Pie makes the world round From tarte tatin in France and crostatas in Italy to buco pie in the Philippines and pasta friola in South America. However, one could argue that no country has eaten a sweet pie quite like the United States. Each region, state and often, county, boasts a sweet pie tradition that typically involves the region’s abundant ingredients. Think Southern Bourbon Pecan Pie, North Carolina Sweet Potato Pie, Florida Key Lime Pie, Maine Blueberry Pie and Michigan Cherry Pie.
Dessert pie, by definition, can be any pastry filled with fruit, custard, chocolate, cheese, nuts, jam, and everything in between. What separates tarts from pies is usually the pan: a tart pan usually has shallow, straight sides, while pie plates are deep with sloping sides.
basics of fat
The secret to the fabulous, picture-perfect pie? It starts with a tender, flaky homemade crust, of course. Mastering the measurement and mixing of four simple ingredients—flour, butter, salt, and ice water—can transform a pie from mediocre to fabulous. The Internet and cookbooks provide thousands of recipes, but most stick to a basic formula.
The most important factor in creating a supple crust (besides overworking the flour) is the choice of fat. Options abound: lard, all-butter, all-shortening, and butter-shortening combinations. Some recipes emphasize using lard, which can be easier to work with and yield an extra-crisp and tender crust, but it often gives sweet pies an undesirable savory flavor.
Wow your family and friends with high-end pies featuring fall flavors like walnuts, pickled apples and roasted kabocha squash.
Many claim that an all-butter crust is the way to go for a classic rich dough that results in a gorgeous earthy color and delicately sweet flavor. European-style buttermilk is the gold standard for pies, as it contains more fat and less water than American buttermilk.
Incorporating a touch of shortening into butter-based pie dough helps the decorative edges hold their shape. All-shortening crusts can be a good substitute for vegetarian pies, although many argue that they taste bland and are more similar to store-bought options. Shortening with a vegan butter substitute is a better bet. Be careful: Using only margarine will result in a crumbly crust.
keeping things cool
Making a pie crust can be intimidating to many home cooks, but it’s as easy as 1-2-3: Prepare the dough, let it rest, then roll it out. With the help of a food processor, the first step can be completed in minutes. Your goal is to keep things cool and work quickly so the butter doesn’t soften, which prevents the build-up of those desirable inner flaky layers. Keep your ingredients chilled until you are ready to start making the dough. Pre-chilling the blade and bowl of the processor’s knife and working in a cold kitchen can also help. Handle the dough as little as possible to minimize gluten formation, which will result in a tough pie crust.
The amount of ice water you use plays an important role in achieving the optimum consistency of the dough. Too little and the dough will crack, making it challenging to roll out; Too much and the dough can become tough. After adding flour, butter, and salt, add just a tablespoon of water at a time to the bowl and pulse the food processor—especially at the end of mixing—then perform the “pinch test.” If the ingredients stick together when pinched, you know you’ve achieved the proper proportion.
Food scientists, test kitchens and adventurous home cooks have experimented with the chemistry behind making the perfect pie crust. Some people swear by adding a little vodka instead of vodka to a little water to add moisture to the dough for easier rolling, which will reduce the amount of work you have to do on the dough. You won’t have to worry about added flavor or alcohol flavor because vodka is a tasteless liquid, and most of the alcohol evaporates during baking, leaving a flaky crust behind it.
The Secret Ingredient: Patience
After collecting the dough from the bowl, form it into a flat disc and wrap it in plastic or parchment paper. You’ll want to let it rest in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or overnight. Resting allows the flour to absorb the water and spread throughout the dough, giving the gluten a chance to rest. The result will be dough that is easier to roll and shrinks less when baking.
Before rolling out the dough, let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes so that it becomes pliable. When you line a pie pan and press a decorative border into place, the extra cooling and resting time can help prevent shrinkage during baking.
Once you’ve filled the pie shell, give it a bakery-ready look by glazing the sides of a topless pie or over a double-crust pie. To encourage browning during baking, simply brush the edges and top crust with a light layer of cream, half-and-half, or milk. If a glossy top crust is your goal, brush the pastry with a thin layer of beaten egg whites instead of cream or milk. For a deep golden hue, substitute a beaten egg yolk or a whole egg for the egg white. Many recipes call for splitting and mixing an egg yolk with a touch of cream.
A few coarse sugar crystals or a sprinkling of sanding sugar will add shine to the top of the pie as well as add a touch of crunch, but a dusting of granulated sugar will also make the pie shine.