We all lament the passing of The Great Age of Pie. We remember our grandmothers and the way they seemed to turn out pies almost effortlessly, and wonder a.) whether our grandma’s were technical geniuses, or b.) when exactly it happened that something as easy as pie got to be so darn hard. The fact is that it doesn’t take an engineering degree to make a good pie, nor does it take a lot of time or skill. My feeling is that it’s been the well-intentioned advice of recipe writers over the last few decades that’s made pie seem unapproachable for the average home cook.
If I had to reduce the problem down to any one thing it would be dough refrigeration. Almost all pie crust recipes call for refrigerating the dough just after it’s made. This is an important step in that it allows the flour in the dough to soak up moisture and relaxes gluten. However what you’re left with is a rock-hard mass that doesn’t roll. When you try the frigid hunk just breaks into pieces or cracks as it flattens out. The aspiring pie maker ends up trying to press a crumbly mass together while rolling at the same time…oh what a mess. In the end the dough is overworked and lumpy. The cook heads to the supermarket in search of something pre-made.
It doesn’t have to be this way. For the fact is there’s no law of pie crust making that states that the dough has to be ice cold when you roll it. Our grandmothers (or great grandmothers) didn’t make pie that way. Some of them barely had access to refrigeration. No, you don’t want your dough warm per se, as that makes it greasy and paste-like. The happy medium is cool, which keeps the fat firm but nice and plastic.
How do you get this magic texture? By letting the refrigerated dough warm up on the counter before you roll. 10 minutes is usually good on a warm day, but if I press my dough mass with my fingers and don’t leave impressions (indicating that it wants to crack instead of roll) I wait another five and try again. Sooner or later the dough comes around and rolls out like a good dough should. I use plenty of flour and regularly slide the dough on the board to make sure it isn’t sticking underneath, in which case I lift the edge and spread a little under there.
One other thing that ruins a lot of attempts at dough: the obsession with using as little moisture as possible. It’s true that here in America we don’t use eggs or lots of boiling water in our crusts. Our ideal is a tender/flaky no-gluten sort of texture that’s virtually unknown in the world of classic Continental pastry. Too much water makes a crust tough by our standards. That said, hyper-critical dough makers that sprinkle ice water on their dough drop by drop seeking the critical point of adhesion are taking a good idea too far.
American-style pie dough should be slightly dry just after you mix it, at the point where you put it in the refrigerator, but it should not be crumbly. So add water to your dough until you’re feeling mostly comfortable with it. If you squeeze it and think “you know, another teaspoon or two of water and this would be the perfect consistency for rolling”, you’re at just the right point. My advice if you’re starting out making pies: err on the side of too much water. Yes your dough might be a little tougher than grandma’s the first few times you make pie, but as you practice you’ll figure it out. And the pie will still be amazing. MUCH better than any pre-made crust you’ll find in a store.
All of which is to say: it’s time to lighten up and make some pie! We all have to start someplace. Look at my peach pie here for example. It’s good but notice that the crust is quite thick and quite smooth on top. That smoothness is an indication that it’s tougher than the crust on the cherry pie just below. But that one tasted great, and anyway it was six years ago. I’ve since made a fair amount of pie. I shall continue to do so, steadily improving my technique. Because let’s face it, none of us can be grandma overnight.
The Second Great Age of Pie awaits if we can forget some of what we’ve learned over the last couple of decades and use our common sense. Onward!