Yes, I admit it; I am a pie crust snob. Blame my mom -- she's the one who set the bar so high!
Unfortunately for me, though, she "retired" from pie crust making several years ago (she discovered that Pillsbury premade refrigerated pie crust dough was actually pretty good -- though not nearly as good as Mom's, but, well, I wasn't the one doing all the work, so what could I say?) Sadly, she can't remember the exact recipe she used, though I know for a fact it included only flour, shortening, salt and water. Since these are the main ingredients used by nearly everyone, I thought it didn't matter, and could use the recipe from my BH&G cookbook or the shortening can or anywhere online. I figured all I had to do was perfect the handling part of the recipe, and the flavor would come.
I was wrong.
There is a much worse malady, I've discovered, than a less-than-flaky crust, and that's a flavorless one. Sadly, it's extremely common, resulting in shells of crust wantonly left behind even as diners gobble up the delectible insides. "I'm just not a pie crust eater," they'll say. But they have no idea what they're missing ... and you have the power to prove it to them! Here is my take on the top three reasons a traditional pie crust lacks flavor:
- Too little salt (this is a biggie!)
- Pie is served too cold
- Improper baking, leading to underdone, soggy or burnt crust.
And they're all easy to fix! Let's take the first one.
Be the salt of the earth!
Contemporary recipes tend to really cut down on salt, probably in an effort to make recipes more "heart healthy." I'm sure that's a good thing, of course.
But this is pie, people. And it's Thanksgiving, after all!
Most single pie crust recipes call for anywhere from a pinch to 1/4 tsp of salt. It's not enough. In order to enhance the flavor of an otherwise remarkably bland combination of ingredients, you need as much as 1/2 tsp -- yes, double what most recipes call for.
This, of course, is if you're looking for a traditional pastry for pie -- there are lots of recipes out there that include ingredients such as sugar, vinegar and/or liquers, but to me, that's too much flavor. A good pie crust is like a good dance partner -- it knows how to enhance the performance of the "lady" -- in this case, the yummy pie filling -- without trying to steal the show. Besides, I think such ingredients make crust taste more like cookies. That's not what I'm looking for here. My goal all along has been to make a truly delicious crust using only the most basic ingredients, and using enough salt, I've found, is the key.
(I gave my recipe and my preparation method in Part I of this Pie School series; but let's just quickly recap that I use 1-1/4 c flour, 1/2 c shortening or an equal mix of shortening & butter, 1/2 tsp of salt, and 1/4 c cold water -- plus up to 2-1/2 tsp more water if needed to fully moisten the dough.)
Warm their hearts.
Reason #2 for a less than tasty crust: Too cold. Pie crust tastes best fresh out of the oven, after it's cooled enough to cut neatly; failing that, room temperature is second-best. (I wonder if that's why so many refrigerated pudding-type pies have a graham cracker crust!) Cold pie crust brings out the bland flavor of the shortening, and makes the crust seem more dense.
If the pie crust must be refrigerated, allow it to stand at room temperature until it is no longer chilly. Better yet, if it's the sort of pie you can serve warm, gently reheat it in the oven for about 15 minutes, at 350 degrees F. Protect the crust by covering the edges with foil (more on that in a minute!).
Resist the temptation to reheat pie in the microwave. Doing so will make it taste better than stone-cold, but it will ruin the texture, making it chewy or soggy or both. You want your guests to experience your best work, after all, and there's no sense in ruining it now! On the other hand, if you just want a quick piece for midnight snack when no one else is looking, you may decide to go the microwave route anyway; but don't say you weren't warned. :)
Bake them happy!
Finally, the best taste comes from the best baking. To my well-brought up sensibilities :), a perfectly-done pie crust is lightly golden brown in color, with a slightly bubbled texture that flakes to the touch. The fruit filling, if that's the kind you made, may even bubble up the tiniest bit between the vents or decorative cuts or lattice work, and carmelize slightly at the edges of the openings.
It's a beautiful thing.
The outside edge of the pie crust will tell the whole story. If that's burnt or doughy, well, yuck. You'll see a lot of crust left behind on the dessert plates when you go to clean up.
Who wants to do all that work, just to see that?
There are two easy solutions to this problem, and if you do them both, you'll have perfectly done, tasty pie crusts every time.
(1) Since I'm neither a pastry chef or a very experienced home pie crust maker my best baking results have come when I've relied on the experts. Follow your recipe's baking instructions to the letter -- and use a tried-and-true resource like a big name cookbook or a Test Kitchen's website. Less formal sources may inadvertently leave out an important step; and if you're a novice like me, you won't have yet developed the intuition to make up for that omission successfully. Make sure the oven is fully pre-heated before you start, and use a timer. Check the pie at the earliest part of the recommended range suggested in the cookbook, and frequently thereafter if it needs additional baking. You've come too far now to ruin everything by burning your hard work to a crisp!
(2) As I alluded in the previous section, a real crust-saving tip is to cover the edges of the crust during most of the baking, with aluminum foil. My mom used narrow strips of foil and molded them loosely around the edges of the pie, but I really love the suggestion in my BH&G cookbook to fashion a cover out of a whole sheet of foil. Fold the sheet in fourths, then cut a quarter-circle at the corner fold. Unfold the foil sheet, and you have a perfect "peek-a-boo" cover to loosely mold around the pie crust edges. (A word of caution: Make sure your snips left no tiny foil shards that could fall onto the pie -- if any of your guests have amalgum fillings and bite on one ... well, let's just say there may be ceiling tiles to repair.) :)
Remove the foil for the last 15 minutes or so of baking to allow the crust edges to brown up nicely (unless, of course, your trusted recipe source tells you otherwise!)
Baking pies, I've discovered, is actually very rewarding, especially when you can count on a tasty, flaky crust for your efforts! Plus, you can use your blossoming pie crusting skills to make other fun stuff, like tarts, cookies, apple dumplings, pot pies and even mini-pies to replace those awful pop tart things your kids are always begging you to buy! Sure, you can use the pre-made stuff from the store. But if you want your kids to spend the rest of their lives telling all and sundry about how their mom made the best pie crusts they've ever eaten, well, now you know how! :)
Next: Part III: Post-Thanksgiving Photo Edition!