Pies Please

My friend Christine is an avid home baker. We met a few years ago when her husband and I were working at the same firm. His desk was next to mine, and he would regularly rave about her cakes, shortbread, and pies – particularly her peach pie. She recently confided in me that she used Crisco (*yikes*) to make her pie crusts, and didn’t like the idea of using hydrogenated oil, so she wanted me to show her what fraisage was all about and how to use it to make all-butter pie crust.  Since we hadn’t seen each other in months, we made plans yesterday to have lunch and make pies together.

I had picked up some beautiful zucchini earlier this week, so I decided to make a Vegetable Torte.  Christine settled on making her almost-famous Peach Pie.  So after some lunch and much needed coffee, we put on some serious chick music  a la Carol King, Juice Newton (Oh yeah, because Angel of the Morning is a classic thank you very much), Christina Aguilera, Etta James, etc.. and got to work.


Now, I’ve made butter pie crust a million times.  I’ve never actually even tried any other types of fat (though I might try lard the next time I make a meat pie). I’d been using fraisage ever since I read about it in the July 2004 issue of Cooks Illustrated.  Thing is, I’ve never taught anyone to do it, and as I discovered, that’s a totally different thing.

First I pulled out two cutting boards, two knives, two of everything so that Christine and I could work alongside each other.  Then we diced up our butter and put it in the freezer to get nice and chilled.  That went smoothly, and while we waited, we logged onto the internet to see what the latest cover of US Weekly was all about.  After spotting it in the checkout line, we just had to know what was going on with Jessica Simpson’s weight.

Butter chilled, we set up to cut it into the flour.  Because Christine doesn’t have a food processor, we decided to do everything by hand so it would be as close as possible to the way she would make the recipe at home.  Now here is where we hit a little snag.  Christine was using my wire pastry cutter and I was using a plastic bench scraper.  The wires of the pastry cutter weren’t doing a very good job of cutting through the cold hard butter.  So I finished cutting my flour and butter, then handed Christine the bench scraper so she could cut hers.  In the meantime the butter in both our bowls were approaching room temperature.  When we added the water, it didn’t seem to be getting absorbed by the flour and was difficult to tell how much water we needed.  I thought that if we continued with the fraisage, it would help to blend the water into the dough.  So I quickly fraisaged my dough then helped Christine with hers.  All the while, both our doughs were sitting out at room temperature getting warmer and warmer.  They seemed crumbly and dry so we tried to incorporate more water into them, but they still didn’t seem to absorb anything.  By the time we were gathering the doughs into discs, mine had started sticking to the table, and Christine’s was so dry it was crumbling apart.   I knew things didn’t feel or look right, but we stuck them in the fridge and hoped for the best.  Meanwhile we both prepared our fillings, and did a little Facebook-ing.

When it came time to roll the doughs out, I was embarrassed to find that it was a little disastrous.  Sure, we managed to get the crusts into the pie pans, and the pies both actually turned out delicious, but the road getting there was not exactly the smoothest, and the crusts probably were not as flaky as they could have been.  Both our doughs were crumbly and had no elasticity.  There just didn’t seem to be enough moisture even though we had kept adding water.  My dough only began to take shape once the butter started to melt.  Then it was greasy and started to stick to the table, but I couldn’t move it dust underneath with flour because it was so brittle.  Christine had similar problems with hers.  Even though the pies turned out, I was disappointed because I was afraid that Christine went home with the impression that what we did was more complicated and difficult than it actually was.


So what went wrong?  More importantly, how could I have fixed it?  Today I was determined to figure it out.  So alone I went about making butter pie crust again – this time, paying extra attention to how the dough felt and looked at each step (and taking photos!).  First, I realized teaching someone to do something always takes longer than simply doing it yourself.  Obvious, I know.  It also occured to me that rule number one of making butter pie crust is to keep the butter COLD, and even at the first step of cutting the flour and butter together, we took so long that the butter had come to almost to room temperature.  Today after cutting my butter and flour together, I put the mixture in the freezer for a few minutes just as a precautionary measure, but I might have saved us some grief if I had done this yesterday when I realized the butter was getting too warm.  The second mistake was in the way I demonstrated the fraisage. The butter already approaching room temperature, we should have tried an alternative method using a bench scraper or rubber spatula.  Instead, we used our hands, which just caused the butter to melt further.  The fraisage just worked the melted butter into the flour more, and inhibited its ability to absorb moisture.  By this point there was not much that could have been done to save the dough.

