“It takes a pretty good cake to equal pie.” – David Letterman
I am taking quite a bit of flack from my mother for posting this. She’s a bit upset that I’m willing to share the family secret recipe. You see, my mom makes the absolute best pie that you’ve ever had. No joke. Pie from any other source has never come close. I’ve had pie from incredibly talented pastry chefs from all over the place, and not one holds a fork to my mom’s pie. Pies from places that specialize in only pies often illicit a “meh” from me, because their pie crust just doesn’t compare to Mom’s.
She thinks that this recipe should be something that we keep amongst our family. It’s a source of pride. My grammy taught my mom how to make a pie, and my mom taught me. Luckily for you, I disagree with Mom. Food this good deserves to be shared. Besides, this is more of a technique than a recipe. It took me at least 10 years to really get it right. That should not scare you off though! If you’re not lucky enough to have had my mom’s pie, learning to make pie this good is worth an investment in time.
Whenever i’m evaluating a new recipe for pie dough, my first inclination is to look at the source of fat. Is it going to be butter (taste) or shortening (flakiness)? Or some combination of both? Normally, if you asked whether you ought to sacrifice taste or texture of a food, I’d say “texture”. Taste is always of the utmost importance when it comes to food. In theory, butter should win out. But that’s just not the case with pie dough. Butter crusts are just tough in comparison. Even those with a combination of butter and shortening are tough. And they wind up sitting on the side of my plate. I have tried all the tricks to produce “flaky” butter pie doughs. None of them produce flakiness like shortening. And that texture is crucial to making a pie dough that passes muster. While butter tastes better than shortening, butter crusts just aren’t tender and flaky. Your pie deserves better than that. If you’re freaked out by the processed sort of nature of shortening, go with lard. Just steer clear of butter if you’re trying to emulate my mom’s pie dough.
While this recipe, like all pie doughs, takes a bit of practice, I’m going to share my tips and tricks for getting it right. This dough is far less finicky than any butter dough you’ve made. But you must do it by hand. You add in a food processor and it’s going to be tough. Mixing dough by hand requires a little skill, but you can master pie dough and be the envy of your family and friends!
pie dough (with step-by-step picture instructions)
Step 1. Gather the right tools. A sturdy pastry blender. A bench scraper (nice to have). A decent rolling pin.
Step 2. Combine the ingredients in a mixing bowl:
For a single crust pie:
1 cup all purpose flour
½ cup vegetable shortening
1/2 tsp salt
Your shortening does not have to be cold and there will not be any need for refrigeration throughout this process. It doesn’t make a difference here. It’s much, much quicker to whip together than a butter pie crust.
Step 3. Use your pastry blender to cut the shortening into little bitty pieces. Smaller than peas. After a few pass throughs, I use a fork to scrape off the excess on the pastry blender back into the bowl.
3 Tbsp water
Just dump it in and then mix it in with a fork.
Mix until the dough sticks together a bit when pressed. Don’t overdo it, but don’t undergo it. This is a pretty important step. The dough needs to just hold together. If you over handle it, it’s going to be tough. But if you under handle it, it’s not going to stick together during the rolling phase.
Step 5. Roll it on out. You only get one shot with this. You cannot put it back together and re-roll. That produces a tough crust. The secret to this step is flour, frequent turning of the dough, and a bit of patience.
Pick up your dough and pat it into a ball.
Begin rolling, turning the dough and lifting up to add a bit more flour very frequently (every few rolls).
Continue to roll out with frequent turning and flouring. If your crust sticks at any point, use the bench scraper to get underneath that bit and flour liberally. If your crust splits apart at any point, gently patch it back together. A patched crust is going to taste just fine. One that’s re-rolled is not salvageable (unless you’re making pie dough cinnamon rolls). In that case read on…
Step 6. Transfer your crust to your dish. When you’ve reached a circumference that’s large enough to fit into your pie plate, fold the crust in half (and in fourths, if necessary) using your bench scraper and place into the pie plate. Unfold.
Step 7. Make it pretty. Cut off the excess overhang. Crimp the edges.
Sorry for the blurriness of this photo. I needed both my hands and my 3 year year old was my photographer.
Prick the inside
Step 8. Bake it. 325 degrees for 15 minutes. The baking time for your crust may be a bit longer or shorter.
Step 9. Fill it with something delicious. Fresh glazed berries. Or butterscotch pudding (keep a watch out for my next post…)
*This dough can be frozen after step 7. Alternatively, it can also be frozen when folded in half or fourths in a plastic freezer bag if you don’t have a “freezable” pie pan.
pie dough cinnamon rolls
These little beauties have been demanded by every kid in my extended family every time my mom or aunts would make a pie. My mom used to make just a few with the scraps of the dough, but my family loves them so much that my husband asks that I make an entire batch any time I’m making pie! I even have a cousin that has been known to ask for them for his birthday dessert instead of the traditional birthday pie. They’re worth rolling out 1 more crust.
Roll out your crust as described above. I usually make this one a bit more oblong and ovular. A perfect rectangle is unnecessary.
Melt 2 Tbsp butter and pour on the crust. Spread out with a spatula or icing spreader.
Sprinkle on ½ cup dark brown sugar, 2 tsp cinnamon, and 1 Tbsp sugar.
Roll the dough up. You can either cut these with a sharp knife or a piece of dental floss (unflavored!) for precision-edges.
This recipe yields about 16 little rolls. Bake these at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.
They’re quite lovely when served warm with a cup of coffee. Enjoy!