- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 16, 2004

“It’s my secret” was the answer I gave when dinner guests asked for my pie-crust recipe. Truth is, I was too embarrassed to admit that the crust that held my lemon, peach, apple, pumpkin, berry or most any other pie or tart I served had been unfolded from a red box I found in the refrigerated dough case at the supermarket … when no one was looking.

Then, at a conference for food professionals, I watched Shirley Corriher roll and reroll (instead of mixing) half-inch hunks of cold butter with well-chilled flour into thin sheets of dough, rushing the mixture back and forth between counter and freezer. She ended up with crust as flaky as a croissant but also tender, crisp, perfectly golden and tasty.

Miss Corriher is a food scientist with a gift for explaining to those of us who aren’t scientific why a recipe works (or doesn’t). She is also author of “Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking” (William Morrow).

“The dough should start to look like peeling paint,” Miss Corriher said in her friendly Southern drawl, pointing to some big flakes of fat. “Recipes that say to cut the fat into the flour until it resembles coarse meal will not make flaky pastry. The fine pieces of fat melt too fast,” she says in her book. So does using the food processor, which adds the heat of friction, warming the fat.

Read her chapter on the role of fats in cooking, and you’ll understand that fat not only coats the proteins in flour to keep them from joining together to form tough gluten strands (sustaining tenderness) but the thin sheets of fat also create spaces between layers of dough.

If the fat is cold enough, there is time before it melts for the layers to set while moisture in the dough puffs them apart, creating flakiness.

Butter, margarine, shortening, lard and oil have different protein-coating abilities, melting points and flavors. Because shortening and lard hold their shape over a wider range of temperatures than butter, they create a flakier crust. However, butter wins in the flavor category.

Keeping the butter as cold as possible during mixing, rolling and just before baking will prevent it from soaking into the dough, allowing tough gluten strands to form. For extra flakiness, Miss Corriher likes to add a little cold lard at the end of the mixing process.

To those concerned about the quantity and quality of fat content in foods, even during the holidays, Miss Corriher says in her book that she does not share the common paranoia about animal fat. “Certain saturated fats and trans fatty acids (in hydrogenated fats such as margarines) raise everybody’s serum cholesterol. … I feel that small amounts of … lard … are better for my serum cholesterol level than … many margarines.”

For the concerned among us, Crisco has introduced an all-vegetable shortening with zero grams trans fat per serving. A spokesman for Crisco assured me that the new product performs no differently from the company’s regular shortening: “It still produces the same flaky crust.”

While pastry flour has enough protein to hold the dough together (important when transferring the rolled dough to the pan), it is lower in protein than all-purpose flour, so there is less chance for the toughening gluten to form. Miss Corriher and Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Pie and Pastry Bible” (Scribner’s), give formulas for homemade pastry flour if commercial pastry flour or a low-protein flour, such as White Lily, is not available.

Miss Corriher uses 13/4 cups bleached all-purpose flour mixed with 1/2 cup Wondra or Shake and Blend flour in place of 21/4 cups White Lily or pastry flour.

Miss Beranbaum recommends using three parts all-purpose flour to one part cake flour. Cake flour has the lowest protein content, but if used alone, it creates a dough so tender that it is nearly impossible to transfer from counter to pan.

At the end of the recipe that follows for flaky crisp crust, Miss Corriher adds sour cream, which is acidic and also contains milk sugars and fat, to make the crust more tender. The acid helps tenderize by breaking down the protein, and the sugar inhibits gluten formation.

In addition, the sugar, protein and fat in the sour cream (along with the butter) aid in browning. However, if your pie needs a long baking time in a pre-baked crust, such as the bourbon pecan pie whose recipe follows, Miss Corriher suggests a crust recipe in which half the flour is cake flour. (Less protein equals slower browning.)

She also replaces half the butter (some is needed for flavor) with shortening, which has less browning capability and adds acid, in the form of cider vinegar, to slow browning.

Whichever crust you choose, letting the dough rest in the refrigerator or freezer before rolling is important so that the moisture in the dough is distributed evenly and the fat is firmed. This takes several hours, but there is no harm in letting it stay overnight or even a day or so.

If you have used all butter, the crust will be harder to roll out straight from the refrigerator because butter is harder when cold than shortening or margarine.