So using what I learned from yesterday’s mishaps, making pie crust today went as smoothly as can be (Whew!).  I ended up using it to make a deep dish Cardamom Pumpkin Tart, which I can say with absolute certainty (and Boyfriend will back me up on this…) had the flakiest crust I’d ever made. It would have been even better with fresh pumpkin, but it I really needed to use up a can of pumpkin puree which I had sitting around since Thanksgiving 2007.


So the next time I have someone over for a workshop day, I think I’ll take a cue from the way they taught us in culinary school.  Instead of working on our doughs at the same time, I should have demonstrated the recipe for Christine first, then helped her with her dough.  This way she could have seen the whole process first, then I would have been able to pay more attention to what I was doing during the demonstration, and to what she was doing when it was her turn. Oh well, live and learn…Now all I have to figure out is do I want Peach Pie or Cardamom Pumpkin Tart with my coffee?


All Butter Pie Crust

(link to detailed recipe with photos)

INGREDIENTS for a single 9″ pie crust:

(for a double pie crust, simply double the recipe)

1-1/4 c. flour
1/2 tsp. table salt or 1 tsp. coarse kosher salt
1-1/2 tsp. sugar (optional, for sweet pies)
8 Tbsp. butter, diced
3-4 Tbsp. ice water, plus more if needed


1.    Chill the pieces of butter in the freezer.

2.    Cut the ingredients together, starting with the butter and flour:

Using a food processor:  Combine the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor.  Sprinkle the butter cubes over the flour mixture and just pulse a few times until it starts to resemble to texture of wet sand, with pieces of butter no bigger than a small pea. Pulse a few times more, adding just enough ice water for the dough to start to clump together.

By hand:  In a bowl or on a flat work surface, sprinkle the pieces of butter over the flour and salt mixture.  Using a pastry cutter, or bench scraper, quickly cut the butter into the flour until there are pieces no bigger than a pea.  Check to make sure the pieces of butter are still firm, and chill the mixture in the freezer if needed before adding the water.  Sprinkle the water over the butter flour mixture and cut it into the dough, adding more as needed until the dough begins to clump together.

3.   Fraisage.  Though it is not necessary, using a technique a known as fraisage to blend the dough will help you achieve a flakier crust when using only butter.  The traditional way is to turn the dough out onto a floured surface, and using the heel of your hand, to smear the dough a little at a time against the board.  I find the heat of your hand causes the butter to melt too quickly so I prefer to use a plastic bench scraper.  You can also transfer the dough to a large bowl instead, and use a rubber spatula to smear the dough against the side of the bowl.

4.    Rest the dough.  On a lightly floured surface, gather the dough into a disc (or two, for a double crust pie) by  gathering up the sides with one hand while pressing on the top with the other.  Wrap the disc in plastic wrap. You can  flatten the disc a little more once it’s wrapped – the plastic wrap helps to hold it together.  Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before rolling.

5.    Roll your crust.  If the dough has gotten too hard from chilling, let it sit for a few minutes at room temperature.  Unwrap it, and on a lightly floured surface, use your rolling pin to press gently on the disc from the middle outward.  Flatten it out until your knuckles touch the work surface.  Then, starting from the middle, roll first away from you, then toward you.  Rotate the dough (or your rolling pin) 45 degrees and roll again, from the middle outward.  Continue rotating and rolling until the dough is about 1/8″ thick.

6. To transfer the dough to the pie plate, you can either roll it onto the rolling pin and unroll it over the plate, or fold the dough in half, then half again and unfold it over the pie plate.

7. For best results, refrigerate the prepared pie plate and let the dough to rest for another 30 minutes before filling or blind baking. This will also improve the texture of the crust and reduce shrinkage during baking.

