Sunday, April 6, 2008

No Pan Pear Pie

How is it that a very basic recipe such as pie crust can turn a normally reasonable (okay, quit laughing) person into a deranged, raving, screaming, hair-pulling lunatic? Pie crust has driven me to tears in the past, and it will pretty much ruin my day each and every time I attempt it. Some people would just concede defeat -- after all, Pillsbury apparently sells a perfectly good frozen pie crust -- or so I've heard. I wouldn't know of course because my stubborn streak kicks in and insists that as someone who prides herself on her baking, I should be able to make a good pie crust.

So I have practiced. I have researched it. I have tried various recipes from various experts all claiming that pie crust isn't really all that hard if you just follow a few key steps. I know all the key steps: keep the butter cold, use ice water, don't cut the butter in too much, use a light hand, and don't add too much water. Shortening crusts have the best texture, a combination of shortening and butter is usually the safest route, but an all-butter crust, if you can make it successfully, is the best bet for flavor, but the most fickle to achieve.

I have seen recipes that recommend vodka, apple juice concentrate, lemon, or vinegar in addition to ice-cold water in order to give the crust the flaky, tender texture you're looking for, and to inhibit the gluten from developing in the flour. Some people swear by an egg yolk in the crust. Some swear by hand mixing, others by the food processor, and yet others by using both techniques.

After my latest Strawberry Rhubarb pie crust disaster I was determined once again to master pie crust. So, like any good food blogger, I turned to the food blogging community to see what was out there that I might still be missing. One blogger -- Bake or Break -- talked about the Alton Brown recipe and the episode of Good Eats -- The Crust Never Sleeps -- he saw that explained to him perfectly how pie crust should be made. I used to hate Alton Brown and Good Eats, but I have recently come around to liking him and the show. Chris, being the ever-wonderful boyfriend that he is, found the episode on YouTube and I sat down to watch it.

The episode was eye-opening. The flour/butter mixture after he added all of his water was clearly far drier than any pie crust I have ever attempted before. I have long suspected that my primary problem with pie crust was too much water, but watching this episode really opened my eyes to how little water really went into a pie crust. So, armed with fresh information, new techniques (warm butter mixed into the flour as well as cold chunks of butter, and corn meal for "toothiness") and Chris by my side, we set out to make the Pear Blueberry Gallete that Alton made.

I think Chris wanted to duck and cover after the first 15 minutes or so. Nothing, and I mean nothing, pisses me off faster than dealing with pie crust. Once again, the problem was the water. Based on the video, we didn't add a lot of water (actually water and apple juice concentrate mixed) and we used a spray bottle to apply it. It still looked awfully dry to me, but the video clearly showed a dry, floury mess being transformed into perfect pie crust by a 20 minute rest in the refrigerator. Ours did not transform. Ours remained a dry, floury mess. So, we added a little more liquid and tried again. 20 minutes later we threw it out.

By this point though Chris had made the pear/blueberry filling for the gallete so we debated what we should do. Try the Alton method again? Try the Pastry Queen pie crust? Give up and bake something else? I decided that I needed to bake something successfully in order to snap me out of my now very nasty mood, so I picked up the book I recently bought -- Sticky, Chewy, Messy Gooey by Jill O'Conner and started flipping through it. After a couple of minutes I got up to fold laundry so I handed the book to Chris.

He of course flipped to the pie crust recipe in the book and was immediately intrigued because she used coconut oil in her pie crust instead of shortening since it had some of the same attributes as shortening, plus it has a nice flavor, and none of the nasty rep that lard or shortening has. Being the food geeks that we are, we actually had a bottle of coconut oil in the cupboard so we tried again.

Round two: cold butter, cold coconut oil, ice water, egg yolk, lemon juice, flour, sugar, salt. Once again the flour mixture still seemed far too dry after I added the liquid -- but I restrained myself from adding more. I formed into into a disc with dry crumbly edges and put it in the fridge hoping against hope that a 30 minute chill would transform it into pie crust. Didn't happen. It came out of the fridge the same crumbly, dry mess that I put in there.

By this point I think Chris was more than ready to run away since I was almost to the point of throwing stuff. However, I took my anger and frustration out on the crust and started pushing and pounding it into a shape and it turned into a pie-crust like substance. I continued what I was doing for a while until I got a respectable disc, then threw it into the freezer while I did the same thing with the second dry, crumbly disc thing. After 10 minutes in the freezer I pulled the first one out and managed to roll it out into a pie form so we made the Alton gallete.

