TDHH has been dropping frequent and increasingly less subtle hints lately that he would like a cherry pie. his request is due in part to the fact that we’ve been re-watching ‘twin peaks’. episode after episode, we are subjected to special agent dale cooper’s adoration and enjoyment of slice after slice of gorgeous cherry pie (yum to both the pie and special agent cooper).
so today i am straying (again) from my original pledge to share gift-able items, but i think i can get off on a technicality by stretching the definition a little bit to include home-made things that people like to receive. and home-made pie is surely one of those things. my IDS* feels there is no excuse for buying pie crust and pie filling, and i tend to agree, not because i’m a snob, but because i get so much pleasure out of baking a pie that i cannot bring myself to buy one. sure, baking from scratch takes longer, but the effort more than pays for itself in taste and appearance.
a good pie is something of an enigma. it is so simple in its components – there is nothing new-fangled or high-tech about it, but a good pie evades many a baker, and it is the crust that is most often the culprit. crust intimidates and causes many a capable baker to defer to frozen pie shells. because TDHH has always been more of a pie man than a cake and cookies man, i’ve had many opportunities to hone my pastry making skills over the years. there is an art and science to pastry making to be sure (you can read more about the science part here), and while i have no illusions of being a master pastry chef or food scientist, i’d like to offer my tried and true tips for creating a knock-your-socks-off, home-made work of art.
here is what i’ve learned (the hard way):
1. use butter. yes, using shortening will yield the flakiest crust imaginable, but i prefer the flavour of an all-butter crust. executed correctly, an all-butter crust will be beautifully flaky and tender, lovely and golden, and more delicious than anything made with hydrogenated oils.
2. cold is key. butter must be fridge-cold and firm, never ever soft or room-temperature. your liquid, whether water, milk or buttermilk, must be icy. that said, i don’t bother with ice-cubes – fridge-cold or tap-cold will do (but let it get as cold as can be).
3. hands off! my pastry improved dramatically when i stopped using pastry cutters and hands and started using my stand-mixer. despite the fact that my hands are usually cold, i would inevitably warm the butter and over-mix everything, yielding a gummy, glutinous gaffe of a crust. but in my mixer, it’s magic. mix with the paddle until the butter is mostly incorporated and some small shards remain. it works equally as well in a food processor, in fact it’s faster, but i have a soft spot for my mighty mixer and prefer it over the food pro for pastry.
4. for the love of betty crocker, don’t over-mix. while the mixer is stirring, add the frigid liquid in a slow but steady stream and stop pouring as soon as everything starts to come together. you may need more or less liquid depending or your altitude (it’s true!). you want the dough cohesive enough that most of it is clinging to the paddle – think chunks of play-doh. pull it all together gently with your hands and form it into a disc, resisting the urge to knead, mash or otherwise overwork the dough (you will make two discs if it’s a double crust affair).
5. chill some more. wrap your disc in cling-film and chill before you roll it out. i find 15 or 20 minutes in the fridge is plenty – any longer and the dough becomes too stiff to work with. likewise, keep the prepared crust in the fridge until it’s ready to be filled and baked.
6. skip the floured counter. my mother-in-law rolls her pastry on a clean dish towel. imagine! it works like a charm. no more sticky counters or PITA pastry mats to wash. use a clean kitchen towel, sprinkle with flour, and roll away. roll only north-south/east-west and out from the center – does that make sense? it’s easier to make it round that way. pick up and turn the dough as you’re rolling – it prevents sticking and you won’t need as much flour. a french rolling-pin makes the rolling a little easier, but as you can see, it’s not a deal-breaker.
7. use a glass pie plate. seriously. in my baking dark ages, i used those ‘non-stick’ metal pie tins. too dark. too inconsistent. too non-see through. switching to pyrex has meant no more underbaked crusts. being able to see the bottom and assess the done-ness is, for me, essential. and so far i haven’t dropped a hot pie on my face while cautiously holding it above my head to check the bottom.
8. may i make one more stipulation? the filling must be home-made. yes, it’s slightly more time-consuming, but there is something soothing and satisfying about stirring fruit and sugar in a big bowl and tipping it into a waiting pastry shell.
so fear not the home-made pie! it is so much easier than it looks. below is my go-to recipe for sour cherry pie. it is an amalgamation of recipes and experience – guaranteed to satisfy any IDS and special agent that you may encounter (and it is heartily endorsed by TDHH).
*inner domestic snob (introduced here).
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