The first pastry was mainly used as a cooking vessel.
Since flour and water resemble clay, the first pies were meat wrapped with dough. The encasement would protect the meat from burning in the scorching stoves. It would also keep the juices inside resulting in a more tender meat.
With the crust like a baking dish, the dough was made several inches thick to withstand long hours of cooking. By the time the meat was done cooking you were left with a tough non-edible crust.
Eventually, we evolved, and the pie crust eventually became an edible part of the dish.
By the 16th century, pies had made their appearance in England. Surprise pies became popular at banquets for entertainment. At one banquet during the reign of King Charles V of England, a chef of the Duke of Burgundy created a huge pie with a captive girl inside!
Unfortunately, my first experience with the pie was not a royal event. It was a disaster.
No great culinary connection to the past was going to take place. In fact, tossing pie dough across the room seemed more probable.
As I cut the butter into the flour, added the iced cold water, my excitement turned to anxious madness as the dough cracked, crumbled, and fell apart.
In a quick hurry to mend the dough, I made it worst and worst. Adding a little of this and then a little of that to compensate. I remember thinking,
“I never want to make a pie crust again. It’s not worth it.” I was brought to tears.....seriously.
If it is not fun, then why do it.
So I put away my rolling pin for good...so I thought, never realizing I would one day not only make pie again, but have my own retail shop.
Two years after my disaster, on a crisp sunny late summer morning, I grabbed my favorite cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon. The book randomly opened to the dessert section and as fate would have it, to the page with a recipe for pie dough.
As I scanned over the pie recipe, my eyes gazed and set upon something different in the instructions - a Food Processor.
A food processor, I was curious, heck why not? I was open to learning but with NO expectations for any miracles.
When I was finished reading, I made my grocery list, not for dinner items, but for the pie ingredients of course. Oh, and I pulled out my food processor to wash her up for the baking extravaganza to come.
The moment changed my life. It was the day I realized how easy and fun pie making could be.
And the day I realized never to say never.
#1 Making pie dough/ As easy as baking a cookie
Hand vs. Food Processor
The classic pie dough recipe is made by hand and passed down in families and culinary communities. A baker or home-maker would learn, experiment, and eventually, master the right feel and texture.
There are many variables in making the perfect dough by hand. And as I learned the hard way, it does not come easy.
There are tricks to help make pie dough easier for a novice baker. Those that have mastered pie continue to share their secrets; from not over-mixing the dough to adding ice water to the recipe.
While these tricks do help, the classic pie dough recipes still lack consistency.
It cannot give an exact amount of water. Why is this?
When I made my very first pie, I used a classic pie recipe. Amongst all my frustration, I had no idea that the quantity of water depends on how much I cut the fat into the flour.
For example: since I did not cut the fat into the flour enough, more dry flour remained. Therefore, the more water needed to absorb this extra dry flour.
What was required from me was an advanced knowledge about the exact feel and look of the dough throughout the process of cutting in the fat. And I had none at this time. Only the recipe to guide. Now my frustration that day makes some sense.
Making a dough by hand can take years to master.
And is not recommended for most first-time pie makers.
So why is the classic recipe so challenging without training? The solution is part of a much bigger (and more interesting) question.
What makes the signature flaky layers?
According to the traditional culinary teachings, it is believed that when butter, or some other solid fat like lard or shortening, is cut into the flour, that pockets of flour are being encased inside a layer of fat. Adding the water, it then absorbs in the flour and creates gluten.
When rolled out, these fat encased pockets of flour continue to stretch and form layers of fat separated by layers of flour. As the pie dough bakes, the fat layers melt, and the flour layers keep them distinguished from one other, resulting in flaky layers.
The question asked then is, how does the water absorb into the flour if it is encased in fat? We all know fat and water do not mix well, “ like oil and water.”
The answer is, it doesn't.
It has come to my awareness (SeriousEats.com) that the correct answer is the exact opposite of the traditional teaching.
Pockets of flour are NOT encased in pure fats, (because fat cannot absorb water.)
Pockets of fat are encased with flour!!!!
This truth leads to a new best practice and a new tool. The Food Processor.
On that pivotal day when I made my first perfect pie with a food processor, I enjoyed the whole process. I followed the recipe exactly and was amazed at the ability to roll the dough out with ease. What an amazing pie.
So, I began my own research. I was driven to find scientific reasoning how using a food processor, that seems to overwork the dough (a no-no in classical teachings), could create a flaky crust.
So, how can this be?
Well, the proof is in the results. I have made over thousands of pies to show for it since that day. But if you need more of an explanation, continue reading.
Classic pie recipes will go to great lengths to tell you that you MUST see small chunks of pure fat in the dough in order for the flaky layers to be created. But, pure fat is not the only component to making the flaky layers.
