Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Philosophy of Pie Crust

Pie-crust perfection depends on several things—good flour, good fat, good handling, most especially good baking. A hot oven, quick but not scorching, expands the air betwixt layers of paste, and pops open the flour-grains, making them absorb the fat as it melts, thereby growing crisp and relishful instead of hard and tough. The lighter and drier the flour the better—in very damp weather it is best oven-dried, then cooled before mixing. Shortening, whether lard, butter, or clarified drippings, should be very cold—unless your recipe demands that it be softened or melted. Milk or water used in mixing ought to be likewise well chilled, unless the shortening is soft—in that case match its temperature. The regular rule is half-pint ice water to the pound of flour, using chilled shortening. If the fat is semi-fluid the paste must be mixed softer, using say, three parts of a pint to the pound.

Baking powder or soda and cream tartar, or soda alone with sour cream or buttermilk for wetting, makes crust light and short with less butter, therefore is an economy. Genuine puff paste is requisite for the finest tarts, pies, etc., etc., but light short crust answers admirably for most things. Sift flour twice or even thrice for any sort of paste. Sift soda or baking powder well through it, but not salt. Make the salt fine, drop in the bottom of the mixing bowl, before the last sifting, and mix lightly through the flour before adding the shortening. Rub in shortening very lightly, using only the finger-tips—the palms melt or soften it. Add milk or water, a little at a time, mixing it in with a broad-bladed knife rather than the hands. Mix lightly—so the paste barely sticks together. Put in first one-third of the shortening—this, of course, for puff paste. Half a pound of butter or lard to the pound of flour makes a very good paste, but to have it in full richness, use three-quarters of a pound. Wash butter well to remove the salt, and squeeze out water by wringing it in a well-floured cloth. If there is a strong taste, or any trace of rancidity, wash well, kneading through and through, in sweet milk, then rinse out the milk with cold water to which a little borax has been added. Rinse again in clear cold water—this should remove ill-flavor without injury to anybody's stomach. But be very sure the last rinsing is thorough—borax, though wholly harmless, adds nothing to digestibility.

The end of the repeated rollings out and foldings demanded by real puff paste is to enclose between the layers of paste as much air as possible. Hence the chillings between rollings. Hence also the need of pinching edges well together after foldings, and rolling always from you, never back and forth. Roll out paste into a long narrow strip after the first mixing, divide the remaining shortening into three equal portions, keep very cold, and as needed cut into small bits, which spread evenly on top of the rolled paste, which must be lightly dredged with flour. Fold in three evenly, one thickness on another, turn so the folded edges may be to right and left while rolling, pinch the other edges well together and roll again into a long strip, moving the rolling-pin always from you. Repeat until all the butter is used, then set on ice for an hour to harden. In baking beware opening the oven door until the paste has risen fully and becomes slightly crusted over.

Baking powder crust must not stand—the gas which aerates it begins forming and escaping the minute it is wet up. It also requires a hot oven and delicate handling. Half a pound of shortening and a teaspoon of baking powder, to the pound of flour, mixed stiff or soft, according to the consistency of the fat, properly handled and baked, make crust good enough for anybody.

From "Dishes and Beverages of the Old South", by Martha McCulloch Williams, 1913.

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