August 15th was Julie Child’s 100th birthday and there was quite a bit of media attention paid to her contributions to the world of American cooking. For weeks, I was thrilled to find re-runs of old Julia Child cooking shows on my favorite TV networks. As I thumbed through cookbooks and contemplated what my next baking project would be, I turned to Julia for inspiration. As if by magic, I discovered that our local public television station was planning to re-air several episodes from the very first season of The French Chef from 1963. When I checked the listings for more information, I found that one of the episodes in the schedule was about making quiche, an egg custard pie. Eureka! Divine inspiration! Julia was making a short dough! This was a sign that I needed to make my own pie crust.
My mother made her own pie crusts and I’d made them myself when I was very young. But once they became available pre-made in the grocery store, that was the end of my pie crust making days. When I asked my husband’s 90 year-old grandmother, a pie maker from way back, what her favorite recipes and techniques were, she said “I haven’t made a pie crust in years. Quite frankly, I can’t tell the difference between home-made and store bought. Its so much easier to just buy them and they taste perfectly fine”. Still, what kind of baker would I be if I couldn’t master something as simple as a pie crust? I had to carry on with my plan.
On the evening of the broadcast, I hundered down in front of the television with a pen and paper and I wrote down Julia’s ingredients and instructions. In some of my past research, I’ve noted that pie crusts made with butter have excellent flavor but are not as tender and flaky as those made with shortening or lard. Julia’s answer was to use both. Her recipe called for 2 cups of all purpose flour, 1 stick of butter and 3 tablespoons of vegetable shortening. Into the flour, she put a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of sugar. She cut the butter into small pieces and put them into the freezer for a couple of minutes before starting the recipe. The shortening she left at room temperature. She also had a small jar of ice water standing by for the completion of this recipe. I decided to make my pie crust exactly like Julia did without the help of a food processor or mixer. I followed her instructions to the letter.
When making any short dough, which is what a pie crust is, its very very important that all the ingredients be as cold as possible. The butter or shortening is crumbled into the flour and remains suspended in the flour in small pieces. As the crust bakes and the fat melts, layers are created in the dough and the result is a crust with flaky texture. My butter was ice-cold when I started the preparation. By hand, I crumbled the butter and shortening into the flour, working it between my fingers until it resembled rough cornmeal. Then I started adding ice water a tablespoon at a time until the dough started to come together and form a ball. Julia added about 5 tablespoons of ice water but I didn’t want my dough to be too wet. I added about 4 tablespoons and my dough was coming together, so I balled it up, placed it in a sheet of waxed paper and put it in the fridge for half an hour to rest.
When I took it out, it looked kind of dry and crackly. And when I tried to soften it up so I could roll it out, it started crumbling. Obviosuly, my dough was too dry. And since it was chilled and hard, it was challening to try and work more water into it. I worked it like a piece of clay, adding little bits of water and kneading it in my hands until I could manipulate it without it crumbling. But then another concern occurred to me. Since I just kneaded this dough, the strands of gluton in the flour were more developed and my pie crust might end up being hard and tough instead of tender and flaky. In the spirit of expermintation, I told myself that the proof of the pudding is in the eating and I pressed on. I rolled out my dough to about an eight of an inch in thickness and placed it into the pie plate. I cut off the excess dough and fluted the edges and my crust was ready to be filled.
My filling of choice for this crust was a pecan pie, which requires the crust to be pre-baked or “blind baked” before it gets its filling and final baking. This process entails baking the crust for about 20 minutes with some kind of weight inside it to keep it flat while it sets up. I have a jar of beans that I’ve been using for years for this very purpose. My oven was pre-heated to 400 degrees and I pricked the bottom of the pie crust with a fork a few times, just to make sure any air escaped during baking, which keeps the crust from rising up on the bottom. I lined the inside of my raw pie crust with foil, poured the beans in and pressed them gently up the sides of the crust to insure that it wouldn’t slide down when it went into the hot oven. I put my crust into the oven while I prepared the filling.
20 minutes later, the crust was starting to brown and it was set up enough to take out, fill and put back into the oven. The pie took about 40 minutes to bake. And it came out picture perfect. But as the old saying goes, the proof is in the eating. Unfortunately, I was correct in my assumption that the extra kneading would result in a tough pie crust. The bottom of the crust was tender and lovely. But the sides of the crust were a little hard and kind of diffitult to chew. I learned a good lesson with this project. Next time, I’ll know exactly what to do to turn out the perfect pie crust.