Pie Science

There is something so satisfying about making a pie from scratch. With its buttery brown crust and its bubbling fruit filling or its silky, sweet custard – Pie is just so beautiful!  And unlike some desserts, there is a perfect pie for every season of the year. Apple, pear, cherry, pecan, banana cream, berry, chocolate silk and pumpkin just to name a few standouts. Today I will describe how to make a great, classic crust and a four-berry pie filling. A fair warning: This post gets a little wordy, but I hope that it will clarify the process and get someone else as excited as I am about making pie!

My Favorite Pie Crust and Four-Berry Filling

There are two keys to a great pie: 1. A good understanding of how to make a crust, and 2. A willingness to regularly check on and fiddle with the pie to regulate the browning of the crust.  This can take a few practice pies to get down pat, but you’ve got room for a little pie in your life, right?

My favorite pie crust:

*You will need a food processor or a willingness to get your hands dirty for this recipe*

1 C. (2 sticks) cold butter, cut into approximately 1/3” cubes

2 1/2 C. all purpose flour, plus more for rolling out crust

1 Tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. salt

1/3 – 2/3 C. ice water

Unlike some familiar doughs, like cookie dough, the butter in a pie crust MUST NOT be full incorporated (or creamed in) with the other ingredients. It needs to remain in very small bits, which is why you must use cold butter and cold water for a pie crust.  No melting allowed! These little bits of butter are what make a pie crust flaky. To understand how this works, think about a ball of pie dough full of tiny pieces of butter.  Got it?  Now think about rolling that dough out into a crust. What happens to the tiny balls of butter is that they are flattened and spread out with the flour in between.  So if you had a microscope and you looked at the edge of the rolled out crust, you would see layers: flour, butter, flour, butter, etc… Flaky!

So, to be certain your butter is cold, combine the cubes of butter with the flour, sugar and salt into the bowl of your food processor and put it into the freezer for 5-10 minutes, but not longer.  If you do not have a food processor, just place the ingredients into a medium bowl in the freezer.  This way, EVERYTHING will be cold and you won’t have to worry.

After 5-10 minutes, place to food processor on the base and pulse 5 times for a count of two seconds each.  Then transfer to a medium bowl.  If making the crust by hand, you need to work the flour, butter, salt and sugar together with your fingers. Basically, you are just going to grab big handfuls and sqeeeeeze your hands together, moving your fingers around a bit so that some of the mixture can escape. You will have to do this quite a number of times, and your hands will probably start to cramp up a bit.  As the butter gets better incorporated, the handfuls will start to hold together and mixture will look “crumbly”. This should be between 40 and 70 squeezes, depending on the strength of you hands. If you really start to tire or your hands are starting to heat up the butter, take a break and return the mixture to the freezer for another 5 minutes.

Now that you have your crumbly mixture, you want to incorporate your cold water.  Make a well in the center of the mixture and pour in half of the water to start.  Stir gently to begin to combine. You want your dough to hold together without any dry bits in the bowl.  Keep adding the cold water, a very little bit at a time, until it begins to come together. You want to use as little water as possible. The amount you need will vary for a number of reasons, including humidity and the moisture content of your particular flour.

Now, place your dough ball onto a lightly floured board and divide into two pieces, one using approximately 1/3 of the dough (for the top crust), and the other 2/3 (for the bottom). Knead each piece 2 or 3 times, and then roll into a ball.  Place each piece onto its own rectangle of plastic wrap, fold the wrap over the ball, and push down into a 1” thick disc. Wrap the plastic all the way around the disc and spin it around a few times in your hands, squeezing it all over to smoosh all of the dough into a nice, tight disk. Do this with the second piece of dough, too. Now, refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days.  You can also place the dough into a freezer bag and freeze at this point.

When you are ready to roll out the crust, dust a large board or countertop with flour (you need at least 15” of space ).  Unwrap your large piece of dough and place it in the center of the flour, sprinkling a little more on top of the dough.  The best way to end up with something most like a circle is to roll from the center out and continually rotate the dough to prevent sticking. To be more clear, place the rolling pin (or wine bottle, if you’re in a jam) horizontally right across the middle of the dough.  Then roll up, only rolling the top half of the dough. Then rotate the dough about 90 degrees and do the same thing.  Add flour as you go if you start to notice any sticking. Keep repeating until you have a disc that is 2 1/2 to 3” wider than the widest part of your pie pan. This will account for the shape of the pan and for the crust.

