“Summer” came in March, for a moment, and then disappeared. It’s been cold–well, okay, chilly–for the past few weeks, and with the renewed coolness I’ve had a renewed zeal to bake anything-in-a-crust. To me, pie crust making is a winter activity, just as canning is something you in the hottest months of the summer.
Pie crust is easy–as pie? Easier. The best pie crust recipe I know is just a ratio, one I rarely bother to measure. 4:2:1
4 parts flour
2 parts butter (chilled)
1 part water (chilled)
If you’re using cup measurements (and by this I mean you can grab a drinking glass or whatever’s handy), that means about 2 cups of flour to 1 cup of butter (or any shortening really) to 1/2 cup water.
Chilling the butter and water really helps. Just trust me.
If you’re a salt fiend, add a pinch of salt.
To begin, you get a clean bowl, add however much flour. Cut your cold butter into cubes. Add the butter cubes (ew!) to the flour, mix it up. You can use one of those funky, vaguely guillotinesque pastry blenders, but you don’t have to (it’ll take longer with just your hands, but there’ll be less to wash up after). Once the dough starts to feel crumbly, like sand at the far edge of ocean surf, you add a bit of water. Just a few drops. Since I’m right-handed, I usually continue mixing the dough with my left hand as I add water with my right (very slowly).
Once the dough starts to form up into a ball, slap it into a ball and let it rest in the bowl. Stick the bowl in the fridge. Overnight is ideal but if not, that’s okay too. It just needs time to chill out before you want to give it its serious workout–getting rolled out into a useable crust.
Clean a countertop or large cutting board, dust with flour, smack the pie dough in the center. Use a rolling pin and start working on it, aiming from the center out and rotating the dough a quarter-turn every few strokes. Add more flour to your rolling pin (or whatever you’re using–a full can of beer also works nicely if you’re short on pastry implements) if it’s sticky. Roll on until you have whatever thickness crust you want.
When I’m just making pie for myself, I often don’t bother with the pan; you can make a nice little thing without one. Cut up an apple and arrange the pieces in the center of your dough. Add a bit of honey, some spices, maybe some melted butter. Here, I’ve added a few chunks of cheddar (the sharper the better). Once you’ve got the stars of the show in their places, wrap the dough up around the filling and pinch the edges together. This can sit on any old pan or whatever you have that’s oven safe, just throw it in for about 45 minutes on a relatively low heat.
Another nice and sort of wintry thing to do is wrap the dough around a bit of brie with some jam. Throw it in the oven until the brie is coming out the seams; grab your fork and revel.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably at least ever so slightly into the idea of making pie crust yourself. But you may be wondering why I’m writing this really slapdash”recipe,” if you want to call it that, on this blog. There are a lot of blogs that concern themselves with food full-time. This is not one of them by any stretch. So what am I doing here?
First of all, I am one of those people who always needs to do something with her hands. When I was little, I used to crank out miniature nativity scenes in Sculpey whenever I watched TV. Now, I don’t do that, but I do make pie crust when I want to listen to the radio.
Secondly, making pie crust gives me time to think. A lot of people have told me that they don’t have time to make pie crust or fold laundry or whatever, but for me those are my best thinking times. Not only do certain things need to happen–we need to eat, wear clean clothes, etc.–but I do some of my best thinking when my hands are occupied and my mind is free to wander a bit. It’s when I can really mull things over. So for me, not taking the time to do these mundane activities would also mean cutting down on my thinking time. As an au pair my brain is not really taxed by my job. However, when I was writing my undergraduate thesis, I was still making bread, making pie, folding laundry–and relishing those moments of reflection.
Lastly, pie crust is an incredibly handy thing to be able to make. If you can reliably make a solid pie crust, you’re halfway to dozens of types of food. The other day I made semi-sweet tarts for my French class using this pie crust ratio–just making the dough very, very thin. Today I made both the apple thing and the brie thing. Sometimes I will get a proper pie pan out and really make a nice pie. Or a nice quiche. Of course there are dozens of kinds of both pies and quiches. And then you can use pie crust to make “hand pies” and various members of the pie family that do not necessarily rely on a pie plate. With enough dough you can make two crusts and have a closed-top pie. Or you can make lattice if you’re trying to show off.
But seriously, pie crust is useful. If you have a muffin tray that makes big muffins, you can cut a round of pie dough and bake an egg in the middle. You can cut the dough in thin strips to use basically like rough noodles in soup. You can roll up nuts and spices and chopped walnuts and honey into it, chill it, and cut that into slices–voilà, spicy swirly biscuits. You can wrap it around mini-sausages and bake it for fancy mini hot dogs. You can mix grated cheddar into the dough and bake it in rounds for a savory cracker (excellent with thick vegetable soup).
Yes, you can buy pie crust, but if you buy it, you are probably (a) paying too much, (b) not able to choose how thick you want it, (c) getting a lot of extra preservatives and stuff you don’t really need in there, (d) missing out on the meditational practice of rolling dough, (e) going to have to make an extra trip to the store because who thinks ahead about pie crust?
Although not as obvious as “how to fry an egg,” how to make pie crust is one of those things I think everybody should know how to do. It makes feeding yourself a hell of a lot easier, and it’s a neat party trick (you choose which of those factors is more motivational). It’s also one of those many ways you can use up odds and ends from the kitchen. I started this post talking about winter, but I actually use pie crust frequently in the summer too–for those heady months of vegetal excess when you find yourself staring down a kitchen flooded by zucchini.
The point is: be prepared for when you’re unprepared. Be ready to think, and be ready to make pie crust.