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Recipes and Stories

23 November 2014 Mastering Thanksgiving IV—The Pastry Cook

More than half the battle in perfecting the Thanksgiving pies, whether they are sweet potato (shown here), pumpkin or pecan, is a flaky, made-from-scratch pastry

Never mind the arguments over whether the pie should be pumpkin, sweet potato, pecan or not pie at all, but cheesecake: the easiest way to deal with whatever you’ve planned for the grand finale is to sweet talk someone else into doing it. However, if you’ve not done that (or you’re the person who got sweet-talked), and are contemplating a ready-made pastry, know that the difference between a memorable pie and a merely good one is the crust.

If you’ve never made your own pastry, you’re not a moment too soon learning. Make your first batch of pastry now, so that you’ve got plenty of time to get it right before the big day. Even if you’re experienced, it’s good to get messy jobs like this one done ahead and out of the way. Pastry can be made several days ahead and the pies can and should be made the day before.

The secrets to success with pastry are few: low-gluten pastry flour, well-chilled shortening, a light hand, and practice. If you’re still intimidated, know that there’s no such thing as a born pastry cook; Julia Child was in her forties when she mastered it. Even the greatest had to learn the techniques and practice them until it became second nature.

Basic Pastry

This is what the French call Pâté Brisée—and doesn’t it sound so much more elegant than “basic pastry”? But that’s really all it is—a good, basic all-purpose dough that every cook should have in his or her repertory. Both the hand and food processor methods are given here. Once you’ve used a food processor to make pastry, you’ll never make it any other way, but if you don’t have a machine, making it entirely by hand is still quite simple.

Makes enough for 2 9-inch pie shells

8 ounces (about 1-3/4 cups) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
5 ounces (10 tablespoons or 1-1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small bits
2 tablespoons chilled lard or vegetable shortening, cut into small bits
About 1/3 to 1/2 cup ice water

1. If you have a food processor, this pastry is a snap for a novice to master. Put the machine’s steel blade in the freezer for 5 minutes, then insert it into the work bowl, add the flour and salt, cover, and pulse to sift. Add the butter and lard and pulse until the fat is cut into the flour and the mixture is the texture of coarse, damp meal with little lumps of butter the size of very small peas. Add the ice water a little at a time, starting with ¼ cup and adding more by tablespoons as needed, pulsing between additions, until the pastry is just holding together but still a little crumbly. You may not need all the water. Skip to step 3.

2. If you don’t have a machine, hand blending is not much more difficult than that: Put the flour and salt in a mixing bowl and whisk to blend them. Add the butter and lard to the bowl and, cut them into the flour with a pastry blender until it’s the texture of coarse, damp meal, with little lumps of butter the size of very small peas. Gradually stir in enough ice water, starting with ¼ cup and adding more by tablespoons as needed until the pastry is just holding together but still slightly crumbly. You may not need all the water.

3. Now lightly dust a wooden, marble, or plastic laminate work surface with flour and turn the pastry out of the work bowl onto it. Gather the dough into a loose ball and, with the heel of your hand, press and it away from you, smearing it across the work surface. Fold and repeat this 2-3 times until the dough is uniform, dusting lightly with flour as needed. It should be cohesive but not elastic, malleable but not sticky. Gather the pastry into a ball, cover with plastic wrap, and chill at least 20 minutes. You may make it up to four days ahead.

4. When you’re ready to roll out the pastry, let it sit at room temperature until it is just softened enough to handle but still cool to the touch. The really key thing is to keep the pastry cool, but not so cold that it won’t roll, and to remember that what you are actually doing is slowly flattening the dough rather like a steamroller on the highway. You should never stretch it (and if you suspect that you’ve done that, lay it on a baking sheet and refrigerate it for 20 minutes or so to let it relax again). The reason you want to gradually flatten and not stretch is because stretching activates the glutens, which chain together and become like little rubber bands within your pastry: when they’re stretched, they’ll snap back to their original shape. That’s why pastry sometimes seems to “shrink” in the oven.

5. Lightly flour a work surface (any of the ones above or a pastry cloth), rub flour on your rolling pin (or lightly dust the dough with flour) and, working from the center, slowly flatten it to a disk of the thickness called for in the recipe, turning the pin regularly to flatten it evenly in all directions. The standard thickness for most pie shells is 1/8-inch.

6. Dust the pastry with flour, brush off the excess, and fold the dough in half, and then in half again. You’ll have a point at one end. Lay this point on the center of your pie dish and gently unfold it, never letting it stretch, but allowing it to fall into the dish. Gently lift the pastry and let it fall into the edges of the bottom of the dish, gently pressing (again without stretching) it into the crevice. Let the dough naturally fall against the side and over the top edge.

7. Finish the edge my either folding the excess under and crimping it, but the easiest way to make a pie look special, and insure that you don’t stretch the edges in shaping them, is to cut off the excess dough with a sharp pair of kitchen scissors, then cut little decorative shapes from it—leaves, mini stars, etc. Brush the edge of the pastry with cold water and lay the decorative cuts around the moistened edge. It’ll look as if a professional pastry cook made your piecrust.

Partially Baking Pastry

1. Now that the pastry is made and lining the pie dish, the best way to insure a light, flaky crust on a custard pie is to partially bake it “blind,” that is, without its filling. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375° F. Prick the prepared piecrust bottoms well with a fork.

2. Generously butter a piece of foil large enough to completely cover the piecrust and put it over the pastry buttered-side down, or lay a large sheet of parchment over the pastry. Gently press the foil or parchment into the corners, being careful not to mash the edges of the pastry or tear it. Fill each with pie weights or 1½-2 cups dried beans and gently shake it to level them. Bake on the center of the oven for about 20 minutes. The exposed edges should be barely beginning to color.

3. Remove the pastry from the oven, carefully lift out the foil (or parchment) and weights, and return the pastry to the oven. Bake until it’s beginning to color and the bottom looks dry, about 10 minutes longer. If the pastry bubbles up (as it will sometimes do), gently prick the bubbles with a fork. Cool it on a rack before filling it.

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