"People love pie. Even if it is not as perfect as you want it to be, people will eat it," says Millicent Souris, author of the cookbook How to Build a Better Pie. "Pie is not cute or darling or maternal. It's a flaky crust filled with something sweet or savory then baked. It's as old as the hills — simple and classic." And it's definitely not something to be afraid of. After all, pie is what America had for dessert each night before dessert became the subject of fetishized fads, be it cupcakes, cake pops, or macarons. And that's because it was something that almost anyone could make.
Souris' no-nonsense approach to cooking and baking is just what first-time (and seasoned!) pie bakers need. In the introduction to her book, she points out that so much of food culture today is obsessed with making things bigger, better, and more outrageous, at the expense of teaching people kitchen basics. So with a little advice from her book, we're going to start at the beginning and help you hit the ground running as fast as possible.
The usefulness of many of these things will seem self-evident, while others may not seem very useful — that is, until you need them. Just make sure these things are in your kitchen for a smooth and stress-free pie-baking experience.
Pie plate. Check. Wooden rolling pin. Check. Measuring cups and spoons — both liquid measure and dry measure. Check. Aluminum foil, baking sheet, mixing bowls, pastry brush, parchment paper — check.
Baking beans. What? At some point, a recipe is going to call for a hill of beans. Dried beans, to be exact. Any type will do. But why? Well, dried beans are used in a technique called "blind baking," in which the crust is weighed down with beans to help maintain its shape. (No, you don't have to put on a blindfold.)
Bench scraper. Great for cleanup whenever you're working with flour or dough directly on your work surface.
Cast-iron pan. An 8- to 10-inch model will do nicely. Great for pot pies and many other things, a cast-iron pan can be passed down through the generations with proper care. Click here to see 5 Myths About Cast Iron.
Pasta cutter. Great for making dough strips for lattice top pies.
"Cooking isn't a miracle, so you just need to arm yourself with the best weapon: information," says Souris. Here's some essential information to ensure your success:
Chill the butter. Cold butter will help you get that flaky crust; make sure it stays that way by working quickly. (Ice water will help with this during the dough-making process.)
Don't overwork it. "Pie crust has the best texture when it is worked the least… The more you work it, the tougher it becomes. Your pie crust should be tender, not tough." For this reason, Souris prefers to make her Basic Pie Crust by hand rather than using a food processor or mixer. Stop working the dough when the flour is just incorporated (particularly in the middle), and you can gently squeeze it without having it crumble.
Give it a rest. After forming the dough, gently shape the dough into balls and flatten into disks. Place in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least half an hour to give the gluten in the dough a chance to relax — skipping this step will result in chewy pie crust.
Roll out, don't freak out. "Rolling out pie crust is the real deal-breaker for people. It's what keeps the frozen crust people in business — the severed horse-head in the sheets, the last nail in the coffin. It makes people want to run away from pie-making," says Souris in the introduction to her section on rolling out dough. But it doesn’t need to be that way.
The first thing to do is to make sure that the crust is sufficiently chilled. If it's not, the process will just become more difficult by an order of magnitude. If the dough is firm to the touch and your thumb leaves just a small indent when you press it into the dough, it's just about right.
Next, make sure you have a good setup. Find a work surface with plenty of room. Dust the work surface with flour. Keep a little bowl of flour nearby, along with a bench scraper.
When you take the dough out of the refrigerator, make sure it's flat like a disk. Cover the crust lightly with your dominant hand and rotate the bottom completely in the flour. Next, beat the dough a few times with the rolling pin to help flatten it out a little more. (If it sticks to the rolling pin, freeze the dough for a few minutes and try again.)
Roll up and down the entire piece of dough once, and rotate the dough 90 degrees. Repeat until the dough is about 15 inches in diameter and about 1/8-inch thick (a little thicker is fine). Fold the crust in half, gently lift and place over the pie plate, and unfold, allowing it to drape naturally (there's no need to make sure the edges along the bottom conform perfectly to the pie plate.
Use a pair of kitchen shears to trim the edges, leaving about ¼-inch to drape over the edge of the pie plate. Take that overhang and pinch with your thumb and forefinger to form the edges.
Cracks. It might happen, but there's no need to worry. Pie dough is pretty forgiving, and you can just patch up any cracks with a little extra dough from the edges as you go. If it's on the inside, pinch and roll.
Stickiness. This might also be an issue when rolling out the dough. If the dough sticks to the work surface when rolling it out, gently move it aside, and use the bench scraper to clean up any pieces of melted fat on the work surface, which is the likely culprit. Dust with a touch more flour.
Easy top. A full top crust is easy to make. Follow the same procedure outlined above for rolling out the dough. After you've put the filling on top of the bottom crust, carefully fold the top crust in half, place on top, and unfold carefully. Let it drape naturally over the edge of the pie, and trim with kitchen shears so that the top fits neatly over the bottom. Make sure to make a few slits to let steam escape, and pinch!
Staying neat and tidy. Place a baking sheet in the oven as it preheats. Then, when you're ready to bake your pie, put the pie on the baking sheet. This will help catch any spills. As an extra layer of insurance, you can also line the bottom of the oven with aluminum foil.
Give it a wash. Brushing on a wash when baking a pie will give it a nice shine. Use whole eggs, egg whites, egg yolk mixed with water, milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream. It's really a matter of preference, but Souris says, "the richer the wash, the richer the color."
At the end. Now that you're done baking your pie, you may be tempted to dig right in. Resist the urge, though. Souris suggests letting pie cool for at least one hour after it leaves the oven (longer for fruit pies). This will allow the juices in the filling to redistribute and set.
Will Budiaman is the Recipe Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow him on Twitter @WillBudiaman.