The battle is over. I am victorious in the pie category of life. There’s a pie category, right? I’ve really been rallying for one because I’m in for the whole hog, the entire kit and kaboodle and everything but the kitchen sink. I used to be a pie loser…really. My crusts were tough and chewy, my meringues flopped, my gelled pies de-gelled or ran willy nilly all over my plate and such. I honestly think years went by, and I really never attained a decent apple or lemon meringue pie. How sad, considering these seem to be the pocket aces of any red blooded American’s baking hand.
I was a baker at heart, and I was darned good at cookies, cakes, even souffles, but those damned pies had me beat. Then, something wonderful happened. After years of being a pie loser, I found it…the holy grail of pie crusts…one that is flaky, buttery, tender and scrumptious, and one that helped put an end to my pie making perils. This recipe also had a huge bonus…it did not require Crisco, lard or bacon fat.
For those of you who are not crazy foodie people you probably are lost….but there’s a BIG LIE out there in pieville that stipulates the use of lard or Crisco to make a flaky pie crust. This “Plain and Perfect Pie Crust” from Gale Gand’s Butter, Sugar, Flour, Eggs cookbook uses butter, not lard, and all the other usual suspects but adds one extra ingredient which is part of the flakiness magic…it’s red wine vinegar. Yes, that’s the whole difference, and I don’t know the science of it all after all I am no scientist and this is no science blog, but the vinegar reacts somehow with the other ingredients and helps to make the crust flaky.
Let’s face it, the crust is the main event in any pie. Screw up the crust and your pie goes down with it…just a sad excuse for a dessert and a seriously bad waste of calories. So roll up your sleeves, shove off that, “I can’t make a homemade crust,” mentality and dig in with me. I’m going to try and give you those simple tricks that will help you win your battle with the crust. Then the rest is easy…easy as pie (groan if you will)!
Plain and Perfect Pie Crust
Adapted From Butter, Sugar, Flour, Eggs
This recipe makes a single crust pie so double it for a top crust pie.
2 1/4 c. sifted all-purpose flour
1 t. salt
1 t. granulated sugar
1 1/2 sticks very cold unsalted butter, cut in small cubes
1/3 c. ice water (strain out the ice just before using)
1 t. red wine vinegar
Lemon Meringue Filling
Butter, Sugar, Flour, Eggs
1 c. sugar
3 1/2 T cornstarch
3 T flour
1/4 t. salt
1 1/2 c. water
1 1/2 lemons, zested
1/3 c. lemon juice
1/4 t. lemon extract
3 egg yolks
2 T. butter
Taken from Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook
4 large egg whites (separate the yolks in a separate bowl from your mixing bowl and each egg into your bowl one at a time. That way if you make a mistake with the separating, you won’t lose all the eggs)
1/2 t. vanilla
1/4 t. cream of tartar
6 T. granulated sugar
Crust:The first step is simple. Just dump all your dry ingredients in your bowl. I like to use my food processor and whir it once or twice to mix together the dry ingredients. If you don’t have one, then this is exactly what a pastry blending tool or hands are for. Then I add the butter. IMPORTANT: Start with really cold butter and chop it up into little cubes. Put the butter in the processor (or crumbles between your fingers with the flour until you have pea sized clumps of butter). Drop ice cubes into a liquid measuring cup and measure a little over 1/3 c. of cold water in it. Strain out the ice after a couple of minutes and make sure you are left with 1/3 c. water. Add the vinegar to the water and pour the water mixture into the processor (or your bowl). Pulse a few times (Or mix with a wooden spoon, hands or rubber scraper) until it looks mixed but there are still pea sized butter pieces in the mixture. If you are doing this by hand, you can either use a pastry blending utensil or your hands. Hands really work quite well because you don’t have the danger of over mixing. Just keep breaking up the butter between your fingers and incorporate all of the ingredients. If you over mix with the processor, it makes for a tougher crust. The coldness of the butter and water help make your crust flakier and so does leaving the butter in pea sized pieces. The butter pieces will create air pockets in your crust.
