Everyone knows the saying “It’s as easy as pie,” implying that making a pie is a simple task (or is it that eating pie is simple?).
Although baking pies is not that difficult, there are some secrets and tricks you need to know if you want to bake a successful pie.
A great pie starts with a great pie crust. There are two main types of pie dough: mealy pie dough and flaky pie dough. Both have the same basic ingredients – flour, sugar, salt, water and some type of solid fat like butter or margarine. Many attempt to make pie dough with oil; however, the fact that solid fats are solid at room temperature is a defining property that gives pie crusts their distinctive texture.
The first stage of mixing pie dough is combining the dry ingredients with the fat and granulating it.
The type of dough – mealy or flaky – will depend on the size of the fat granules. In mealy pie dough, the fat granules resemble the size of coarsely ground meal. In flaky pie dough, the fat granules will be larger, closer to the size of peanuts.
Mealy pie dough has a more compact texture than flaky pie dough, making it more suitable for pies with wet fillings and resulting in a crispier crust. Flaky pie dough is less compact, less suitable for wet fillings, but results in a crust that is more delicate and tender in texture.
After mixing the dry ingredients with the fat and obtaining the required fat granule size, the final stage of pie dough mixing involves adding water. Water is an essential ingredient that hydrates the starches and proteins and holds everything together.
The type of flour used will also determine the quality of the crust. Bread flour has a high protein content and will result in a leathery, tough crust. Cake flour is low in protein, which results in a more crumbly dough that is difficult to roll out and handle. The best type of flour to use for pie crusts is pastry flour. If this is not easily obtainable, mix equal quantities of bread and cake flour to make your own.
Pie dough is easiest to work with when it is more solid. It is therefore recommended to refrigerate the dough before working with it. Roll the dough out thinly and then line the pie dish, making sure the dough is flush with all parts of the dish, with no air pockets.
Some pie crusts require baking prior to filling, while others are baked together with the filling. To pre-bake a pie shell, line a pie dish with pie dough and then insert a second dish on top of the dough (this is most easily accomplished with foil dishes). Leave the dough to relax for 30 minutes and then bake the shell, encased between the two dishes, upside down on a tray.
The pie filling is just as important as the crust, if not more so. In many cases people leave crust behind, but very rarely do they leave any filling. The variety of fillings is almost endless, ranging from simple to complex. When they were referring to “As easy as pie,” they probably meant throwing something simple inside the pie shell, like fresh or dried fruit, but it doesn’t end there; some fillings are extremely intricate. Pie fillings are a subject on their own and beyond the scope of this article.
Some pies have both a lower and an upper crust. The upper crust can be a solid layer or have holes punched in it to show the filling inside. More complex upper crusts like a lattice, basket-weave pattern are also common.
There are also many styles to border the pie, such as simply folding over, pressing down with the prongs of a fork, or more intricate wave patterns. The pie crust is usually basted with egg wash prior to baking to give it a sheen.
Pies make impressive desserts.
Whether apple, pumpkin or pecan (see recipe below), they are sure to be a fitting climax to any meal.
PECAN PIE For the pie crust
✔ 1 cup pastry flour
✔ ½ tsp. salt
✔ ½ Tbsp. sugar
✔ 100 gr. butter or margarine
✔ 3 Tbsp. water
In a bowl, mix flour salt and sugar.
Cut butter into small cubes and add to bowl. Mix by hand, mashing the butter until the mixture has a mealy consistency.
Add water and mix until just incorporated.
Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Roll out and line a pie dish.For the filling
✔ 2 eggs
✔ ½ cup brown sugar
✔ 140 gr. corn syrup
✔30 gr. butter or margarine (melted)
✔ 1 tsp. vanilla extract
✔ ½ tsp. salt
✔ 125 gr. pecans, shelled
Lightly beat the eggs, warm to about 30 degrees C and reserve. Whisk the brown sugar and corn syrup. Add melted butter.
Mix in vanilla and salt. Slowly add the warmed eggs to the sugar mixture, trying not to incorporate too much air in the mixture.
Arrange the pecan nuts in an attractive pattern on the surface of the unbaked crust.
Pour custard filling over the nuts. Bake at 180 degrees C for 10 minutes. Reduce to 160 degrees C and bake for 30 to 35 minutes until filling is set.
Master baker Les Saidel, originally from Johannesburg, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife, Sheryl, and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (http://www.saidels.com), which specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.