Friday, December 5, 2008

Pastry breakthrough

Every year on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, my mother, my sisters (including me, when I’m in town), and my nieces get together for what is known in my family, simply, as Pie Day. Pie Day consists of making somewhere between one and two dozen apple pies for distribution among members of the immediate and extended family, plus enough to provide dessert for everyone that shows up to Thanksgiving dinner (our record for attendance currently stands at 26).

The ingredients for this baking extravaganza are suitably gargantuan: bushels of apples, pounds of flour. My mother makes the piecrust by hand in an enamel washtub easily two feet across. She uses a pastry cutter and a knife until it "feels right." Since I became an adult, I’ve helped her with this job, mainly by trying to simplify the quantities used when you multiply a standard pie crust recipe by 14, 16, or 18. I’ve also learned how to roll out piecrust and fill pies, and I started making my own pies at least 12 years ago.

Despite being an enthusiastic baker, one thing I never felt I had learned to my satisfaction was when piecrust "feels right." At least once a year, I would make pies on my own, and every time was a festival of anxiety, frequently combined with uncooperative dough. First I followed my mother’s recipe faithfully, and then experimented with others. I tried grating the butter, freezing the flour, pulsing the two in a Cuisinart for exactly 10 seconds. Nothing gave me what was promised: pastry dough that I could roll out easily that would taste flaky and delicious.

Then, last December, an online friend posted a recipe for pâte brisée in a cooking discussion group we were both part of, with a comment about how easy it was and clear, explicit directions. I didn’t have time to use it then—I was preparing for an intercontinental move—but the knowledge of it lodged in a crevice in my brain. You know how that is: you can’t remember why you walked into the kitchen, but you know there’s that recipe that you. need. to. print. out.

Last Wednesday, in preparation for Thanksgiving, it was time for my own little Pie Day (or Turnover Day) and I knew just what piecrust recipe I was going to try. And it was just as easy and worked just as well as the directions promised it would. I was so happy I was practically floating around the kitchen. Normally, after I get the piecrust safely made, rolled out, and baked, I breathe a sigh of relief and don’t want to go near the stuff for a good few months. Not this time. I was so thrilled by this recipe that I found myself making another batch today, just because I wanted some more turnovers.

So, whether you're a pastryphobe like me, or you just like your pie, try this recipe. The best part is that it tastes just the way good piecrust should: tender, buttery, flaky and delicious.

Anxiety-free pâte brisée

My friend V learned this recipe and method from a local caterer, Ariadne Clifton, who deserves all the baking props that I have to give!

cup and spoon measures
a small sharpish knife
a Cuisinart*
a fridge
plastic wrap

2 C all-purpose unbleached flour
12 T (1.5 sticks) unsalted butter, frozen**
2 T solid shortening, e.g. Crisco
healthy pinch of salt
[optional additions: 1 T sugar for sweetness (formally, this is called pâte sucré); 1 T cornmeal for crunch; maybe some cinnamon or allspice if your pie filling would be complemented by such flavors; ground nuts can be added at this stage. Obviously, don't do all these optional ingredients at once.]
1/4 C very cold but not iced-over water (I included 1 tsp cider vinegar in this)

"Mix 1 C of the flour, the salt, and the optional ingredients in the Cuisinart. Use the sharp knife to cut the frozen butter into small chunks directly into the Cuisinart, and pulse to chop it up as you go. Add in the Crisco, pulse a couple more times, and then add the second cup of flour and pulse till it's all mixy. (You'll see this in cookbooks as the 'small pea' stage, meaning the chunks of butter are very small and thoroughly mixed into the flour. I find that it looks more like rough-grade sand than like small peas, but what the hell do I know.)

"Now comes the cool part: dribble your cold water*** into the Cuisinart, and hold down the ON button. The dough will twirl and twirl and then suddenly cohere and ball itself up. Stop the Cuisinart immediately.

"Remove the ball, split it in two, and wrap each of the two balls in plastic wrap. Try not to capture any bubbles of air. These two wrapped balls go into the fridge, and must rest there for at least 30 minutes. If you can give them an hour, that's better. If you can't continue within 24 hours, go ahead and freeze the balls; they freeze just fine, and just remember to thaw them in the fridge before working them."

Makes enough for one standard two-crust pie, or eight turnovers.

*V mentions a by-hand substitute, but I think the key for me was seeing how the dough came together in the Cuisinart.

**Also key, in my opinion, for keeping the dough at the right temperature.

***I needed to add quite a bit more water than this to make the dough ball up as V describes. That's how you know the dough is ready, no matter how much liquid it takes. Just go carefully.


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