there. At this time, additional flour is added before water and the secret ingredient, vodka, are sprinkled in. As I’ve only really worked with wet cake mixes beforehand, I was concerned by the dryness of the mixture. However, with enough mixing, the dough came together in a putty-like clump.
Chilling time: The dough is gathered into a disc, wrapped, and chilled overnight. Speaking of which, the emphasis on temperature control made my neurotic freak flag fly. I constantly worried about keeping everything cold. I ran to and from the refrigerator like a madwoman, chilling ingredients, equipment, and (at one point) even the flour itself. I’d like to think that all of that effort paid off, though admittedly there were points when I let things get warmer than intended. Ultimately, however, I think a little lapse in vigilance won’t make or break anything. After realizing how truly bothersome and time-intensive the chilling process is, I also decided to make and freeze three extra batches — just in case I need pastry dough in the future and don’t have a half-day to spare.
Rolling out the dough: I used parchment paper while rolling out the dough, which seemed to help; the Cook’s Illustrated pie dough is notorious for being wetter and stickier than others. Notice how tacky it looks.
Sizing the pastry dough: One thing I hadn’t expected was that the pie crust would shrink up a bit during blind baking. As you can see, my pie crust didn’t extend very far past the lip of the plate. Once baked, the walls of my pie were just barely high enough to contain the filling, and sadly disappeared underneath the walnut streusel. That overhang of dough on picture-perfect pies isn’t just pretty — it’s also functional. Next time I’ll be prepared and roll out my dough enough to create a thick-edged crust.
Blind baking: I took a tip from Food52 and blind-baked the dough using parchment paper filled with brown rice and a pat of butter. I’ll most certainly find a use for that toasted, buttered rice soon. Halfway through the blind-baking, I removed the pie crust from the oven, docked it using a fork to help steam escape, and rotated and placed it back in the oven. During the last five minutes, the crust baked sans parchment paper and toasted up nicely.
I was ecstatic to see a beautifully golden brown pie crust emerge from deep within my oven. As Cook’s Illustrated had promised, the pastry came out wonderfully tender and flaky — not too shabby for a first attempt. The journey, however, had only begun. With what could I fill this shell? A hint: I certainly didn’t mistake the salt for sugar this time around. I can’t wait to share!