Sapid Pie Crust

Not Fugacious

by Hoyt Alden, St. Louis Post, Monday, August 15, 1977

It has always been said, with pride, that Americans invented pie. That is, the kind of pies we know and love, ranging from Mom's Apple Pie to lemon meringue. But this isn't entirely true. As a matter of fact, the main thing we did was add the upper crust and then we went on to concoct a greater variety of more delicious pies than anybody anywhere.

The Romans, according to research, put a cover of dough over some dishes while they were being baked, but just to retain the flavor; they never ate the crust and if it was anything like some of the crusts one encounters from time to time, we can understand why. 

The first pies, that is, food enclosed in a crust, were probably the meat pies, which date back to the fifteenth century. But in England a pie is filled with meat and what we call a pie, that is a dessert pie, they call a pastry.

Fruit pies were first made by the French and they insisted that a pie has only one crust-on the bottom. When the English made a fruit pie they put the crust only on top, which made it a cobbler.

It remained for the Americans to do the sensible thing with fruit pies and put crust on both top and bottom, and that's one of the things that made America great.

Pie crust is not a thing to be taken lightly; even more important, heavily. The virtues of good pie crust have been the subject of essays, editorials, and even sermons from the pulpit. To wit, the great Henry Ward Beecher once went to town on the subject:

"...Let it not be like putty," he exhorted, "nor yet rush to the other extreme and make it so flakey that one holds his breath while eating for fear of blowing it away. Let it not be plain as bread, nor yet rich like cake. Aim at that glorious medium in which it is tender without being too fugaciously flaky; short without being too short; a mild, sapid, brittle thing that lies upon the tongue so as to let the apple strike through and touch the papilae with a more affluent flavor..." and so on, which gives you an idea of how deeply some people feel on the subject, using words like fagacious, and all.

I think we can safely assume that all good cooks want to strike right through to the papillae and achieve that glorious medium; all of us have encountered pie crust like wet blotters and pie crusts that flutter down into your lap like trying to eat dry Wheaties with a fork. So, what's the answer.

I'm not sure there is an answer. A lot of good cooks will tell you how to make a good pie crust, and they can do it, but that doesn't guarantee that you can. The secret, most agree, is in the handling. As one old time cookbook says, "Pie crust has the simplest ingredients and the most diverse results of any baked food known. It seems to require a light hand, a sure touch and at least two prior generations of excellent cooks."

But one of the secrets is simple, don't handle it too much; work lightly and quickly and watch the water. A flaky pie crust consists of thin layers of flat flakes formed by small particles of fat surrounded by flour. When the crust is baked the fat melts forming the flakes.

But if you handle it too roughly and too long the fat just melts and forms a solid mass which is anything but fagacious.

Too much water does the same thing. So you use just enough water to hold the flour and fat together.

The ingredients consist only of flour, shortening, salt and water. The shortening and the water should be very cold; this keeps the fat solid. What kind of fat? Some people swear by lard, some by lard and butter, some by vegetable shortening. You can try tem all and take your choice.

Now, to make a two-crust pastry for a nine-inch pie: Sift together two and a half cups of flours and a teaspoon of salt. Sift the flour alone first and then measure it in a measuring cup but don't pack it down; that makes a quarter of a cup difference. Then resift it with the salt.

Put an ice cube in a half cup of water. Put three fourths of a cup of solid shortening in the flour in the mixing bowl and then proceed to "cut it in," which means different things to different people. You can do it with a pastry blender, with two knives used like scissors, or with your fingers which is the best way if you work quickly and lightly. Mix the shortening with the flour with a gentle motion until the pieces of fat about the size of peas- and then stop.

Take the ice out of the water and measure one forth of a cup. Dribble the water over the flour mixture, a few drops at a time, until it is entirely covered. Flour your hands and then gather the whole thing into a ball. You won't think it will hang together and make dough, but it will.

Put it in the refrigerator and let it stay there for at least an hour. Twenty four hours is better.

When you're ready to bake, put it on a floured surface, flour the rolling pin. Divide the dough in half for top and bottom crusts. Roll out each half as lightly as you can until it is about an eighth of an inch thick.

The next step is getting into the pie pan, and here you're on your own. This is something nobody can help you with. Just try not to drop it on the floor. With trial and error and perhaps two prior generations of excellent cooks, you'll learn to do it.

(Nita's note: If you flour a sheet of waxed paper instead of your counter, roll out the dough on it. Then you can place your pie pan over the rolled dough and turn the entire crust and pan over. Peel off the paper and your crust in in the pan.)