Of all the things my dad hung on to from his college years – including a love of gorges, 70s smart-kid fraternity humor, and a deep affection for glee club music – it’s a rumpled, stained, typewritten worksheet entitled “Apple Pie Lab” that I hope our family never, ever loses track of. You see, though my dad comes from a long line of (male and female) pie makers, he also went to the “hotel school” at a university out east, and this pie lab document represents a perfect union of homespun tradition and scientific inquiry.
This is the second year in a row that my sister, Gianna, and I have come together on a fall day to both coach and heckle each other through the making of anywhere from 2-4 pies. (This time we did 3.) You see, of all of the siblings, Gianna was given the fearless pastry gene. (I was given the similar but fundamentally different “general cookery” gene, which, as we’ve seen in the past, often presents itself in pastry situations with many questions, some nervous sweats, and a boundless need for reassurance and validation.)
Last year, we made blueberry pie. As our father has before us, Gianna stuck pretty faithfully to the shortening crust recipe found on the pie lab sheet. Her crusts always come out lovely and quite tasty, but something in me always wonders, “if shortening crust can be this good, how much better could a butter crust be??” Following that line of inquiry, I embarked on my first all-butter pie crust last year. The flavor was excellent, and I could even detect, in places, a potentiality of flakiness. Unfortunately, the blueberries were so juicy, and my filling not heavy enough on a binder (flour or cornstarch), that the resulting pie turned out a bit soupy. So, flavor: thumbs up. Structure and technical merits: in need of improvement.
This year, having already unburdened our respective households of summer fruit (both fresh and frozen), Gianna and I decreed that Pie Lab 2014 would focus on a classic apple pie. Her variable this year, as she always makes 2 pies at a time, was based on apple varietal: she chose Golden Delicious for one pie, and Braeburns for the other. My variable would be harder to measure, as I only planned to make one pie, so I’d be depending on my memory of last year’s crust. I’d use a combination of Granny Smith and Braeburn apples, then put my shredded butter and buttermilk theory of pastry to the test in a pie application.
Un. Believable. I noticed while making the dough that the buttermilk had made it a little fragrant, and I looked forward to a possible slight tang in the crust to counter the sweetness of the apples. While the pie baked, that creamy fragrance emanated from the oven, and was still present – though a little nuttier and deeper – when the pie came out. As with the galettes it has helped to make, I found the buttermilk made the crust a little more sturdy and golden than others I have made/seen. The shredded butter worked like a dream – AGAIN – as it combined so easily with the dry ingredients (no more neuroses about “coarse meal” or about the wishful thinking that happens when one is forced under duress to envision the actual size of a pea) and ensured that every centimeter of the crust was flaky.
So now, I share with you my newest pride and joy: the Pie Lab-Tested, Wooden Spoon Society-Approved, All-Butter-Buttermilk Pie Crust.
FOR THE CRUST
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 sticks (1 cup) butter, frozen solid
- 1 cup well-shaken, very cold buttermilk
- Other gear: pie plate/dish, rolling pin, extra flour, wax paper, small sharp knife
Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl, and whisk to combine. Allow the butter to sit on the countertop for 10-15 minutes before unwrapping. You can use this downtime to start prepping whatever fruit you’re using – peel the apples, pit the stone fruit, whatever. Unwrap the butter gradually, as you work your way up, and get to shredding over a large bowl. As I’ve noted before, this works best on a broad Microplane or the little shred (not grate!) side of a box grater. Once all your butter is grated, put it in the freezer for 15 minutes. Next, measure out your buttermilk, and stow that in the freezer for a bit as well. This is a good time to finish prepping your fruit.
Remove the butter and buttermilk from the freezer. Get your bowl of dry ingredients, and add the butter to the bowl. You can use a fork or pastry blender to work the butter into the flour mixture, and it should not take much effort. All you need to focus on is breaking up any major clumps larger than, say, your thumbnail.
Next, add about half of the buttermilk to the mixture, and stir with a spatula or wooden spoon, gently pushing it all together. Add the other half of the buttermilk, and keep forming the mixture together in larger clumps. Working slowly here is a good thing – the dough will take a little time to hydrate, so don’t add more liquid than just the original cup. Once the buttermilk is incorporated, you should be able to pull the whole lump of dough together with your hands. You may have stragglers, and that’s okay. Gently press them together into the larger lump of dough, and form a ball. If you’ve STILL got stragglers, don’t worry. We will address them later, so all is not lost. Turn the dough – stragglers and all – onto a sheet of plastic wrap and pull it together in one tight package. Seal it up, and put the dough in the fridge for 1-2 hours to rest. If you need to finish prepping your fruit, you can do so here. If you are a busy person and have things to do, you can use this time to do what you need. You almost can’t over-rest the dough. (Unless you left it for a week.)
Now’s also a nice time to take a rest with your new dog, if he is around and down to chill.
When it’s time to take out the dough, open up the plastic wrap and check on those dry stragglers, if you had any. Have they calmed down a bit? Are they sticking to the rest of the dough? If so, great! If not, cup one of your (clean) hands and pour just barely a teaspoon’s worth of buttermilk into the crevice of your hand. Rub your hands together over the dough – like you’re about to apply lotion or sunscreen – and gently press down on the dry spots, helping everything to stick together. The tiny bit of liquid, combined with the warmth of your hands, will pull it all together beautifully. If you find the dough a little sticky, don’t fret. You’ll be rolling it in more flour later, so it’ll even out. Cut the dough into almost halves – one should be slightly bigger than the other (that will be your bottom layer). Shape each half into a ball.
Grab a pie dish and get it greased up with some butter Set aside the dish and get your wax paper. Cut a nice long length – maybe 18 inches – then cut another one of the same size. Lay down one layer of wax paper, sprinkle some flour on it, then put down your larger “half” of dough. Sprinkle some flour on top of that, then the 2nd layer of wax paper. Roll out into a 12-14 inch round. Lay the dough out over the pie dish, peeling the wax paper back slowly. Make sure the dough gets all the way into the bottom of the dish and is flat across the middle. Fill the dish with your chosen fruit. Roll out the top layer in the same way, and lay it across. Crimp the edges closed with your thumb or a fork, and poke some holes in the top. Trim off the excess dough on the side, making your way around the dish with your knife at a bit of an angle. Sprinkle the top with sugar, if you like.
Bake for 30-40 minutes at 425F, until the crust is golden and the edges are starting to brown.
OPTIONAL TIP from the advice of pro pastry people: if your bottom layer of dough has a tendency to be undercooked, you can blind-bake the bottom layer alone to firm it up. Just stop short of your filling and top layer, shove the bottom layer in the pan into the oven until the dough starts to get a little golden, then take it out. Fill and top as normal, and bake away.