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Adventures in Pie Crust Making 

Mrs Dever's Fool Proof Pie Crust

We're hosting Thanksgiving this year and wanting every detail to be perfect plus we were bored and needed something to keep us occupied, Charles and I decided to test various pie recipes for the past two weeks. We tried five pie crust recipes, seven apple pie recipes & three pumpkin pie recipes to see what would be featured on our Thanksgiving table. But since you can't make pie without crust, let's begin here.

For the pie crust we tried recipes that called for all butter, butter & shortening, all shortening, cream cheese a la Rose Levy Beranbaum as well as one with milk & eggs. In a previous pie making attempt, I tried a recipe that called for vodka and I ended up with a crumbly mess on my hands (for the record the vodka went into the pie and not me) so I did not include that method here. Here are our conclusions:

1950'S BETTY CROCKER'S ALL SHORTENING (mixed by hand per instructions in my circa 1950's Betty Crocker cookbook) I wanted to test an "old school" recipe and Betty Crocker's instructions called for all shortening and mixing the dough by hand which was surprisingly very easy to do. The resulting crust was a bit more firm (not tough - just sturdy). In his memoir, “The Man Who Ate Everything”, Jeffrey Steingarten in an essay devoted to finding the perfect pie crust recipe, recommends Marion Cunningham’s recipe which calls for all shortening but at room temperature. In defense of Betty Crocker, the recipe said nothing about chilling the shortening but I went ahead and did so anyways. Mr. Steingarten notes that using cold shortening can create a crust that is too firm. Next time around, I’ll try the room temperature method but nonetheless the flavor was one dimensional and I missed the richness from the butter.

NY TIMES ALL BUTTER (using food processor) -  For the first batch, I handled the dough a little as possible per the recommendation of many pie crust recipes in order to prevent a tough crust caused by the development of too much gluten. The resulting crust was grainy, sandy, and brittle and tasted like raw flour. For the second batch, I was a bit more "rough" with the mix and although this eliminated the grainy texture, the crust was still too brittle. I believe it was Julia Child who noted that American flour is high in gluten which can cause a brittle crust. She recommends adding a bit of shortening to fix the problem.  

ROSE LEVY BERANBAUM'S CREAM CHEESE (food processor method) -  I adore any recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum and I'm certainly not alone as there were rave reviews about her crust recipe that included cream cheese, baking powder, heavy whipping cream & cider vinegar. This was the most labor intensive recipe which involved freezing the flour and mixing the dough in gallon sized zip lock bags. The crust bloomed in the oven ruining the crimped pattern on my crust - no big deal, I'll take flakiness over pretty. Although I enjoyed the flavor of the crust, the cream cheese made it too dense and heavy for what I was looking for in terms of pie. The texture reminded me of rugelach. The vinegar was also really powerful but I think this may have to do with the quality of the apple cider vinegar that I had on hand. I will keep this recipe in mind for tarts and other pastries and make a mental note to purchase a fresh bottle of apple cider vinegar.

GOURMET MAGAZINE'S BUTTER + SHORTENING (food processor method & made by hand) - I found little difference between making the dough by hand vs using the food processor. The dough was very easy to handle and roll out. The flavor was buttery and the texture was flaky yet firm making the combo of butter + shortening our second favorite.

MRS DEVER'S CRUST (food processor method) - Rita Dever, one of our many talented chefs at the test kitchen for Lettuce Entertain You offered her mom's "fool proof" pie crust recipe. Mrs Dever's recipe is based on butter & shortening plus milk, baking powder and one egg for enrichment. The dough was on the "wetter" side but I finished it on a floured board and this plus time in the refrigerator helped firm things up a bit. The crust bloomed nicely in the oven and I lost some shape on my crimped edges but the texture of the finished product was flaky and tender. It was like the flour+shortening recipe but kicked up a notch which made it the clear winner.

Here is the recipe

2 cups AP flour

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup shortening

1/4 tsp salt or more to taste

1/4 tsp baking powder

1/3 cup milk

1 egg

Cut the sticks of butter & shortening into 1/2-inch cubes and place in the freezer for 15 minutes to an hour (the longer the better) so that they become thoroughly chilled. Combine flour, salt and baking powder in a food processor; pulse to mix. Add butter & shortening and pulse 6 to 8 times, until mixture resembles coarse meal, with pea size pieces of butter. Whisk egg and milk together and add to food processor pulsing until mixture just begins to clump together. Remove dough from machine and place in a mound on a clean surface. The mixture will be gloopy and somewhat difficult to handle. Knead the dough on a well floured surface and form two discs but do not over-knead. You should be able to see little bits of butter & white shortening in the dough. These small chunks of butter are what will allow the resulting crust to be flaky. Sprinkle a little flour around the discs. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour, and up to 2 days.

Pie Crust is very personal and what we like may not appeal to others.  I believe pie crust making boils down to one thing – the magic lies in the hands of the maker. Experience will teach you how the crust should feel, how much water you need and how to roll out the dough. No matter the recipe, experience makes a better pie.

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