It starts with the crust. That is where most of us feel anxious. But why does the combination of 4 or 5 simple, everyday ingredients make us pause while in the market, then flip that box of pre-made pie dough into our basket? We are worried. We are worried about tough, chewy crust. We are worried about not being flaky enough! We are worried that if we invest so much time (and money) into a filling and then add that filling to a subpar crust, that we will just ruin the whole pie experience. And we will have wasted our time.
When does this anxiety start? For me it started at age 8 when I first began to make pies on my own. There were always so very many words of caution from my mother, most of them about the pie dough, and not about the filling! “Be gentle, use a light touch” “make sure everything is cold or it’ll get sticky” “don’t over mix—don’t overwork or it’ll get tough” “roll it out carefully or it will break” “add water a little at a time, because you don’t want it to get sticky” and on and on, variations of the same basic cautions told in different ways. I listened. I watched my mother and grandmother and great aunts make pies. I tried it out myself. Yes, there were some tough crusts. But, I learned, and the crusts got less tough, and sometimes they were perfect.
Just 4 or 5 simple ingredients: flour; fat; salt; cold water; and if you like, a tiny bit of acid. My mother always used all-purpose bleached flour, but you can try other kinds, each will have it’s own unique quality and will of course affect the outcome in some way. There are lots of options for the fat. My-great grandmother used lard, the go-to for ladies born in the nineteenth century. My grandmother and mother used vegetable shortening and I learned by using that too. It does make a crust flaky, but it tastes pretty bland. Now I use unsalted butter, which provides a lot of flavor and you still get some flakiness. You could use a combo of butter and shortening—best of both worlds I suppose. I’ve heard that vegetable oil can be used—I’ve never tried that. For vegans who don’t want to use the highly proceeded shortening (or vegtetable oil) there is margarine (is that less processed than the shortening I wonder?) and even coconut oil. Adding an acid is optional and it can be a bit of lemon juice or maybe some vinegar, just a touch. And of course you need some really cold water. I always put ice cubes in my water.
Aren’t those some simple ingredients? Do they make you feel nervous? The process is simple too—really, really simple, but I won’t go into that here (this is not a recipe). Sure, you can just buy that pre-made dough, but it is bland and you are buying a lot of packaging (I try to steamline that as much as I can). So, don’t be nervous and ask yourself “do you love the pies that one of your relatives makes—a grandmother, a parent, a great aunt?” If the answer is “yes” then you’ve got an instructor who can give you the advise and courage you need to make your very own pie crusts.
Use that person as your trusted source. Hear all of their words of caution. Study the way they add and combine the fat and the water. Watch them treat the dough gently and roll it carefully. Remember how they trim and flute the edges. It’s a start. And once you gather that important family pie history, you are ready to try it yourself. Adjust the ingredients to suit you. Then go make some tough dough. Make some dough that’s not flaky. And sometimes make some dough that is perfect. And remember, it’s just pie.