Pie Crust – just make your own

The simple pleasure of making your own pie crust should not be underestimated

Until this morning, you might have said my approach to pie crust was a little fraught. I fussed and worried, wildly flip-flopping allegiances from the practical and traditional Joy of Cooking to the fantastically overwrought Cook’s Illustrated. (Although I have to say, the Cook’s vodka pie crust recipe is pretty impressive. I love the science of the alcohol as a replacement for water. Such brilliant and subversive fun!) I could never settle on MY piecrust though, and shouldn’t one be able to have a single recipe to use every time? One of the best things my mom makes is piecrust and if you watched her make one, you’d never guess how perfect it is. She uses no gimmicky trick in making her all butter crust. And it is perfectly flakey. My mother credits the lemon juice but I say she handles the dough in a way that I just haven’t been able to figure out. Anyway, after my experience last week,  I think I’m onto something.

I was thinking about piecrust with regard to quiche because my kids are suddenly obsessed by quiche, less for its gustatory pleasures than literary. (My kids read the Bone graphic novel series so they’re wildly into quiche right now.) I reached into the bookshelf for Mastering the Art of French Cooking – who would know better than Ms. Child about the best quiche method? Suddenly, I knew I was on a mission and actually it wasn’t quiche that was calling to me but crust. After a recent bad experience (confession alert!) with a frozen Trader Joe’s pie crust I was determined to just do it myself, and speedily without over-thinking. I was going to try the Julia method! (Just to put this craziness into context – this is minutes before I had to leave for the school bus!) I started rummaging around for the ingredients like a madwoman, yelling to the kids to “Get your coats and lunch boxes and wait by the front door with the dog! I’ll just be a few minutes!”

Weirdly, there was no fussing around. Even though Julia Child has a reputation for being complicated, her pâte brisée recipe turned out to be the pie crust I was looking for. In just 15 minutes, far less time than it takes to defrost a frozen pie crust, you can easily make one from scratch. You probably won’t even have to go to the grocery store.

Ms. Child does not use any wacky ingredients (i.e. vodka). What she details is a technique that was new to me. Fraisage. Nobody ever talked about fraisage in any of the other recipes. Combine the technique with a trusty food processor and all of a sudden a once dreaded pie crust is a thing to whip up in a few stolen moments before the school bus arrives. The dough turned out silky, pliable and it was a breeze to roll out. The baked crust was refined and flaky, unlike my previous crust work which, although flaky, had a sort of homely brutishness, stemming from a fear of over-handling the dough. If you are fearful, you’ll never fully amalgamate the butter with the flour and the pockets of butter embedded in the dough will be enormous, causing shrinkage and a blobbish crimped edge. With Ms Child’s method, the fat is perfectly united with the flour, creating those little melty steam pockets to make perfect flakiness. In addition, this dough will not shrink disturbingly.

Fraisage sounds like a complicated technique you’d have to apprentice yourself to a patissier in France to learn, but it’s not. I figured it out in fifteen minutes between throwing the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher and running the kids out to the bus stop, so obviously you’ll be able to. Unless you are a deeply inexperienced baker I would think you will not need a dry run for this recipe. Please make your own pie crust. We need to preserve our cooking culture! Pie bakers unite! Just say “No!” to vile, palm oil sullied, industrial crusts!

Pâte Brisée – for one double crust pie

  • 2 1/2 c. flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, very cold, cut into 1/2 inch cubes. (I cut them, put them on a plate and put them in the freezer until I’m ready)
  • 1/2 cup + 4 tbsp ice water) and perhaps a little more

Blending dry ingredients

Combine the dry ingredients in the bowl of your food processor and pulse a few times to fully combine.

Butter - in 1/2" cubes

Distribute the butter over the flour evenly

Add the butter, distributing it evenly over the flour mixture. Pulse 4 or 5 times. Now you have to be very quick. With the machine on, add a half cup of water all at once. Then quickly turn it off. Pulse 5-7 more times.

Curd-like crumbles show the dough is done with the food processor

The dough should look like dry curds, if not, add small amounts of ice water (by the tablespoon, no more), to the dough, pulsing carefully. When it looks like the photo above, on to fraisage!

Just before fraisage

Lightly flour an area on your counter where you can manipulate the dough. You’ll need a clear clean 18″ square area. Place the dough on the counter.

Pushing the dough away with the heel of my hand

Using the heel of your hand (your palm will be too warm and start to melt the butter) quickly press down and away from you, small amounts of the dough, smearing it out about 6 inches. This smearing is the fraisage.

