Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Holiday Recipes, Day Two: Pie Crusts

So yesterday I lied, and said it didn't matter about your pie crust. It was sort of the truth, because the store-bought doughs do taste fine - I mean, they won't actively interfere with your pie, or make it taste awful, but they won't help your pie either. They're neutral, whereas making your own piecrust not only makes your pie taste even more awesome, it makes you feel better too. Wouldn't it be nice to know, when your family chomps into your Pie of Wonder, that you had made every splendid inch of it? Of course it would.

Anyway, for a long time I didn't make crusts, because I had assumed the whole process was as intimidating and complicated as it was unnecessary. Turns out, it's none of the three. Here's all you need: flour, water, and a fat.

1 and 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup refrigerated lard
1/3 cup ice water

Yes, here is the hard truth: an animal must die for your pie. I don't care if it's the world's most vegan kiwi-mango-acai berry pie, if some animal somewhere did not lose its life to make that crust, your effort was in vain. Kosher-keepers, I see no reason you can't substitute schmaltz for the lard (though I'm not a schmaltz user myself, and can't answer for how it might behave), and technically one can also substitute butter, but my default position here is going to be unapologetic Southern cooking, where pig is not just a frequent main course, but flavor, seasoning, fat, and oil - the matrix for just about everything you cook, and present in all dishes from the vegetables to the bread to the dessert. Lard is not hard to come by, in a grocery store: your best bet is to head to the Hispanic food aisle and get one of the large, inexpensive tubs of "manteca." There are several schools of thought on refrigeration here, but in general we don't refrigerate lard, for daily use. However, in this case you will be better served by sticking your lard in the icebox a few hours before you get down to business with your piecrust, because chilled fat will "chunk" better, and will avoid blending too rapidly.

Under no circumstances are you to use Crisco. Vegetable shortenings are a grave sin.


1. Combine the flour and the salt (no need to sift), then cut in the lard, one chunk at a time, until the mixture is in even bits about the size of peas. Then sprinkle the ice water over the flour by tablespoonfuls, stirring it in with a fork until just enough has been added so you can pat the dough lightly into a ball. Since not all flour is created equal, you might not need all the water. Handle the dough as little as possible, and don't knead it.

The most complicated bit is when you cut the fat into the flour. This does require a bit of technique. The thing is, you don't want a neatly homogenized dough of flour and fat, because that will produce a tough, unpleasant crust. You want your crust to flake, which means your dough is going to have to be spots of flour layered with spots of fat. KNEADING IS THE ENEMY.

So with that in mind, use a knife to cut chunks of the fat into your flour, bit by bit. Then you take two knives, one in each hand, and you perform this sort of Japanese chef maneuver where you keep cutting the fat particles in a crosswise manner, until it's more or less evenly distributed into your flour. DO NOT use your hands, because you don't want the fat to warm and melt by the heat of your fingers; melted fat becomes homogenized with the dough, which remember is the thing you don't want.

Now, Williams-Sonoma will happily sell you a pastry blender for incorporating fat into flour, for about ten bucks or so, and I guess you could buy one of those, but exactly how many piecrusts are you planning on making here? Plus, I have noticed that there is an inverse relationship between number of cooking gadgets owned and competence as a cook. If I open up someone's kitchen drawer and find a pastry blender, a garlic press, boning knives, saute spoons, fish spatulas, mesh skimmers, a double mezzaluna, and a v-blade mandoline, I know immediately not to eat anything that comes out of that kitchen. Williams-Sonoma will even sell you (for $16.95) an egg slicer. You know what else slices eggs? A FUCKING KNIFE.

A double-angled potato ricer. I ask you. 
I will confess that my aesthetic, as a cook, is a minimalist one. In large part that's because I'm influenced by my husband, who is the actual cook in the family. He cooks because he can't play baseball. He has extreme strabismus, and though a series of surgeries when he was young made it some better, he's never been able to see all that well. It's worse when the object is in motion; he can barely focus on moving objects at all, which is something I try not to think about when he's driving the children. So when he was a young boy in North Carolina, and all his cousins were out in the side yard playing baseball, he pretended not to be interested, and instead hung out in the kitchen with his grandmother's cook Alberta. We eat like kings today because Alberta took him under her wing, and made him her apprentice, and when I tell you my husband cooks like a seventy-year-old black woman, Southerners will understand the depth of the compliment being paid. By the time he met me, he was pretty much the most amazing cook on the face of the planet, which explains everything you need to know about our courtship.

Anyway, Don's bedrock belief is that in order to cook you need: a knife, a medium-sized bowl, and a spoon. Anything more than that, and you're just embarrassing yourself. This is why I say the fat-cutting part should be done with two knives working crosswise: because this is just How Things Are Done.

A final consideration is the bowl you are working in. My oldest daughter's sensory issues make her hyper-sensitive to metal-scraping, so I have to use a ceramic or pottery bowl for this part. (Look for my best-selling cookbook, Cooking for the Neurologically Challenged, in stores soon.)

2. Wrap the dough in wax paper or foil, and chill it for an hour or so.

3. Take it out and place it on a floured surface. But not too floured! Too much flour makes piecrust tough. Just tap your chilled ball with your rolling pin to flatten it, and roll with quick light strokes. As with all doughs, sprinkling with flour makes it drier and crumblier, and sprinkling with water makes it softer and gooier, so keep these two poles in mind as you fiddle with your dough to get it where you want. I always fiddle at this stage, so don't worry if you have to as well.

This recipe ought to make two piecrusts, so you have one for topping if you're making a berry pie. In practice I've found this makes me one crust, plus some leftovers. That may be because I roll my dough too thick; a more practiced hand could probably get more dough out of it than I do. Don't be afraid of a thick crust - I think they're tasty!

And I guess this part goes without saying, but lay your rolled piecrust in a pie dish and bake away. And enjoy the moral superiority you will feel over all those people who rely on the store-bought dough. Bless their hearts.

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