The verdict? The best pie crust I have made to date. In fact, the first pie crust I have made that I have not been embarrassed by. We have made progress. It's still not perfect, but it is flaky, and tender and tastes good. It's not quite to the point of being something you want to eat just by itself -- but it's almost there, and that gives me hope. My conclusion for the whole experience is that I have been hesitating to work the dough at all before I put it in the fridge to chill, and not working the dough means that the moisture that Alton spoke about in the video can't actually work it's magic on the flour since a lot of the flour isn't actually touching. So the next time I make a pie, I will add far less water than I think is necessary, and then I will actually work the dough into as much of a disc as possible before chilling it. Who knows, it may even work.

The recipe below is the pie crust from the Sticky book, and the filling from Alton. I do recommend a rimmed baking sheet though -- in the video Alton baked his on the flat back of a sheet pan, but when I baked mine on a rimless pan we nearly smoked ourselves out of the house and it was pretty much the last straw for a frustrating day.

Perfect Pie Crust
by Jill O'Conner in Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
2 tsps sugar
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, each stick cut into 16 small pieces and frozen
6 tbsp solid coconut oil, cut into small bits and chilled
6 to 8 tbsp ice water
2 tsps fresh lemon juice
1 large egg yolk, beaten

(I did everything in the food processor but am writing the instructions as they were written in the book.)

Sift the flour, sugar, and salt together into a large metal mixing bowl. Cut the frozen butter and chilled coconut oil into the flour until it resembles coarse meal combined with little pea-sized bits of flour dusted butter. (Or, for the same texture, use small pulses to combing the sifted flour and fats together in a food processor fitted with a metal blade.)

Whisk together 6 tbsp of the ice water, the lemon juice, and the beaten egg yolk. Dribble the liquid into the flour mixture and stir together with a fork, using a light touch so as not to blend the larger bits of fat into the flour. Stir with the fork just until the dough comes together into a moist, but not sticky, ball. Use your hands to gently gather the dough into a ball. You should still see some tiny pieces of butter in the dough. (when the crust bakes, these will melt and create wonderfully flaky layers in the pastry)

Divide the dough in two and flatten each ball into a round disk. Wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes, or up to overnight. The chilled, well-wrapped dough can also be sored in self-sealing plastic bags and frozen for up to 1 month for later use.

For the filling:
2 Anjou pears, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons sugar
1 pinch grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup blueberries
1 teaspoon flour
1 1/2 cups pound cake, cubed (I used the Brown Sugar Pound Cake I made earlier this week)
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water
1/2 teaspoon sugar

Heat oven to 400 degrees F.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Add pears to the pan and toss for 2 minutes. Add the balsamic vinegar and continue to toss for 30 seconds. Add sugar and cook until the pears have softened. Add the nutmeg, cinnamon, and the butter and melt slowly. Fold in the blueberries. Remove from heat. Sprinkle on the flour and combine well. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Place the chilled dough on a floured piece of parchment and roll out to a 1/4-inch thick disk. Transfer to a baking sheet. Place cubed pound cake in the middle of the dough, leaving a 3-inch margin of crust on all sides. Spoon filling over the cake cubes and top the pears with 1 ounce of cubed butter. Lift excess crust onto filling and repeat in a clockwise fashion until a top lip has formed around the edge of the whole tart. Brush the tart with the egg wash and sprinkle the crust with the sugar.

Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the filling begins to bubble and the crust is golden brown.
Remove from the sheet pan immediately and cool on pie rack.


best just salivate said...

The drama. The pathos. The heart-warming personal story. Thanks for the yard-by-yard account of Team Melissa's grind towards the perfect pie crust! It's enough to get me through one more NFL-free evening...

biscuitpusher said...

I sense sarcasm...


bens jumping serious said...

No sarcasm at all. I'm dead serious, honestly and truly.

In fact, I'll take a tiny break from my no-baked-goods diet just to see how well the crust turned out, since I know you've been working on it for a while.

bjs said...

(assuming that there'll be some tomorrow. I don't wanna be presumptious or nuthin')

biscuitpusher said...

oh yes, I work swings this week, but Chris will be bringing it in tomorrow morning. I have to share this one since it's the best crust to date. And there will likely be another pie tomorrow afternoon since I have another disc of pie dough to use up.

Anonymous said...

i think i know how someone was inspired to add vodka to the dough :)

Anonymous said...

I used Alton's technique for the crust and made that gallete last year. It turned out perfectly for me and I loved not needing a pie pan. I'll be making it for brunch this weekend. In my experience the Alton's crust method has worked best, but I'll be giving you recommendation a shot soon.