Flattening the dough into a 6- to 8-inch disc before chilling and then leaving it at room temperature until it softens slightly will aid in rolling all-butter crusts more easily without cracking.

Using flour to dust the rolling surface and a heavy rolling pin, or rolling between sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap, helps prevent sticking. Miss Corriher and Miss Beranbaum suggest using a pastry cloth or nonstick sheets designed for pastry, which prevent sticking and often have circles marked on them in sizes needed to fit the dough into different pan sizes.

Without a size guide, Miss Beranbaum suggests measuring the pan with a flexible tape starting at one top edge, pressing the tape down the inside, across the bottom and up the other side. If using a fluted tart pan, add 1 inch to the measurement; add 3 inches for a single crust pie plate and 2 inches to both crusts for a double crust pie, eliminating the side measurements for the top crust.

In “Pie Marches On,” published in the 1930s, author Monroe Boston Strause suggests pressing the bottom side of the crust over fine graham cracker crumbs, a technique Miss Corriher also likes. “This gives the crust a darker exterior so that it will bake faster, enhancing flakiness, and the dry crumbs pull moisture out of the crust, producing a drier, crisper crust,” Miss Corriher says.

When a high decorative edge is desired, Miss Beranbaum suggests, you should use at least half shortening in a recipe because it will hold its shape better during baking. She warns against making any edge so heavy, especially on a double-crust pie, that it starts to droop as it sets in the hot oven.

Once the crust is formed, both experts recommend at least a 30-minute rest in the refrigerator to re-chill the fat and to relax any gluten strands that may have developed during rolling. Then place it in the freezer for 10 minutes before baking to minimize shrinkage and to hold shape.

Both “Cookwise” and “The Pie and Pastry Bible” are loaded with details about fats, flours and other pie ingredients, as well as recommendations for techniques, equipment and recipes that are worth studying if you want to serve pies that will have guests asking for the recipe. If you just don’t have the time or the tendency, there’s always that crust in the red box, which now comes rolled instead of folded, so there are no fold lines to give away the secret.

Even Miss Beranbaum says in her book: “If I had to recommend a commercial pie crust, it would be the Betty Crocker crust in a box. Though it is salty, it has a good flavor (unfortunately not from butter). The texture is flaky and it is foolproof and easy to mix and roll.” It comes in a “secret” red box, too.

Flaky crisp crust

This recipe is from Miss Corriher’s “Cookwise.”

13/4 cups bleached all-purpose flour, plus a little more for rolling dough

½ cup Wondra or Shake and Blend flour

½ teaspoon salt

12 tablespoons very cold unsalted butter in ½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons very cold lard or shortening in 1-tablespoon cubes

1 cup sour cream

1 to 2 tablespoons cold milk, optional

4 double graham crackers, finely crushed

In medium mixing bowl, stir together both flours, salt and butter. Place in freezer for 10 minutes.

Dump mixture out onto counter. Roll over mixture with rolling pin to flatten butter and coat it with flour. Some butter will stick to pin. Scrape it off and scrape mixture together. Roll over mixture again.

Rapidly continue rolling and scraping together three times. Scrape back into bowl and place in freezer for 5 minutes.

Dump back out, roll and scrape together one more time. Mixture should look like paint flakes that have fallen off a wall. Add pieces of lard or shortening to mixture and roll in, scraping and rerolling twice.

Scrape mixture back into bowl, and return it to freezer for 10 minutes. (If butter becomes very soft at any time during rolling, immediately return to freezer for 5 minutes.)

Gently stir sour cream into mixture. Add milk only if needed to get mixture wet enough to hold together. Pull dough together into a round, wrap well in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or overnight.

Divide dough in half. Shape each half into 6- to 8-inch disc. For one-crust pie, freeze or refrigerate one disk for later use.

Lightly flour counter, place other disk on counter and sprinkle lightly with flour.

Roll out evenly, placing rolling pin in center of dough disk, rolling forward and back (taking care not to roll off dough and thin edges), rotating the dough 45 degrees and rolling again. Keep a little flour on the counter to one side. If dough tends to stick when rotating, drag it through the flour.

Spread graham crumbs evenly over counter area as large as crust. Lightly flour crust top, brushing off any excess. Fold the dough in half, then in half again.

Unfold the dough on top of the crumbs and lightly roll over top twice to press light crumb coating into bottom side of crust.