Using a dough scraper or a stiff spatula, pull all the dough together and knead it (not too much) into a smooth-ish round ball.

Dough divided in equal halves

Divide it into two equal halves, dust lightly with flour, flatten into disks and wrap with plastic.

Ready to rest

Now the dough has to rest. Do not imagine that you can just skip this part. (Which is what I used to do.) Put it in the freezer for an hour or the refrigerator for at least two hours or up to 3 days. It can be frozen for weeks and defrosted in the refrigerator. If it is too hard to roll out, bash it hard with your rolling pin. You can then knead it quickly into a flat disk, ready to roll out.

Lightly flour the dough and roll it out into a circle, firmly but gently, always rolling away from you. Periodically, you might want to run a thin flexible knife or offset spatula underneath to ensure the dough hasn’t stuck to the counter.

Roll the dough until 1/8″ thick. Using your rolling pin to support it, carefully drape the dough over the pie pan.

Repeat with the other circle.

Fill with apples, berries or whatever your heart desires. (In case you are wondering what I’m doing, it’s apple. Send a note to comments if you need directions for fillings! I am always happy to help.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

P.S. When my pie is finished, late morning on Thanksgiving, I will definitely post a picture!

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11 Responses to Pie Crust – just make your own

  1. This is a wonderful and easy to follow written and visual description on how to make pie crust. Very timely for the holiday season and those of us that are pie lovers.
    Thank you!

  2. Thank you Amy! Now, will you make one please and let me know how it comes out?!

  3. Of course! I must!

  4. Sarah, what perfect timing!!! I’m just about to make my pie crusts for Pecan and Pumpkin pies and was sitting here wondering if my standby recipe was still the right choice. I’m going to try this instead. Wish you were here…

  5. This is so exciting! Can we conference on Thursday?! I will be at home baking of course. I am also making a quince and dried cherry bread pudding and if anyone wants to make that too, poach your quinces tomorrow!

  6. Crusts turned out well, I think. My cutting board wasn’t 18×18 and I incorrectly thought I could be very neat. Lesson learned but I have one happy dog! I did the second batch right on the countertop, which was much more successful.

    Yes, let’s talk on Thursday! We now have wifi in the house at stony hill. Are you on skype? Have I asked you that before?

  7. Yes! Let’s Skype – I’ll be up early on Thursday. What time are you rolling it out?

  8. As a pie crust snot and snob, I love this geeked out post all about pie crust! I will try these when I get the chance! I don’t experiment a lot with pie crust – I’ve been using the same James McNair pie crust recipe since I was in college. I’ve made it so many times, I have it memorized. And I’m anxious to see your pictures! (Also do you have ideas about this? Just since the birth of my daughter 4 months ago, my pie crusts are shrinking during the pre-bake. Why is that? What am I doing differently?)

  9. Did you change the butter?! I have heard that if you use fancier butter, it’s better. I too periodically have problems with shrinkage and it drives me crazy! I have that James McNair Pie book – I got it as a wedding present. For a long time I used the Joy of Cooking all butter crust (just a little shortening), then the Cook’s Illustrate vodka crust (fun but too out-there in the end) and then I talked to my mom and started just going for all out butter (I hate the idea of shortening). Weirdly, my mother told me two weeks ago that she started substituting a tablespoon of canola for 1 of butter and she feels this is the answer! Personally, I think my quest is over but we shall see tomorrow! I am hoping for an impeccably crimped edge!

  10. Gerry O'Scannlain

    Hi Sarah,
    I read your pie crust notes above with interest since I am also making apple pie for Thanksgiving this year to bring to the O’Scannlain’s for dinner. (All of us, including Deirdre, Conor, Fergus and I will be attending.) I researched new pie crust recipes and love Melissa Clark at the New York Times who did a thorough study on the different types of fats to use. I decided to try her recommendation of Plugra, a butter made with a higher butterfat content than most American butter (82% butterfat, vs. 80% [1]), resulting in a richer flavor and lower water content. I’ll let you know how it comes out. I also steamed my sugar pumpkin and butternut squash for pie this year. Then pureed them in the queezie. The results will be seen tomorrow after dinner so stand by and happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.
    Love, Aunt Gerry

  11. Queezie! Aunt Gerry – you are adorable! I did the Julia Child pie crust and it is fantastic. Fraissage really is not a big deal but it does make a huge difference. However, I overcooked the apples when I pre-cooked them for the pie (cut slightly too thin) but I am sure it will be fine – at least it will taste fine. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and send big hugs to all the other O’s. :-)

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