Wednesday, February 20, 2008

If you’re like millions of film fans Sunday, you’ll tune in to the Academy Awards ceremony. Invite a few movie-loving friends to enjoy the red carpet spectacular with you. Oscar night is a great excuse to give a party.

An Oscar- night party is easy to host. The entertainment is simple. Just keep the TV tuned into the merriment, raising or lowering the volume at your favorite spots.

I consulted with Christopher Kimball, founder of Cook’s Illustrated magazine and host of the popular television program “America’s Test Kitchen,” on how we might go about making pies for dessert at an Academy Awards party.

Mr. Kimball offered advice on pie-making based on recipes he and his team at “America’s Test Kitchen” have carefully developed. According to Mr. Kimball: “The most important part of a pie is the crust. Nothing beats homemade crust. Not even close.”

Fear of crust making is the No. 1 reason most of us give for not making pie, so I asked Mr. Kimball for crust secrets. “Pastry crust can be difficult for home cooks,” he said. “There are two things going on that are contradictory. You need to add water to the crust so you can roll it out, but if you add too much, the crust will be tough.”

Mr. Kimball proposed two solutions. One is store-bought crust. “We tested Pillsbury Just Unroll Refrigerated Pie Crust at our test kitchens,” said Mr. Kimball, “and while the flavor was bland, it wasn’t offensive, and it was definitely flaky.” A second option is to try “America’s Test Kitchen’s” foolproof pie crust recipe, which has a secret ingredient — vodka. Do you need to go high proof to get foolproof? Not at all. According to Mr. Kimball, “the alcohol in the vodka totally evaporates in the baking, so you get a moist dough for rolling out but that bakes up perfectly. It’s never tough.” The recipe follows.

Besides the great foolproof vodka pie crust, Mr. Kimball shared his tried and many-times-tested recipes for deep dish apple pie, which uses this easy-to-make crust.

Another must-try recipe for your Oscar-night party is America’s Test Kitchen chocolate cream pie, for which you can use a store-bought graham cracker crust or make your own. Once you master the basic recipe, you can try endless variations.

For example, you can omit the cocoa and chocolate for a plain vanilla cream pie, and then add bananas for banana cream pie or toasted coconut for coconut cream pie.

Foolproof vodka pie dough

Vodka is essential to the texture of the crust and imparts no flavor — do not substitute.

21/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon table salt

2 tablespoons sugar

12 tablespoons (11/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices

1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces

1/4 cup cold vodka

1/4 cup cold water

Process 1½ cups flour, salt and sugar in food processor until combined, about two 1-second pulses. Add butter and shortening, and process until homogenous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds, and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into a 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days. Makes crust for 1 pie.

Deep dish apple pie

.1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon table salt

1 tablespoon juice and 1/2 teaspoon grated zest from 1 lemon

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

21/2 pounds firm tart apples (about 5 medium), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

21/2 pounds firm sweet apples (about 5 medium), peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

1 recipe Foolproof All-Butter Pie Pastry

1 egg white, beaten lightly

Mix ½ cup granulated sugar, brown sugar, salt, zest and cinnamon in large bowl; add apples and toss to combine. Transfer apples to Dutch oven (do not wash bowl) and cook, covered, over medium heat, stirring frequently, until apples are tender when poked with fork but still hold their shape, 15 to 20 minutes. (Apples and juices should gently simmer during cooking.) Transfer apples and juices to rimmed baking sheet and cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes. While apples cool, adjust oven rack to lowest position, place empty rimmed baking sheet on rack, and heat oven to 425 degrees.

Remove 1 disk of dough from refrigerator and roll out between 2 large sheets of parchment paper or plastic wrap to 12-inch circle, about 1/8 inch thick. (If dough becomes soft and/or sticky, return to refrigerator until firm.) Remove parchment from one side of dough and flip onto 9-inch pie plate; peel off second layer of parchment. Working around circumference, ease dough into plate by gently lifting edge of dough with one hand while pressing into plate bottom with other hand. Leave dough that overhangs plate in place; refrigerate until dough is firm, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, roll second disk of dough between 2 large sheets of parchment paper or plastic wrap to 12-inch circle, about 1/8 inch thick. Refrigerate, leaving dough between parchment sheets, until firm, about 30 minutes.

Set large colander over now-empty bowl; transfer cooled apples to colander. Shake colander to drain off as much juice as possible (cooked apples should measure about 8 cups); discard juice. Transfer apples to dough-lined pie plate; sprinkle with lemon juice.

