Making pies has always been somewhat of a nightmare for me in the past. If you’ve read my Basics post on butter, then you’ll know that butter begins melting at 32°C (90°F).
That’s pretty much the average daytime temperature where I live. And for pie-making, that spells disaster.
A basic pie crust consists of two-thirds dry ingredients to one-third fat. The key to a good flaky pie crust is to keep that fat solid despite manhandling the dough. Besides, the dough is held together mainly by the fat (and a tiny bit of liquid). So if the fat melts, your dough is going to fall apart. And I can tell you from personal experience, handling disintegrating pie dough is one of the most frustrating and upsetting baking situations you can find yourself in.
In the tropics, keeping butter cold and solid outside a refrigerator is definitely a real challenge. Some recipes, especially from the American South, use vegetable shortening as their fat of choice because it stays solid even in the heat of summer. However, as I’ve mentioned in my post on buttercream icings, shortening just cannot compete with butter on taste. While you can certainly mix both types of fats, an all-butter pie crust still gives you the best flavour and texture.
So what to do? Well, over the years, I’ve choreographed a pie-making dance, and it involves quite a bit of darting back and forth between the refrigerator. Of course, if you’re blessed with good pie-making weather, or you have the luxury of an air-conditioned kitchen, then go ahead eliminate some dance steps.
180g all-purpose flour
20g icing sugar
1/2 tsp salt
110g butter, cold and cut into small cubes
1/4 cup cold water
Makes enough for a 9-inch pie shell.
Step 1: Put the flour, icing sugar, salt, and butter cubes in a large bowl (preferably metal). Cool in the refrigerator for 15 minutes, along with a pastry blender (like the one I use for scones), or a couple of metal forks.
Step 2: Remove everything from the refrigerator and begin cutting the fat into the dry ingredients. I do not recommend using your hands for this unless they’re normally quite cold. Keep cutting away at the mixture until you achieve something that resembles coarse sand.
Refrigerate for another 15 minutes, along with a large metal spoon.
Step 3: Take your bowl out of the refrigerator, add about a quarter of the ice-cold water to the fat-flour mixture and stir with your cold spoon. Add more water a bit at a time and stir well until large-ish dough chunks form and there are no dry powdery bits left. You don’t necessarily have to use all the water – aim to use as little as possible.
Step 4: Lay a large piece of plastic cling film on your work surface and dump the dough clumps on it.
Gather up the ends of the cling film and wrap up the dough. Now, push the wrapped dough into a ball. Then, with the palm of your hand, flatten the ball into a disc.
Send this disc immediately to (you guessed it) your refrigerator, this time for a good 30 minutes at least.
This is “resting” time for the dough. It allows the dough to “relax” so that your pie crust will be nice and tender. It also gives the flour particles a chance to drink up the scant liquid you’ve given it, improving chances that your dough will stay together come rolling-out time. I normally do all these steps at night and leave the dough disc in the refrigerator overnight, but a 30-minute rest should suffice.
Step 5: Remove the dough from your refrigerator and unwrap it. Flour your work surface, place your dough disc on it and flour over the top. Also flour your rolling pin. Now, begin rolling out your dough. After every few rolls, turn the dough a quarter-turn. This helps you keep the dough somewhat round as you roll it out. You’ll also find out if your dough is beginning to stick to your work surface; dust with more flour if that happens. Roll out your dough evenly until it’s about 1-2 inches larger than your pie dish. (I use a tart pan because I like fluted edges and its loose base makes it easy to remove pies.)
Throughout this step, there are two warning signs you should look out for: (1) the dough is beginning to look a little wet and shiny, and (2) it’s beginning to feel very soft and fragile. These signs mean the butter in the dough is fast melting and you’re going to be in trouble. If this happens, quickly roll the dough around your rolling pin and roll it out again on a sheet tray lined with baking paper. Put the tray (stat!) in the refrigerator for 20-30 minutes, or until your nerves have sufficiently calmed down.
Step 6: Once your dough is the right size, wrap it around your rolling pin, then unroll it over your pie dish.
Lift the edges so that the dough can sink into the bottom of the dish. Also, lightly press the dough to the sides and base of the dish. Finally, roll your rolling pin over the top of the pie dish to cut off the excess dough. If there are any cracks or holes, just use the excess dough to patch them up.
Now, pirouette to your refrigerator, store your completed pie crust in it to chill, and give yourself a nice pat on the back for a job well done.
Making pie crust in hot weather can be a harrowing experience, but it does get easier and less daunting with practice. After all, apart from the butter time-bomb, it’s actually pretty quick to put together and roll out a simple pie crust. So, please try it at least once. And after that, if living dangerously is not your thing, then go ahead and buy a pre-made frozen pie crust with my blessing.
If you’re making a covered pie, just double the recipe and divide the dough into two even balls/discs before resting time in the refrigerator. Then roll them out, one for the base and one for the top. Store the top crust on a lined sheet tray in the refrigerator along with the pie shell until you’re ready to fill the pie and put it all together. For savoury pie crusts, just replace the icing sugar with an equivalent weight of flour.