The real science behind a flaky pie dough can be broken down into three phases:
1. a dry flour and water mixture
2. pure pockets of fat
3. and a flour/fat paste at the interface of the two
By using a food processor, the fat incorporates with the flour to create a fat/flour paste. This paste works just like a pure fat to create beautiful flaky layers. And the best part is that the paste is easier to work!
As you may already know, pure fat makes the dough more prone to crumbling, cracking and sticking when rolling out. Many chefs have encouraged the use of parchment paper or using a rolling pin to transfer the rolled dough.
However, the fat/flour paste creates a flaky dough that is malleable to handle and roll out.
YES, easy to roll out. No more clumps of pure fat ready to stick to anything and everything. Now that the fat is encased in flour it contains itself for better use. No need for parchment paper any longer. This dough can now be folded and placed where you need it. Easy enough for my 9-year-old daughter!
CONSISTENT Recipe Every Time.
We no longer have to take a guess on the amount of water. The fat gets cut into the flour the right way every time. By using a frozen solid fat, the food processor cuts the fat into the flour perfectly, leaving the same amount of dry flour loose. So now the water amount stays consistent too. Add the amount requested in the recipe, and you will be making pastry dough like a professional.
A recipe that works the first time and every time. No matter your baking experience.
And since I love the flavor of butter, now using it in pie dough has never been simpler. What was once believed harder to work with, butter is now just as easy as the other options, lard and shortening.
#2 All Butter Easy Pie Dough Recipe
[Yields two doughs for a Double Crusted Pie]
Food processor | Kitchen Scale | Pie Board | Measuring Spoons | Liquid Measuring Cup
10 1/2 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
6 ounces unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
4 ounces filtered water
Step 1: Preparing the Frozen Butter
To prepare the butter have a freezer safe bowl or bag ready. With a warm knife, cut the unsalted butter stick in half lengthwise. Next cut horizontally to make tabs of butter. You will end up with about 4 - 5 horizontal cuts. In the end, you will have cut the butter into about 14 - 16 pieces.
Place the butter in a container and freeze for 1-hour minimum. Butter can be stored in the freezer for up to 2 months. So this can be done ahead of time. I have frozen butter cut all the time in the freezer. So, whenever I get a craving for pie, I am ready.
Step 2: Making Dough
Now that your butter is frozen, we start making the dough. The ingredients for use are simple; All-purpose flour, frozen unsalted butter, cold filtered water, and salt.
Measure all ingredients first.
The kitchen scale is essential, especially when measuring flour.
The volume of flour varies in weight. For example, 1 cup of sifted flour is lighter in weight than 1 cup packed flour. This discrepancy can significantly affect the outcome of the dough. For consistency and ease, weigh the flour.
Make sure the top of the scale is clean and clear. Place an empty bowl on the scale and then zero the scale. Some scales have a TARE button, while others use the ON button to reset to zero. Just make sure the scale is reading “0” before weighing the ingredient.
To measure the cold water, I use a liquid measuring cup accurately. In doing so, I get my eyes level with the line on the measuring cup. If you are below the line or standing above the line, the reading will not be precise. And, yes, that is what we are striving. I usually bend or squat down a little to get this point of view. But I guess you could hold it up at your eye level too. Either way, will work, but be careful please, do not pull any muscles!
Set up your food processor.
If you have not already experienced the ‘safety’ features built in, that’s ok; the machine will not turn on unless everything is how it should be.
Carefully place the sharp metal S-blade into the mixing bowl and secure properly into the machine base. Add the flour. I spread the flour around the base a little when adding, but it is not necessary to get overly carried away. Now add the salt with a measuring spoon. And toss in the frozen butter too. Tightly fasten the cover onto the bowl.
Carefully start the food processor.
Let it blend for about 10 seconds. Then slowly pour the water through the small chimney opening in the cover. The machine will do the cutting and kneading.
The magic happens right before our eyes!
Within 1-2 minutes, when the pie dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl and become one, turn off the machine. Carefully empty the bowl on a clean surface, being extra CAREFUL of the sharp blade.
Gather the dough together into a large flattened ball. Your pie dough is complete and ready for the next step- weighing (if necessary) and rolling.
If you are making a double crusted pie or small individual pies, you will need your scale again to weigh out the doughs evenly.
Step 3: Rolling Dough
Your dough is ready to roll. Because we used frozen butter and the food processor to make the dough, it is at the ideal temperature to easily roll.
The temperature of the dough will affect the rolling.
If the temperature is too warm, the dough will be too soft; and if it is too cold, it will be too hard. We want rolling to be easy and fun. Ideally, the best temperature is right after it is made, if made with frozen fat.