Remove parchment from one side of remaining dough and flip dough onto apples; peel off second piece of parchment. Pinch edges of top and bottom dough rounds firmly together. Trim and seal edges of dough, then cut four 2-inch slits in top of dough. Brush surface with beaten egg white and sprinkle evenly with remaining teaspoon sugar.

Set pie on preheated baking sheet; bake until crust is dark golden brown, 45 to 55 minutes. Transfer pie to wire rack and cool at least 1½ hours. Cut into wedges and serve. Makes a 9-inch pie, 8 to 10 servings.

America’s Test Kitchen chocolate cream pie

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon salt

5 large egg yolks, lightly beaten

2 cups 2 percent or whole milk

1/2 cup evaporated milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons butter

4 ounces good-quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate

1 to 2 teaspoons brandy

1 graham-cracker-coated pie shell (store bought or recipe below)

1 cup heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Whisk sugar, cocoa, cornstarch and salt in medium saucepan. Add yolks, then immediately but gradually whisk in milk and evaporated milk. Drop in vanilla. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently at first, then constantly as mixture starts to thicken and begins to simmer, 8 to 10 minutes. Once mixture simmers, continue to cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute longer. Remove pan from heat; whisk in butter, chocolate and brandy.

Pour filling into shallow pan (another pie pan works well). Put plastic wrap directly over filling surface to prevent skin from forming; cool until warm, about 30 minutes. Pour warm filling into pie shell and, once again, place sheet of plastic wrap directly over filling surface. Refrigerate pie until completely chilled, at least 3 hours.

Whip cream to soft peaks. Add confectioner’s sugar and vanilla; continue to whip to barely stiff peaks. Spread over filling and refrigerate until ready to serve. Makes 8 servings.


11/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces

4 tablespoons chilled all-vegetable shortening

3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs

Mix flour, salt and sugar in food processor fitted with the steel blade. Scatter butter pieces over mixture, tossing to coat butter with a little of the flour. Cut butter into flour with five 1-second pulses. Add shortening; continue cutting in until flour is pale yellow and resembles coarse cornmeal, with butter bits no larger than a small pea, about four more 1-second pulses. Turn mixture into medium bowl.

Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of the water over mixture. Using rubber spatula, fold water into flour mixture, then repeatedly press down on dough mixture with broad side of spatula until dough sticks together, adding up to 1 tablespoon more water if dough will not come together. Shape dough into ball with hands, then flatten into 4-inch wide disk. Dust lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate 30 minutes before rolling.

Generously sprinkle 18-inch work area with 2 tablespoons graham cracker crumbs. Remove dough from wrapping and place in center of work area. Scatter a few more crumbs over disk top. Roll dough from center to edges to make 9-inch disk, rotating a quarter turn after each stroke and sprinkling additional crumbs underneath and on top, as necessary, to heavily coat dough. Flip dough and continue to roll, without rotating, into 13-inch disk just under ½-inch thick.

Fold dough in quarters, then place dough point in center of 9-inch Pyrex pie pan. Unfold dough to cover pan completely, with excess dough draped over pan lip. Trim crust.

Refrigerate dough until firm, about 30 minutes. Prick shell at intervals to keep dough from ballooning during baking. Press a doubled 12-inch square of aluminum foil inside pie shell. Prick foil to prevent further ballooning. Refrigerate to let dough relax, at least 30 minutes longer.

Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Bake, checking occasionally for ballooning, until crust is firmly set, about 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees, remove foil, and continue to bake until crust is crisp and golden brown in color, about 10 to 15 minutes longer. Transfer to wire rack and cool completely. Makes a 9-inch pie shell.

Here are 11 party-pie pointers from Christopher Kimball and “America’s Test Kitchen“:

• Make the pie dough the day before. It will hydrate and be much easier to roll out after it has rested overnight in the refrigerator.

• If the recipe calls for pre-baking the crust, as for cream pies, do it the morning of your party.

• Make fruit pies at least 4 hours before guests arrive. Fruit pies are better after they set.

• Serve a mix of types of pies: some cream and some fruit.

• Be sure to have plenty of pie servers. A metal spatula can substitute if you run short, but it’s best to ask guests to bring extras.

• Do not serve dessert wine or sweet cordials with pie. Serve coffee, tea or espresso.

• It’s easiest if you cut the pie in half, and then quarters, before serving slices.

• Serve freshly whipped cream with your pies. For extra flavor, mix in sour cream, mascarpone or even yogurt during the final whipping.

• Use Pyrex pie plates for baking; they conduct heat best.

• Never trust baking times noted in recipes because individual ovens can vary greatly. Peek at the pie to check on the crust color, and be sure to turn the pie at the halfway point for even baking.

• Don’t worry about how the crust looks. By the time it is baked and sliced, no one will notice.

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