Now dump out your mixture onto a floured pastry board. It will still be in pieces so don’t freak out…it will be a little dry and crumbly but you just need to mush it together to form a thick disk. If it won’t come together, you can add a tablespoon of water on the crumbles of dough and mold it in until you can get it to form a disk. The worst thing you can do here is add too much water. The dough should not come together easily, and should never be wet or sticky like batter or bread dough. It takes a little work to pat it and get it to shape up and listen to instructions. After it is formed into a disk shape, wrap it in plastic wrap and place it in a ziploc bag in the fridge for at least an hour. This again is a great trick to flaky pie crust.
When you are ready to roll it out, make sure your surface is well floured and preheat your oven to 325 degrees. You will thank me later when you have to peel it off the pastry board. Don’t over roll. Just roll one way and then the opposite direction and keep going until it’s two inches bigger than your pie pan. I flip my pie pan upside down on the dough once it’s rolled out and take a paring knife to cut around the edges and trim them so I have a nice, finished edge. Place the dough into your ungreased pie pan and gently push the dough into the pan making sure there are no gaps between the dough and the pan. As for the edge, fold over the “overage” of dough around itself, making a double layer of pie dough around the edges. Then either use a fork to press it over the edges around the pan or use your fingers (bent index finger–using your knuckle– of one hand and thumb and bent index finger of the other hand) to “pinch” or form it into those pretty curves. Mine aren’t that pretty…do you see? Doesn’t matter.
IMPORTANT, CRITICALLY IMPORTANT….poke a fork into the dough ALL OVER THE DOUGH. Gently, please don’t take out your aggressions on the dough. The filling will seep through if you create big, gaping holes. Even poke the sides all around the dish or your crust will bubble up from underneath and you will have a bubbly pie crust mess. Finally, you are almost there and this step is optional but it does help with ultimate success…place a piece of foil (covers the entire bottom but not the edges) on the pie and fill with dried beans or pie weights (who has pie weights?…only crazy obsessed bakers right…see mine above…those are the little gray balls on the foil). Place in the oven for 25-30 minutes until it turns a golden blonde color, then take out the foil…don’t burn yourself like I do every time. Put the pie back in the oven for about 10 – 15 minutes (until pie is a medium brown). In the meantime, while the crust is doing it’s thing in the oven, make your filling.
Filling: Lemon Meringue filling is not for sissies. So if you are a pie newbie, you may want to check out a nice Dutch Apple Pie on the internet. It is a single crust pie and is super easy as far as fillings go. If you are ready for the big leagues, here we go. In a medium sauce pan, over medium to medium high heat, combine sugar, cornstarch, flour, salt and water. Whisk them together so there are no lumps from the cornstarch. Really whisk, use those wrists. Once there are no lumps you can switch to a wooden spoon because you don’t want to keep whisking it. Just stir, making sure to scrape the bottom and the sides of the pot and watch until it comes to a mild boil and is thickened, about 3 minutes. Don’t walk away, it will burn. When it’s done, turn off your burner or take it off the heat if you have an electric stove.
In a liquid measuring cup combine the lemon juice, lemon zest and extract with the yolks. Add a heaping spoon full of the hot sugar mixture to your eggs slowly stirring the eggs. Do that several times to temper you eggs. Otherwise they will scramble. Once the egg mixture is brought up to temperature, you can pour everything back in the pot. Add the butter in pats, and turn your burner on medium until the butter is melted and incorporated. Pour the HOT FILLING into your pie crust.
Meringue: Put egg whites, cream of tartar and vanilla into a mixing bowl or stand mixer. Beat on medium speed at first and then high speed to form soft peaks. Add the sugar one tablespoon at a time, beating in between until stiff, firm peaks form. Gently spread your meringue on top of your hot lemon filling, making sure to fill in any gaps between the meringue and the edge. Use the back of a large spoon to gently run over the top like waves, creating ripples and ultimately creating that nice point at the top. Put your pie back in the oven for 10 minutes, keeping an eye on it. You want it to have nice browning on the waves. Finally, let you pie fully cool before you refrigerate it. Otherwise it will turn runny in the fridge and you will end up with little moisture beads on top of your pie. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Please tell me how yours turned out!