The frozen fat keeps the overall temperature of the dough cool. Otherwise, place your dough(s) in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes. If dough is stored in the refrigerator longer than 30 minutes, allow it to sit out at room temperature for 5-10 minutes.
Make sure your working area is clean and clear.
Move any obstructions, such as extra bowls or utensils, in your way. Lightly flour the pie board. Place your dough in the center of the board. Lightly flour the top of the dough. From the center out, roll the dough creating an even circle. If your pie board begins to slip around prevent this by placing a dish towel underneath the board.
As you continue to roll the dough, do not be shy. This dough is relatively pliable. If you feels like it is sticking, fold the dough in half and add some extra flour where needed. Or flip the dough over and add flour on top of dough.
Size and Shape.
The finished dough should be rolled out to the designated dimensions in the recipe. If you are using a pie board, you will be able to see without taking out a measuring tape.
Remember the edges do not have to be perfect, most likely they will look jagged. If you are making a crumb pie that is folded over, it creates a rustic look that I love. Or if you are making a double crusted or a pie shell, the dough will be folded under and hidden.
Step 4: Crimping Dough
They are many ways to crimp dough. I like to think of crimping as a seam to hold in the contents of the pie.
If you are making a double crusted pie, we must create a tight seal with our crimp. The first step is in deciding how much end crust you want on your pie. If you like crust, then no trimming is required to the bottom dough, but a longer cooking time (5-10 minutes extra) will be needed.
If you like a thinner crust, do some trimming.
With your kitchen shears, carefully cut into the dough and continue around leaving about 1/2 inch overhang from the pie pan. With your filling in the pie, place on the top dough. Time to fold the top dough over the bottom dough. Start in one area and continue folding the dough around the whole pie. Now you are ready to crimp the pie and make the seam.
One of the easiest crimping methods is the sunflower. That's what I call it at least. You will use your thumbs and pointer fingers on both hands. Place your thumbs knuckle to knuckle under the folded dough. Use your pointer fingers to support the outer sides by pressing down as you lift both thumbs up simultaneously. It will look like a bridge or a sunflower petal. Continue this method around the entire edge using the placement of the pointer fingers as a reference point for the next petal.
The sunflower crimp can also be used to make a pie shell or to top an individual pot pie.
In either of these cases, you will be only crimping one dough. So it is for decorative purposes rather than sealing the package tightly. Just fold the dough under, resting it on the edge of the pie pan, and crimp like stated above.
#3 Other Helpful Tools
In baking, exact amounts are key. A little extra here or there will alter the scientific formula that makes it all work perfectly. This rule heavily applies to this pie dough recipe. The kitchen scale eliminates the avoidable mistakes and takes the guessing out of the equation.
This is one of my favorite tools, because it helps to measure the rolled out dough’s circumference. One side is branded with circles to ensure perfect dimensions when rolling out dough. If your recipe is calibrated to making the right amount of doughs, this is extremely helpful. It also has a ruler on the side to measure lattice strips.
And the other side is smooth. You can use it for chopping or preparing the fruit, vegetables, cheese, and more.
Any clean smooth surface works well to roll out dough evenly. A pie board just has some added perks!
Pros: Traditional in America. Most families already have one.
Cons: Most are medium to heavy in weight. The ones made of marble are really heavy. Harder to roll because they can be too heavy for the delicate dough.
Pros: Great for pie dough. Makes rolling out a consistent dough easy. It helps to avoid making the edges too thin. Light weight. Inexpensive.
Cons: Not traditional in America, so you may not have one in your kitchen. Purchase at a kitchen store or online.
I use it to divide the doughs being weighed. It is also handy to scrape my pie board clean to maintain a clear rolling area. This is one of my favorite tools. So simple yet effective.
Best Oven for Baking a Pie
Pies like to bake directly on a heated surface. At my pie shop I used a deck oven (also called a pizza oven). These are long ovens that have a surface that is heated and the pies/pizzas are placed right on this flat heated surface. This allows the dough to cook from the bottom up. It helps facilitate the flaky buttery layers.
Since most of us do not have a deck oven in our home, this is how to set up your conventional (standard) oven.
Place a baking sheet or pizza stone on the bottom rack and then Pre-heat oven with the sheet or stone in it. Allow it to become hot before you place your pie on it. When you are ready to bake, carefully place the pie on the sheet or stone.
If you have a Convection oven, you will need to make time and temperature adjustments. You will also bake the pie in a more central location of the oven. It is very important to preheat your baking sheet or pizza stone. The standard conversion rule for convection is to decrease the suggested temperature by 25 degrees and time by 10 to 20 percent.
Ovens are all unique. The better you get to know your oven and observe your results, the more accurate your pies will bake up.
Finally, enjoy the ease and fun of making a pie.