Refold the dough, and place it in pie pan. Unfold. Trim and shape edges as desired.

Makes 2 single crusts or one double pie crust.

Creamy pumpkin pie

1 8-ounce package cream cheese

3/4 cup sugar

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1 16-ounce can pumpkin puree

12/3 cup half-and-half

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground cloves

1 10-inch single unbaked flaky crisp crust

In a large mixing bowl, combine cream cheese and sugar. Blend thoroughly. Beat in eggs. Add pumpkin, half-and-half, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Mix thoroughly. Pour into pie shell. Bake in 425-degree oven 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees; continue to bake, 45 minutes. Cool. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Pie crust for longer baking times

This recipe is from “Cookwise.”

3/4 cup bleached all-purpose flour, plus a little more for rolling dough

3/4 cup cake flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons very cold butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces

4 tablespoons very cold shortening, cut into tablespoon-size pieces

3 tablespoons ice water

½ teaspoon cider vinegar

½ teaspoon vanilla

2 teaspoons finely grated orange peel

1 egg white, beaten

In medium bowl, mix flours, salt and butter; place in freezer 10 minutes.

Dump mixture onto clean counter. Roll over mixture with rolling pin to flatten butter and coat it with flour. Some butter will stick to pin. Scrape it off and scrape mixture together. Roll over mixture again. Rapidly continue rolling and scraping together three times. Scrape back into bowl and place in freezer 5 minutes.

Add pieces of shortening and roll in, scraping and re-rolling two or three times. Scrape mixture back into bowl and return to freezer 10 minutes. If butter becomes very soft at any time during rolling, immediately return mixture to freezer 5 minutes.

In small bowl, mix together ice water, vinegar, vanilla and orange peel. Then gently stir water mixture into flour mixture. Pull dough together into round, wrap well in plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes or overnight.

Shape dough into 6- to 8-inch disk. Lightly flour counter, place disc on counter, sprinkle lightly with flour, and roll out evenly. Place rolling pin in center of dough disc, rolling forward and back (taking care not to roll off dough and thin edges). Rotate dough 45 degrees and roll again. Keep some flour on counter to one side. If dough tends to stick when rotating, drag it through the flour.

Transfer dough to shiny 9-by-1½-inch removable-bottom tart pan, and trim edges. Cover with parchment paper or foil, and fill with pie weights (or raw rice, beans or pennies). Bake in preheated 400-degree oven 15 minutes. Remove parchment and weights. (Cover edges with foil if browning too fast.) Bake 5 minutes. Brush with egg white, and bake 4 to 5 more minutes. Makes 1 single 9-inch pie crust.

Bourbon pecan pie

This recipe is from “Cookwise.”

1 cup pecan pieces

9 tablespoons butter, divided


1 cup plus 2 tablespoons light corn syrup, divided

11/4 cups packed light brown sugar, divided

2 tablespoons arrowroot

2 tablespoons bourbon

2½ teaspoons vanilla, divided

3 eggs, room temperature

3 egg yolks, room temperature

Pre-baked pie crust for longer baking times

11/3 cups pecan halves

Roast pecan pieces on baking sheet in center of preheated 350-degree oven for 8 minutes. While pecans are hot, stir in 2 tablespoons butter and 1/8 teaspoon salt.

In a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat, bring 1 cup corn syrup, 3/4 cup brown sugar, 4 tablespoons butter and 1/8 teaspoon salt to a boil. Boil 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool 2 minutes.

In a small bowl, mix arrowroot with 2 tablespoons room-temperature water. Stir in bourbon and 2 teaspoons vanilla. Stir into hot syrup.

In a large bowl, mix eggs and egg yolks, then stir in hot syrup, a little at a time. Sprinkle pecan pieces over pre-baked crust.

Pour filling over pecans, and bake in lower third of preheated 400-degree oven for 35 minutes. If crust edge is getting too brown, cover just edge with foil.

In a medium heavy saucepan, bring 3 tablespoons butter, 1/8 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons corn syrup and ½ cup brown sugar to boil. Boil 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in pecan halves and ½ teaspoon vanilla. When pie has baked 35 minutes, pile or arrange coated pecan halves on top and return to oven 10 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: If using a tart pan that is only 1 inch deep, use a 10-inch pan.

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