Gently place the dough into your pie pan (folding it into quarters, placing it in the pan and then unfolding helps) and center it, letting it rest down into the bottom of the pan.  Let the edges hang over for now, and place it in the fridge to stay cold.  Roll out your smaller piece of dough in the same manner, but remember that it only needs to be as large as the width of the pie pan. To make a lattice crust, cut the rolled out dough into approximately 1” strips, set them onto a plate and refrigerate them as well. If the lattice crust seems daunting, another great alternative us to use a cookie cutter (maybe a star, a leaf, or a heart), and cut multiples of the shape. Then you can top the pie with them, leaving little spaces in between for the beautiful filling to peek through. Now is a good time to preheat your oven to 400 degrees and start on that filling!

For the Four-Berry Filling

1 pint strawberries, sliced

1 pint blueberries

1 pint raspberries

1 pint blackberries

1 C. sugar (use just 3/4 C. if berries are very ripe and sweet, or if you hate things that are delicious)

1 orange, zest and juice

4 Tbsp. corn starch

Wash and gently dry the berries.  Slice the strawberries into smaller pieces, closer to the size of the raspberries.  If using any frozen berries, it is best to defrost and drain them first or they will make the pie watery. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and toss together gently to disperse the sugar and corn starch evenly.

Remove your crust and strips from the fridge.  Carefully pour all of the berry filling into the pie crust.  It should mound up a bit higher than the edges of the pie pan in the center, but not so much that when it bubbles it will overtake the crust. If using a smaller pie pan, you may have extra filling.

To make the lattice, choose 4 or 5 strips and lay them in one direction across the pie (think about prison).  Use the shorter strips where you can, and trim any excess so that it just tucks down over the filling.  Now, lift up every other prison bar from one end and fold it back onto itself halfway across the pie.  You can now lay one long strip in the middle of the pie (perpendicular), and then return the folded strips across it. Now do the same thing with the other strips (those that did not get folded back last time), but only fold them back about 1/3 of the way, as that is where you will be adding another perpendicular strip.  Do you see how the lattice alternates (under, over, under, over) when you do this? Finish this side (if using more strips), and then rotate the pie and do it to the other half. You can do many, many strips or just a few. It will look great either way.

Now, to finish the crust, tuck the strip ends down over the filling and then create your edge.  There should be 1 – 1.5” of overhang around the lip of the pie. Trim any extra with scissors if necessary.  Then fold the edge of the dough under all the way around the pie just enough so that the crust hangs over the lip of the pie plate a teesy bit.  Then make a scalloped edge all the way around the pie using your thumb from one hand and your thumb and forefinger from the other hand. Push in on the crust with your thumb and while gently pushing back the other way on either side of your thumb with the fingers on your other hand. Work all the way around the crust, creating this endless “s” shape. Your pie is now ready to bake!

Place the pie on a foil lined sheet pan (bubbling can lead to dripping) and bake at 400 for 20 minutes. Now, reduce the heat to 350, and cover it loosely with foil. This will prevent the pie from over-browning, but you don’t want to leave this foil in place the whole time.  The goal here is to get the pie at a good bubble, and then remove the foil and let it finish browning. Once the pie is covered, check it after another 20 minutes, and then again every 10 minutes until you see the filling bubbling all over.  Then you can uncover and finish browning for another 5-15 minutes. In some cases, the pie will brown unevenly – the crust may be getting dark but the middle is pale or vice versa. If this is the case with your pie, just remove it from the oven for a minute and carefully cover the over-browned areas with foil.  This is really worth it, because overcooked pie crust is a real downer, especially on a day old pie. Aim for a nice, medium golden brown.

Once the pie is browned to your liking, remove it from the oven and let it cool for one hour at the very least. You can keep it on the counter for up to 2 days, but refrigerate it if you plan to keep it longer. Now start making another pie!

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