Pastry and pie crusts all have roots in one basic recipe, but there are a myriad of tiny variations that bakers argue about endlessly. Butter, shortening, vodka - so many ways to tweak a pie crust! We are really not very good at pie dough; we are much better at butter-rich tarts and cakes. So we're on a quest to improve our pies. Here's the formula we're currently using; it is working well for us but feel free to add your own variation too!
All-butter crusts can be too rich and slightly greasy. All-shortening crusts, on the other hand, can be too stiff and difficult to roll out. But we love the flakiness of shortening and the taste of butter. (Haven't tried a lard crust yet!)
This recipe has 2 parts butter to one part shortening. We use the non-hydrogenated variety of vegetable shortening, although we have noticed, regrettably, that this isn't quite as good for pies. Use it for health, or throw caution to the wind for a monthly treat and make it with the bad old stuff. Up to you.
Also, this recipe makes enough dough for three 9" or 10" crusts; you could probably squeeze four 9" crusts out if you were super stingy with the dough. Even though pie crust isn't that much of a chore, it does take time, so we like a recipe that will let us freeze enough for a couple extra pies. We got one double crust deep-dish pie and one single crust out of this recipe.
One more note on method: we love our food processor for making pie and tart doughs. BUT. (Big but.) We have been struggling with the dough and wondering if it's because our food processor immediately cuts the fat into too-small and too-uniform pieces. The tender flakiness of pie dough comes in large part from the irregularity of the fat as it's worked into the flour. This time through we used our fingers and it was much better. We're leaving the food processor to the shortbreads and tart doughs, for now.
Basic Pie Crust
dough for three 9" crusts
4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons fine white sugar (optional)
1 cup chilled butter
1/2 cup chilled shortening
1/2-3/4 cup ice cold water
Prepare 3 large pieces of plastic wrap or wax paper by misting lightly with baking spray.
Mix the flour, salt and sugar, if using. Cut the butter into fine chunks with a knife. Shake into the bowl with the flour. Drop the shortening in by teaspoons. Using the tips of your fingers, quickly work the fat into the flour, pinching and squeezing and rolling each piece of butter lightly.
When most of the butter and shortening is no larger than a large pea or lima bean, stop. Some chunks will still be irregular, but it should mostly be all rubbed together. All fat should be coated with flour.
In drips and drops, pour in the water, stopping after the first half cup. Quickly with your hands try to draw the dough together into a ball. If big clumps still fall off or crumble, add water just until it comes together and you can pick the whole lump up in your hands. Do not mix it any more than this - just draw it together gently.
Separate into three pieces and gently press into thick disks. Wrap each in the prepared paper and put in the fridge for at least an hour, or in the freezer until chilled through.
To pre-bake, roll out a disk of dough between two sheets of waxed paper. Press into a greased pie dish. Trim off the edges and pinch close to the rim. Put back in the refrigerator or freezer until chilled, and heat the oven to 375°F. Take the pie shell out of the fridge and prick the bottom several times with a fork. Bake on the bottom oven rack for 18-20 minutes or until baked but not browned.
Dough can be well-wrapped and frozen until needed.
• More tips on pie crusts: Questions for Allie: Why Is My Pie Dough Shrinking?
• Good Product: Tupperware Pastry Sheet
• Pie Crust Bag - Dorie Greenspan loves this thing so now we want one too!
• DIY Graham Cracker Crust
(Images: Faith Durand)