Either last year or the year before, I can’t remember, I set a goal to learn how to make pie crust. I knew it was simple ingredient-wise, but something in the actual technique just eluded me.
Every now and then I’d make my own crust, and it was okay…nothing to write home about. I’d flop it into my dish and smash in all the pieces that broke off so that they actually covered the surface of the dish. It made a huge mess and was basically a pain in the ass and, to me, it didn’t taste any better than a store-bought pie crust. Why go to all the bother?
I make a couple of savory dishes that use pie crust (chicken pot pie, sombrero pie) and we like fruit pies as well, so I make pie crust often enough that it started to bother me that I couldn’t conquer this simple recipe. I mean…flour, water, a fat of some kind and salt (sometimes sugar). Why is it so hard?
So anyway, I set this goal…I was not going to be afraid of pie crust anymore. Every time I read about people succeeding in their pie crust endeavors, they would say you need to practice. After a while you get the feel of it. That makes sense, so I decided I would not buy any more pie crust. I would make all of them, and I would learn from my mistakes, and I would not give up.
And so it goes. I did some reading to figure out what recipe might become my go-to recipe. What fats are better: all butter, all shortening, all lard, or a mix? I tried them all to see what tasted better. As I did this, I worked on my technique. Did I find it easier to mix everything by hand, or did I prefer doing it in the food processor?
It was slow going, folks. I made a lot of pie crusts that were, um, interesting. I learned that I need some shorter countertops in our next house, because at just over 5’1” I can barely get the leverage I need to work the fats into the flour by hand. (I would often take the bowl and pastry cutter over to the kitchen table, which is 6-8” shorter than the countertops.) That’s why I avoid anything that involves kneading or rolling things out – Dave makes all the bread, and sometimes I need to get a step stool out when I roll out the pie crust. Frustrating!
But I didn’t give up. I chose my food processor as my preferred mixing method. The pie crusts slowly got better, and I narrowed my recipes down to two and then one, which was simple and quick. I fairly quickly eschewed shortening in favor of butter and leaf lard. I did a lot of reading on lard, an ingredient that used to make me gag when I thought of it. I found out the grocery store lard is very different (and very bad for you!) compared to lard that you render yourself (or buy from someone who renders it). We tried rendering lard from regular pork fat, which wasn’t bad, and then we happened to find a local meat packing place that had ever-elusive leaf lard for a really good price. Dave and I were shocked to find out how easy it was (and inexpensive!) to render our own leaf lard, especially after we researched prices and locations to buy it already-rendered.
In November, I was getting ready to make an impromptu apple pie and a King Arthur Flour catalog happened to be lying on the counter. There was a recipe for pie crust inside and I figured, what the heck…I’ll give this a try since it’s right here. I’d had months and months of pie crust success and it was going to my head a bit. I got started and right off I noticed that their recipe used less fat in relation to flour than my usual recipe. It didn’t stop me though; after all, King Arthur Flour had to have a good pie crust recipe, right?! So I went along and as I worked the fat into the flour I could tell something was wrong. I should have just added more butter and lard but nah, I stubbornly pressed on. I added the amount of ice water the recipe called for and still just had a big floury mound. I finally added about 4 times the water in the recipe before I could get it to hold together. The kitchen was a mess from all the fussing I was doing with this dough, I was frustrated and pissed off, and I had a bad feeling as I slung the round saran-wrap covered disks into the fridge to chill.
When it came time to roll out the crust, I really knew something was off. All that practice was paying off, to the point where I could just feel the way the dough should be as I rolled it out. The texture was wrong, it was too stiff…hoo boy. I still made the pie, but I warned Dave that we might be picking out the filling and tossing the crust in the garbage when we ate it.
My friends, it was the worst pie crust I’ve ever made in my life. It was a shining example of how truly bad a pie crust could be. We could barely cut through it with a knife, much less a fork. You had to vigorously chomp down and tear the crust like a wild animal just to get a bite. It was bad.
I really needed that, you know? I needed to see how much I’d learned in my pie crust education, and I needed to realize it was better to trust my instincts than to just blindly accept what I knew was probably not right. I knew that I’d finally reached that point where I could tell how a pie crust dough should look and behave. I went back to my tried and true recipe.
So last night, New Years Eve 2012, I made an apple pie. I had another new recipe, one that came at the end of a very informative article on why pie crust behaves the way it does, how to achieve the flakiness, how and why you want the fat incorporated into the flour. I liked the article – it made sense – and the recipe appealed to me because it gave the flour quantity by weight rather than cups, which I think is more accurate. It was just a touch fussier than my go-to recipe but not enough to put me off. I was wary as I went along, knowing what happened the last time I tried a new pie crust recipe, but as I shaped the two balls into discs to be refrigerated, I knew it would be okay.
That was my best-ever pie crust. It was what I’ve been working toward all this time – flaky and tender and delicious. It confirms that I will never again say that store-bought pie crust is just as good as homemade. Practice makes perfect. (Or pretty darn good, anyway.)
Here’s to 2013 and more perseverance, more knowledge, and reaping the good rewards they bring.