Today is pie-making day in my house, and in the chill of the morning, I'm putting together the pastry so it'll have time to rest before I roll and prebake it later this afternoon.
If you've never made your own pastry, this may not be the time to try to learn. Not that it's complicated or difficult: it isn't. But it does take some finesse and experience to do it well. If the very thought paralyzes you, then a ready-made roll-out crust from the market is your safest option. Buy and use it without apology.
But get the kind that you roll yourself and check it's contents: you want the ones made with real lard. The frozen ready-made pie shells are at best dull and at the worst you'll be throwing away plate after plate of scraped-clean pastry that is like compressed sawdust.
If you want to attempt your own crust, make it early today, so that you've got plenty of time to get the hang of it. The secrets to success with pastry are few: low-gluten flour, well-chilled shortening, a light hand, being stingy with the water (too much will toughen it), and practice.
My Basic Pastry
If you have a food processor, this good, basic all-purpose dough is a snap to get right the first time. Though both the hand and food processor methods are given here, once you've used the machine, you'll never make pastry any other way.
Makes enough for 2 9-inch pie shells
10 ounces (about 2 cups) pastry or all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
5 ounces (10 tablespoons or 1¼ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small bits
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) chilled lard (preferred) or vegetable shortening, cut into small bits
A scant ½ cup ice water
1. Put the processor's steel blade in the freezer for 5 minutes, then insert it in 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 is the texture of coarse, damp meal with a few lumps no larger than very small peas. Pulse in 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 probably won't need all the water. Skip to step 3.
2. If you don't have a machine, hand blending is not difficult, but is a little tedious: 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 described above. 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. Spread a sheet of plastic wrap on a work surface and turn the pastry out onto it. Using the edges of the wrap so that you're not handling the dough itself, gather it into into a ball, then divide it into two equal portions with a knife or pastry board scraper. Put one half on another sheet of wrap, wrap it well, then press it gently until it forms a 1-inch-thick disk. Repeat with the other piece, then refrigerate for 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. 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 knife or kitchen scissors, then cut it into little decorative shapes—like leaves. 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 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. Cut a sheet of parchment or foil large enough to completely cover the piecrust. If you're using foil, butter the bright side. Lay the paper or foil over the pastry buttered-side down and gently press it 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 parchment or foil, and return the pastry to the oven. Bake until it's beginning to color and the bottom looks dry, about 5-10 minutes longer. If the pastry bubbles up, gently prick it with a fork. Cool it on a rack before filling it.