Pie perfection

Taking a FARM Institute class might help with those holiday pies.

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Making the perfect pie crust is both a science and an art, as we learned at the FARM Institute’s recent hands-on class, “Easy as Pie,” with Pie Chicks founder (and past FARM Institute employee) Chrissy Kinsman — who says she is also known as the “pie lady.”

As we donned aprons, she told us, “Today we’ll be pie-centric. It’s all about technique.” After all, without a good crust, what is a pie except cooked fruit in a round dish?

“Pastry likes to be cold,” Kinsman tells us. So it’s best to start the pie crust either the morning of, or the day before, so the dough can “rest” in the refrigerator for a minimum of one hour to 24 hours before making the pie. “You can also freeze it for up to a month,” Kinsman said.

While we followed the accompanying recipe, we lapped up Kinsman’s tips in search of that nirvana of the perfect flaky crust.

While weighing out and then whisking together the flour, sugar, and salt, Kinsman gave us the inside scoop on flour. “All-purpose is fine. Pastry flour is more finely milled, and while making for a flakier crust, it is harder to work with.”

She also gave us some tips on the fat used in the crust. “You can do all butter, all shortening, or half and half,” Kinsman told us. “The butter for the taste, and shortening to create the desired flakiness.” Kinsman prefers the latter. She says that she uses sustainably sourced palm shortening, but you can use something like Crisco if you like. You have choices too with the butter. Kinsman prefers European-style butter, with its 83 percent butterfat, but assures us regular butter will do just fine.

If you are using butter, make sure it’s straight from the refrigerator, and cut it into little pea-size pieces. Kinsman stressed again and again to work quickly, but, “Don’t overmix!” You can use a pastry blender, two knives crisscrossing to cut the pieces into smaller bits, or easiest of all, pulse in a food processor until just combined. Repeat with the shortening, if using.

Now, the next part is the trickiest — adding the water, “which you always do by hand,” Kinsman told us. Forget the food processor for this step. She tells us a little trick — make the water cold by adding ice cubes and placing it in the freezer for a bit, then sprinkle four or so tablespoons of cold water into the flour and fat mixture. She demonstrated with expert technique, honed from having made her first pie at about age 7, the way to use a rubber spatula to gently fold and press, fold and press while turning the bowl as you go, until it just holds together. How do you know when it’s done? Kinsman formed a baseball-size ball and showed us that if it holds together, you’re done. Her first go-around wasn’t quite right, and the ball sort of crumbled apart. So she added one tablespoon of water at a time, showing us how it’s a delicate balance between too much and too little water.

Kinsman then divided the dough in half and wrapped each disc in plastic, and in they went to “rest” in the refrigerator for at least an hour (as noted above) so the butter bits get nice and cold again. “When the butter hits the hot oven, it will melt and cause steam to rise, creating that flaky pastry,” Kinsman told us.

You can prepare your filling now or ahead of time. This is where Kinsman feels you can let your creative juices flow. We worked with blueberries — always use wild ones, she emphasized, “for consistency, and also because regular blueberries give off too much liquid, and the skins fall off, leaving them strewn throughout the pie.” There was also an apple filling option. Kinsman says, “I like Granny Smiths for their tartness,” but when folks said they liked combining theirs with peaches or pears, she was all for it. Kinsman encouraged adding accents: “You can do lemon zest, cardamom, cinnamon, or nutmeg — whatever you want.”

Now for rolling out the dough and assembling the pie. Kinsman took one of her dough discs and placed it on a piece of parchment paper. Then with a flick of the wrist she lightly dusted it with flour, and placed a second piece of parchment on top.

She showed us how, depending on the thickness of your dough disc, you can flatten it out with the heel of your hand first. She then took a rolling pin and rolled the dough into a circle that was larger than the circumference of the outer edge of a pie pan she inverted on top of it. “Barely work it. That’s what makes a good pie crust,” she stressed. Kinsman lifted the parchment paper and refloured the dough lightly as she went along. “Slow and steady, and check if it’s sticking,” Kinsman adds. She kept rolling until the circumference of the dough was larger than the inverted pie plate by about an inch or so.
Kinsmen then delicately removed the top paper, and inverted the pie plate face down on top of it again. With a hand under the bottom paper, she expertly flipped everything over so the dough fell into the pie pan. Carefully Kinsman removed the top parchment and gently pushed the dough down into the pie pan, and trimmed the overhanging leftovers to about half an inch in order to form the crimped edges later on.

She entreated us to save these scraps, which she later tossed in a sugar and cinnamon mixture and baked until golden brown for our “necessary” sustenance.

The pie tin then went back in the refrigerator, and she repeated the rolling-out process with the second dough disc for the top crust.

When it came time to fill our pies, Kinsman shared another tidbit, “If you’re using uncooked, thick fruit filling, like sliced apples, you want to do a covered pie, so the top layer holds the steam in to cook the fruit while baking.” We learned also to flatten out the fruit surface so it cooks evenly. Lattice-topped and crumb pies are better for small-fruit fillings like blueberry or sour cherry.
Now it was time to add the top, which included removing the covering parchment or wax paper and, with a hand underneath the bottom paper, flipping it over, again gently but quickly, onto the filled pie.

Kinsman rolled the bottom and top overhanging dough together and crimped the edges by using her index finger and thumb of one hand against the index finger of the other. She also showed us how to use fork tines to create a decorative indented pattern going around the pie pan edge.

Before putting the pie in the oven, Kinsman warned us, “It’s very important to cut a few slits in the crust to let the steam escape.” She also likes brushing the top with milk for a tender crust, but says you can use a mixture of beaten egg with equal parts water if you prefer a crisper top.

The pie bakes at 400° in a regular oven for about 50 minutes — rotating and shifting periodically, depending on your oven’s hot spots. “You will need to eyeball it, so bake until the dough is golden brown and the filling gently bubbles up through the cut slits in the pie,” Kinsman said.

While our pies cooked, we continued to snack on the “pie bites” and cleaned up.

With the smells becoming insanely delectable, it was finally time to remove our creations from the oven, and — voilà! — we were pastry chefs.

Apple Pie
(Recipe by Chrissy Kinsman)

Pie Crust

2 cups flour
1½ tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
8 Tbsp. cold European-style butter (83% butterfat)
5 Tbsp. organic, sustainably sourced palm shortening
3-6 Tbsp. ice cold water

Pie Filling

Mix the following ingredients together in a large bowl:

5 cups peeled and thinly sliced apples
¾ cup sugar (or to taste)
5 Tbsp. flour or cornstarch (for thickener)
1 to 1½ tsp. cinnamon* (to taste)
½ tsp. nutmeg*
1 Tbsp. lemon (with or without zest, as desired)

* Adjust spices and/or use others, such as cardamom.

The next piemaking class will be on Dec. 12 from 5:30 to 7:30 pm at the FARM Institute. RSVP to lbrown@thetrustees.org.