My mother is one of the best cooks I know. She’s especially good at baking. She’ll take on anything. I think she takes the most risks when she bakes. While I rank pretty high in the area of adventurous cooking (a few marks below my friend T who’s been known to dry homemade sausage in his bathroom), I am incredibly impatient with the precision that’s required to bake. Accidentally add too much salt to your red sauce and you can find a way around it. Accidentally double your baking powder, or worse, baking SODA and you’re screwed. In my book, anyone willing to take on pate brisee (pie crust) is someone worthy of a medal of courage.
My mother has the right temperament for baking. I remember growing up, she baked often. Pies were usually made for traditional occasions. I assisted often and she was a good teacher. I’d made up my mind early on that making pie crust was probably not for amateurs: Things like ice water and blending fat into flour until it reached the “right” consistency needed a terrifying amount of patience and focus.
So ever the years, crust has terrified me. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve attempted it. One time, I made a rhubarb strawberry pie with/for friends. I had to disregard a few of my mother’s stipulations: 1) Always know your oven—an uneven oven can be Hell. 2) Crust needs to be kept cool while you’re working it and 3) You need to work fast.
The day of the rhubarb pie, I made it in my friend’s kitchen, we were friends who joked around A LOT; therefore distracting ourselves from completing things in a normal time frame and it was one of the hottest days of the summer. While the filling was delicious; the crust was horrible to work with and it seemed to melt over the pie. It browned unevenly. Blah. Discouraged.
Fast forward to last week. My sister gave me the cutest little pie mold for my birthday, made by a company called Tovolo. I had to make a pie. I just had to.
I tried the easy route and searched the grocery store for a good crust. After repeated attempts to make “quick and easy meals using pre-made pie crusts” last summer and trying every pre-made crust available, I knew not to touch those lardy, crumbly, “unbrownable” sorry excuses for crusts. I had to do it myself.
I skipped the Martha Stewart recipe I’d used in the past and opted for Jacques Pepin’s pate brisee recipe from his “Jacques Pepin Celebrates” book. After all, Jacques has never failed me. It was a hot day but my butter was very cold–as was my ice water. My rolling pin spent some time in the freezer. My flour was cold…enough. Jacques recommends using a food processor: I chilled my blade.
It turned out to be such a simple process—much easier than using a pastry blender or knives (another mistake during rhubarb pie incident was using knives to cut the dough). And there they were: The flecks of butter. I worked quickly, rolling it out to 11″, wrapped it in waxed paper (I don’t use plastic wrap) and into the fridge it went. Then I realized I needed to double the recipe. I made another. Then I realized I had some rhubarb in the fridge that needed to be used, so I made another. Then I got a request to make an apple pie so I made another.
I used Tovolo’s berry filling recipe that came with the mold. I pulled out my first crust and followed the mold maker’s instructions. The crust was very cold but it stuck to the mold anyway. I made two little pies that looked like crap. I baked them (took longer than the mold’s instructions) and the berries poked through the crust—the crust looked like it was melting off the top of one. They still looked like crap even with their nice, even tan. With the scraps, I made an extra little pie in a ramekin with heart shapes on top. My favorite part, the filling, was tasteless: Flavorless blackberries (a sin). Crust was excellent. The molds; not so much.
Next: A rhubarb and apple galette. I ground the almonds myself (prevents the juices from the fruit from soaking into the bottom of the crust). Out of the refrigerator came the crust and it was easy to work with. Galettes are much more appealing to me because they allow a “rustic” look—a great way to cover up imperfect techniques and they look so darn “farmie”. (Sorry, I couldn’t locate the recipes online. Send a comment and I’ll transcribe and send it to you.)
The crust browned evenly (check). It was flaky (check). It had great flavor (although I’d add a little more sugar in the future for desserts) – check. Best of all, hours later, the crust held up. And better than that, the next day, when I nuked it; it completely held up—still flaky, still the perfect texture.
Thanks Jacques. Thanks mom.