Torta Salata

(link to detailed recipe and photos)

This is one of my favorite almost vegetarian recipes. It’s really simple, and is a great way to make a hearty meal out of couple pounds of vegetables. Almost any firm vegetable will work, as long as it is not too wet. I usually use zucchini, which I salt to draw out the moisture, then drain before using. Whatever you use, make sure you season the vegetables before using them, and that you have enough to tightly fill the pie plate. The egg and cheese mixture adds a nice creamy texture, and binds the whole thing together.

For the pastry, I usually like to use puff pastry, but you can use a regular pie crust, or omit the pastry altogether. Here is the recipe using zucchini, which is adapted from Savoring Italy, by Robert Freson.

Ingredients for a 9″ torta:

a single 9′ pie crust or puff pastry crust

1-1/2 lbs. zucchini, sliced into 1/4″ discs

2 whole eggs

3 egg yolks

1/2 c. ricotta cheese

3 Tbsp. grated parmesan cheese

a pinch of nutmeg

kosher or other coarse salt


additional egg wash (optional)


1. Lay the slices of zucchini out in a single layer on a cooling rack or cookie sheet lined with several paper towels or a clean cotton towel. Generously sprinkle with salt and set aside.

2. Meanwhile prepare your pastry crust and line the pie plate. Set aside in the refrigerator.

3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

4. In a medium sized bowl, beat together the eggs and egg yolks. Gently mix in the cheeses, and season with a pinch of nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

5. Using paper towels or a clean cloth towel, blot the zucchini dry then arrange them tightly in the prepared pie plate. Pour in the egg mixture so that it fills in the gaps and just covers the vegetables.

6. Brush the edges of the pastry with egg wash, if desired, and bake the torta for 40-50 minutes until the center is firm and the top is golden brown. Cool for 3 minutes before cutting.

Cardamom Pumpkin Tart

(link to detailed recipe and photos)

Here is a slightly Asian spin on an American favorite. It’s a recipe I came up with on the fly one Thanksgiving when I was cooking at Boyfriend’s sister’s apartment. I started with a recipe for pumpkin pie from the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, which called for nutmeg and a host of other spices, some of which our host didn’t have. So I had to improvise. She happened to have cardamom, which she liked to use in her apple pie. So I decided to use just use some cardamom and ginger, and it was a surprise hit. One guest said she usually didn’t like pumpkin pie, but liked this one. I like to use a deep dish tart pan with fluted edges, which works great with both flour and graham cracker crusts.

Ingredients (for a 9″ deep dish tart or pie):

1 recipe 9″ pie crust

1 15 oz. can pumpkin puree

1 cup dark brown sugar

1/2 – 1 tsp. ground ginger (optional)

1/4 tsp. ground cardamom

1/2 tsp. table salt (or 1 tsp. coarse kosher salt)

2/3 cup heavy cream

2/3 cup whole milk

4 large eggs


1. Blind bake the crust: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F, and position the oven rack to the lower-middle position. Prepare your crust and line the tart pan or pie pan. Line the crust with parchment or aluminum foil and weigh it down with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15-25 minutes until golden.

2. Meanwhile prepare the filling. Timing is important here, since the filling must be warm, and poured into the crust when it’s hot out of the oven. In a medium saucepan, over medium heat stir together the pumpkin puree, brown sugar, spices, and salt. Stirring continuously, cook the pumpkin until it’s thick and shiny.

3. Whisk in the cream and milk, and simmer a minute or two, stirring to prevent the mixture from scalding. Remove from heat and set aside to cool while you beat the eggs.

4. In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs until they are well blended. Temper the eggs by adding half the warm pumpkin mixture, whisking to combine. Add the rest of the pumpkin and whisk until all the ingredients are blended together.

5. When the crust is ready, remove the weights and liner, and immediately pour the filling into the hot crust. Raise the temperature of the oven to 400 degrees and bake the tart for 25 minutes until the crust is golden brown, the filling is puffed up, and the center just barely wiggles when you move the pan. If you overcook the pie, the filling will crack.

6. Cool completely before serving.

7. Try serving the tart with fresh unsweetened whipped cream drizzled with honey (or try sweetening the whipped cream with a little honey instead of sugar).

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