In our family pies and pie crusts specifically were a measuring rod of a person's skill in the kitchen. Mom was known for her pies and relatives just let her make the pies and brought cake or other desserts to the family dinners. I may be the only child who has taken up the challenge to bake pies that rated somewhere close to Mom's.
Although as a child I spent hours at her elbow in the kitchen watching her techniques. Her recipe was basic: for each crust mix 1 cup of flour, a sprinkle of salt, a 1/4 cup of Crisco oil and a couple tablespoons of ice water. You had to blend it with a fork and roll it out between two pieces of waxed paper before moving it to the pie pan. A simple recipe, what I didn't realize is a certain amount of pure gifting produced her perfect crusts.
Listening to other cooks' input and trying to compensate with creativity I have learned a few dos and don'ts. Initially I might switch it up a little using whole wheat flour or lard or eyeball a tablespoon worth of tap water and think it was the same. Wrong-too much water makes tough crusts! The basic measure of 1 cup of flour per crust and 1/4 (some recipes say 1/3) cup of fat...oil, lard, butter is a good standard.
I was reading The Fruit Book by Jane Grigson, an English author and kitchen whiz and, after years of browsing the book and using recipes from it, found first a glossary (pure fun for a verbomaniac); but also found a chapter on pastry. It seems the basis for pastry in Britain is the same as Mom's and Betty Crocker's, but there were pages of variations, a few of which I would like to share even though I have yet to try them out.
Ms. Grigson's basic recipe for Quick Flaky Pastry starts with 2 cups of flour, 1 tsp of salt and blends 5 oz of grated butter in with a knife or metal spatula. Bind with (add just enough to moisten) 1 Tbsp lemon juice and ice water. Chill before rolling.
Variations include the Dutch Processor Pastry that makes a "short crust" (I'm assuming this is similar to short bread, but "short crust" didn't make the glossary). Use equal quantities (WEIGHTS) of butter chips, flour and well-drained yogurt or curd cheese. Place in food processor with a pinch of salt. Mix until a dough consistency. Pat into shape with floured hands, cover with plastic wrap and chill for one hour before baking. (Recommended for fruit turnovers.) Whipping cream can be substituted for the yogurt and 1/2 cup of caster (fine) sugar added for a sweet crust.
Pâte Sucrée is French for sweet short pastry dough where egg yolks are the binding agent. It can be made with an electric mixer, food processor or by hand. Begin with 1 2/3 is cups of flour, a pinch of salt, 1/2 cup of butter and 1/3 cup of caster sugar. Add 3 egg yolks and blend completely. Chill before using.
The last I will share is Crackling Crust. The Eighteenth century recipe calls for ground almonds instead of flour (not a problem if we had a Trader Joe's). Grigson recommends the following adjustments: equal weights of flour, ground nuts or porridge oats and butter. Bind with ice water, beaten egg or cream. This recipe is best pressed into the pie tin rather than rolled and lifted. Crackling crust can be refrigerated for up to one week before baking.
A few general pointers:
Too much water not only toughens crust, it causes it to shrink in baking.
If dough becomes difficult to handle and falls apart, chill and resume working.
Chilled dough shrinks less.
When baking a "blind" or empty shell, weight the center with foil and dry beans...removing the weight to brown during the last minutes of baking.
If baking a blind shell, shorten the cooking time if the pie is to return to the oven and bake with the filling. This will avoid a burnt crust.
Holidays coming? Pastry freezes well in air tight container or Ziploc.
The last recipe in this chapter is a Suet Crust...beef suet (fat) from the butcher is required; I think of lard I once carved from the back of a pig. Do I really want that flavor in my dessert pies? I think I may reserve the lard for meat pies in the future.
I think back to all my experiments and wish I had these recipes years ago, but it is never too late to learn new tricks...agree?