Secrets to the Perfect Pie

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Over the last few years, I’ve gotten over my fear of making pie dough, thanks to practice, culinary school training, and a stint in a restaurant pastry kitchen. But you don’t need to be a pro to bust out a winning pie. As superstar pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini recently scolded a Top Chef contestant: “My grandmother wasn’t a pastry chef, but she could make a pie.” (Oh, snap!)

When we wanted a great all-purpose, slightly lighter pie dough recipe for NOURISH Evolution, we turned to food stylist Kathleen Kanen. She’s a home economist by training who worked in the Cooking Light Test Kitchens for 20 years and currently does freelance food styling and recipe developing for a variety of national outlets (including us!).

Her secret to great pastry? Keep everything cold. I asked her for other tips to ensure your pie turns out perfect every time.

What’s your definition of the perfect pie crust?

I love a crust that’s flaky and has some sugar for sweetness and some salt for flavor. I think many dough recipes don’t call for enough salt, and that makes them taste flat.

What’s your preferred fat for pastry?

A combination of butter for flavor and shortening for flakiness. Also, the shortening doesn’t harden, which makes the dough easier to roll so there’s less chance of overworking it.

What’s the best way to cut the fat into the flour–in a food processor, with a pastry blender, or with your fingers?

The easiest way is the food processor. Just pulse the mixture a few times so it doesn’t get warm and the fat melts into the flour.

[Those little chunks of cold fat make the pastry flaky.] It should look like coarse crumbs.

What are your tips for working with a lower-fat crust?

Three things: cold fats, chilling the dough, and plastic wrap!

  1. Chill the butter and shortening for a flaky crust. For an even flakier crust, chill the flour, too.
  2. Add just enough ice water to moisten the dough. Add too much, and the dough will be soggy. Add too little, and it will be crumbly. Press a small amount of dough between your fingers to check the consistency. If it’s too crumbly, add another tablespoon of water.
  3. Handle the dough gently. Overworking it develops the gluten in the flour and makes the crust tough.
  4. Chill the dough to help relax the gluten.
  5. Roll the dough between sheets of plastic wrap [a trick Kathleen learned in the Cooking Light Test Kitchens] to prevent it from sticking to the counter. Chill the dough again after rolling it to make it easier to remove the plastic wrap. It’s not a step to rush.

Any tips for rolling out the dough so it’s even?

Begin rolling in the center and stop about 1/2 inch from the edge so it doesn’t get too thin and crumble. I start rolling in the middle of the dough vertically, then horizontally, then diagonally.

Which camp do you fall in: top crust or lattice?

I love pastry, so my favorite is a top crust. Lattice is very pretty, but not enough crust for me! [If you prefer a lattice crust, check out Saveur’s instructions to weave one.]

Here’s Kathleen’s recipe for peach pie with a foolproof dough. Use this crust for pies made with whatever fresh, seasonal fruit is on hand. I can’t wait to try it with apples in the fall, and for savory pies like quiches too.

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  • J.E

    There is nothing healthier about this pie! The crust alone is over 200 calories per serving, if you cut the pie into 10 pieces.

  • liahuber

    It does seem decadent, doesn’t it? and it is–definitely not an every night affair, but at 374 calories for an 1/8 of the pie, well within a healthy splurge.

    What makes this pie extra nourishing are little shifts like substituting 1/3 whole wheat flour for white, and letting the fruit shine through in the filling instead of butter (just 1 tablespoon) and sugar (less than 1/2 cup).

    To me this pie is proof that healthy doesn’t have to mean deprivation, but it should mean making wise choices.