My latest craze? Pies. Sweet pies, savoury pies, fruit pies ... just pies.
Actually, it isn't the actual pies that I am crazy about, but the pastry. Yup, I've recently discovered how much I love, love, love pastry. Buttery pastry that's slightly flaky, but tender enough that it crumbles and almost melts in the mouth, slightly moist, slightly salty (for savoury pie/tarts) or with a little sugar (for fruit/sweet pies) pastry.
The first pie I had to try was an Apple Pie. Why? It's my hubby, R's, favourite pie. Every time I start baking something, he asks if it's going to be an apple pie. After two years (yeah, I think it's been about that long since I last made an apple pie), I decided perhaps it was time to make him his favourite dessert. Two years. Wow. Long overdue, I'd say.
So back to pastry. There are many ways to make pastry and I think over the last month, I've tried more than two dozen variations. But the basic pastry recipe for pies/tarts, which calls for just a handful of ingredients: flour, butter, water and salt/sugar, is basically an air-tight one that really doesn't need any messing with. But, I can't resist playing with things, even when they're perfect. Oh well.
So, yeah, back to the basic recipes: flour, butter, water and salt/sugar. The standard flour: butter ratio I use is 2:1. (If you want a more tender pastry, reduce the ratio to 1.6:1 - i.e. 250g flour and 150g butter). Add just little salt or a tablespoon or so of powdered sugar to the flour and just enough water as necessary to bind the dough together. Easy? Well, yeah once you get the ratios right and practice a couple of times it isn't too difficult.
But there are some basic rules to follow. And there are ways to change things up.
1. It's best that the ingredients — particularly the butter and the water — be cold. Cold butter helps give structure to your pastry. If you let the butter get soft and melt into the flour, your pastry case won't be so sturdy when it's baking and you won't achieve a perfect shell. Although, some recipes do use softened butter for the dough -- Dan Lepard uses softened butter for the pastry for his mini jam tarts and they worked wonderfully for me too but I'd keep use them for mini tarts only as they were a little fragile.
For starters, work with cold, cold butter cut into half-inch cubes.
2. Keep the handling of the dough to a bare, bare minimum. What this means is that it's best to mix the butter into the flour using your hands: they're way more gentle than the paddle of a mixer. And, absolutely no kneading. Just gently rub the butter into the flour as quickly as you can and lifting it into the air a little to incorporate some air. The butter should still be cold when you're done. And once the dough is ready, chill it for at least 30 mins.
3. Once again, use chilled water. And only as much as necessary. Recipes usually call for 4-6 tbsp for a 200g dough but add the water one or two spoons at a time and stop once the dough comes together smoothly. Harold McGee suggests using a mister/spray for the water so that the liquid gets distributed evenly throughout the dough and you get an evenly tender crust and not one that is tender at some spots and tough in others.
4. Changing things up? You can use other liquids other than water. Now, the point is to get enough liquid to bind the dough but not too much that it encourages the gluten from the flour to form. We want a tender flaky pastry and so we don't want the gluten to form. I've read recipes which use milk or buttermilk or cream (or sour cream) or a combination of two liquids. I've tried them all and they all work well with slight differences to texture. For my lattice topped pie I used water but for my double crust apple pie, I used Vodka. Yeah! Icy cold Vodka. Some recipes use equal measure of vodka and water: the vodka evaporates in the baking process and the dough becomes nice and flaky. I used an all Vodka crust. I was a little afraid that it would become too flaky to the point of being brittle .. but it turned out fine, maybe just a teensy bit too flaky. Perhaps the next time I will add just a little water to the mix.
6. You can also substitute the butter with shortening or lard. Vegetarians can opt for vegetable shortening but not lard. I prefer an all butter crust and stuck to butter for these apple pies. But I did try a pastry with a mix of butter and vegetable shortening for a mushroom pie and it turned out pretty good. Check the next blog post for that one! (what a plug, eh?)
7. Keep everything cold. It's not only important for the ingredients to be cold but the pastry too. Once the dough has been in the fridge for at least 30 mins, roll it and fit it into the tart/pie tin. Then, chill it again before pre-baking it. How long, another 20 - 30 mins.
8. Yeah, the chilled shell needs to be pre-baked. Using a fork, poke holes all over the base of the pie shell and bake it (180C) for about 15mins or till the base is a little firm to the touch. I usually don't use pie weights as the holes in the base kinda ensure the pastry doesn't puff up, at least not substantially. If you use pie-weights, you need to line the shell with parchment paper and then fill it with weights/beans, bake it for 10 mins, remove the beans/weights and bake it for another 5-7 mins.
For these apple pies, both my crusts used only butter, although I binded one with water another with vodka. As for the apples themselves, I made one without pre-cooking the apples and the other with the apples that were cooked a little on the stove top first. I used Washington reds: the apples that weren't pre-cooked still had some bite to them once the pie was done. The pre-cooked ones were softer and a little more jammy. I liked them both so it's just a matter of preference.
For a 6 inch double crust pie
6 medium red apples, skinned, cored and sliced
1/3 cup sugar (more if you like your pie sweeter)
1 tbsp cinnamon powder
1 tsp nutmeg powder
1 tbsp lemon juice
zest of a lemon
1 tbsp corn flour
11/2 tbsp butter (to dot the pie with)
200g all purpose flour (I used 150g all purpose and 50g superfine)
100g butter, cold and cubed
1/2 tsp salt
4-6 tbsp ice cold water/vodka (or a mix of both)
1 egg, gently beaten, for glazing
Make the crust first. Whisk the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the cold, cold butter cubes and using your fingers, gently rub the butter into the floor, lifting your hands up into the air a little. Once the mixture starts to resemble crumbs (some coarse, some fine is good), add the cold, cold liquid a little at a time. Bring the crumbly flour together to form a dough. Add more liquid until you achieve a nice smooth dough. Don't be rough with the dough. Gently shape the dough into a disc, wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least 30 mins.
Preheat the oven to 180C.
Once chilled, transfer the dough onto a floured surface. Divide it into two portions: 2/3 and 1/3. Roll the bigger portion out gently to fit your pie tin. Transfer the rolled dough into the tin and place it in the fridge to chill it for a little while.
Roll the smaller one so its big enough to cover the pie. Chill it - it's easier if you rill it on a sheet of parchment paper so you can slip it onto a baking tray and into the fridge to chill. Then, when your ready to cover the pie, just flip the parchment paper over the pie and seal it.
Remove the pastry that's in the tin. Poke holes in the base with a fork and bake for 15 mins.
For the filling. Mix the apples and the lemon juice sugar. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon zest and corn flour and mix together well. Either cook the apples (in a saucepan on low heat for about 15 mins) or put them in the fridge to chill.If you're cooking the fruit, let them cool before filling the pre-baked shell.
Once the tart has been pre-baked, remove and fill with the apples. There may be some juice, spoon it into the pie too. It may seem like you have a lot of apples but it's nicer to have a pregnant pie full of fruit than one that's meagre. Cut the tablespoon or so of butter for the topping into small cubes and dot them atop the apples.
Remove the smaller piece of dough for the top of the pie from the fridge. Cut a small circle in the centre, to allow the steam to come through when baking. Gently transfer it over the filling. Crimp the edges and brish the egg over the top and sides. Bake for about 40 mins or till the top is nice and golden and the apples are bubbling.