I am a total sucker for seasonal fruit desserts, and pies are no exception, especially in the summer and fall. But we know each other well enough by now to know that I’m not a big dessert pusher. I think overdoing sugar and refined foods like white flour can really compromise your health. But, during the holidays when the apples, pears and pumpkins are at their peak, I rationalize it all by adding a hefty dose of love to my pies!
What is nice about seasonal fruit desserts is that the fruit should be naturally sweet enough that we don’t need to add too many sweeteners to make them taste fabulous. Typically, I use 4-6 Tablespoons of sweetener in a whole pie which can serve 8-10 people, and I don’t think that’s over the top. Many cakes call for 2 cups of sugar just to provide you with a reference point.
Looking on the bright side, I love how “homemade” pies are. The fruit is peeled and cut by hand, and if you make your own crust, that too is rolled and shaped by your loving hands. In fact, I think pies look better and more special when they have that imperfect crimping and uneven glaze – a telltale sign that this came out of my kitchen.
Many people have told me that making pie crust looks intimidating. But if you’ve ever made and rolled out cookie dough, it’s actually easier than that! Even though I have a pie recipe posted on the site, I thought it would be helpful to include a step-by-step post for how to make pie crust. Here are a few tips to help:
- Necessary tools You don’t need much, but a food processor or a pastry blender are very helpful. If you have neither, I have used 2 knives with success. On the other hand, besides an empty win bottle in a pinch, I haven’t found a good substitute for a rolling pin, which you’ll need to roll out the dough.
- Cold Keeping everything cold is half the battle in making excellent dough. If the butter warms up, it can make your dough too soft and it can melt on you. Butter can be cut ahead and put back in the fridge. Even your flour can be refrigerated. And it is essential that the water you add is ice cold. Some people like to make their pies in the morning, before the kitchen heats up. And keeping this tip in mind, if you have to take a break from making your crust, or if your pie is ready to go in the oven but it seems a little soft and sticky, place everything into the refrigerator to firm it all up.
- Butter I know there are many people who can argue that a combination of butter and shortening or butter and lard make the tenderest, flakiest pie crusts, but you couldn’t pay me to eat Crisco or hydrogenated oils and I don’t have access to organic lard from grass-fed cows, so that’s not an option. Organic butter is a natural, whole food and I’m ok with it in moderation.
- Flour Here’s the problem. I hardly ever use white flour. It’s refined and processed and basically a dead food with no nutrition. I love using whole wheat pastry flour or white whole wheat flours whenever I can in place of white flour, but not in pastry dough. Whole grain flours tend to result in a much drier, more crumbly dough which isn’t very easy to roll out. It also tastes more “whole wheat-y” which my family doesn’t care for when they’re eating an apple pie. If you must include some whole grain in your dessert, you can make the dough with half white and half whole wheat pastry flour. I used to make half my pies like this for Thanksgiving and my sister-in-law and I were the only ones who would eat the wheat ones. What’s the point of that? Another option is to use white spelt flour, which is more water soluble than wheat flour, is a little more digestible and has a sweeter flavor. White spelt flour makes very nice pastry. If you just can’t go there, fruit crisp is always an option!
- Water Pie crust recipes should give you a range for how much water to use because it’s impossible for every cook to be working under the same conditions. Moisture is something that will vary in the air, flour and butter that we use. Always start with the lower range of water listed and increase as needed.
- Don’t over mix Pie crust is not like cake batter. You actually do NOT want to completely blend the butter into the flour. In fact, it is ideal if you have little pea-sized pieces of butter in your dough. When the crust bakes in the oven, the heat will cause the moisture in the butter to steam up, creating the wonderful flakiness you want.
- Give it a rest This is a step you don’t want to skip since it accomplishes two important things. Allowing your dough to chill out in the refrigerator helps the gluten in the dough relax so you don’t have tough pastry and it also firms up that butter again (see second tip above.) 30-60 minutes is enough time to do this, however you can absolutely refrigerate the dough for a couple of days or freeze it for a few months, if necessary.
- Rolling it out If your dough has been in the refrigerator for more than an hour, you may need to let it sit on the countertop for 15 or 20 minutes so that it will be easy for you to roll out. If the dough starts cracking, it’s likely because it’s too cold. Lightly flour your countertop and your rolling pin and start rolling from the center out, regularly checking to make sure your dough can always move around on your countertop without sticking. If you really have a hard time rolling out the dough, you can stick it between two pieces of plastic wrap and roll it out that way. To know if you’ve rolled it out enough, invert the pie plate over the rolled out dough. If you have a good two inches beyond the rim of the plate, you’re good to go.
- Moving the dough to a pie plate It sounds trickier than it is. I usually gently fold the dough in half and transfer it to a pie plate that way, but you can also roll the dough around the rolling pin and then unroll it onto the pie plate. Fit it into the plate.
- Blind baking Sometimes a recipe will tell you to prebake the pie crust before filling it. This is common with liquidy fillings such as custard or pumpkin, or if you cook the filling separately and you won’t be putting the pie in the oven. With the crust inside a pie plate, prick the crust all over the place with a fork. Place a piece of parchment paper on top of the crust and fill the parchment with pie weights or dried beans (the beans won’t be edible after you bake them, though. Just keep them for the next pie. I’ve been using the same dried beans since college –swear!) This prevents the crust from puffing up.
- Finshing It doesn’t have to be perfect. Do your best and have fun. I seal the top and bottom crusts together and use my thumbs and pointer fingers from both hands to pinch the dough. Or an easier method is use the tines of a fork and press the crust all along the rim of the plate. Lastly I cut a couple slits in the center of the top crust so steam can escape and you won’t have a watery pie. Glazing with an egg wash makes the pie look beautiful, but if egg is out of the question, you can use a little cream.
Although I have made many pies in my day, I still love learning how to do things better. Please share your favorite tips and tricks for making pie crusts and pies. I’d also love to hear what desserts you are all making for Thanksgiving!!!!
- 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour or white spelt flour
- 1 teaspoon cane sugar
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 5-8 Tablespoons ice water
- Place the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and pulse a couple times until blended.
- Add the butter to the flour and pulse until the mixture resembles small peas.
- Pour 5 Tablespoons of ice water on top of the flour mixture and pulse about 10 times. Avoiding the blade, carefully grab a small handful of dough and squeeze together. If the dough holds together without crumbling, it’s ready to be formed into a disc. If it’s too dry, pulse in another few teaspoons of ice water until dough holds together.
- Transfer dough to a piece of parchment and bring dough together to form a ball. Divide in half and shape into two disks. Wrap each disk in parchment and refrigerate at least 30 minutes at which point it will be ready to roll out. Or you can keep the dough refrigerated for 2-3 days, or in the freezer, well wrapped for 2-3 months.