Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Whole-Grain Pie Crust

True Confession: I used to buy pre-made pie crust. 'Struth! And I'm not talking about artisanal, butter pie crust from Berkeley Bowl, my friends. Oooh no. I'm talking about Pet-Ritz, Mrs. Smith, and brands you've never heard of from the freezer case at Grocery Outlet, or "Gross Out" as my dear friend Nina calls it. You know, trans-fat-city, tin foil pans. You feel me?

Yes, I was not always "Foodier Than Thou." Becoming a "foodie" (and I can just hear that special note in my mother's voice when she uses that word to describe someone - something that lets you know that their character, morals and judgment are in doubt.) Where was I? Oh, yes. Becoming a "foodie" developed gradually in me. I think my mother's Yankee-by-way-of-Germany concept is that "foodies" are obsessed with expensive, wasteful ingredients, to the detriment of their immortal souls. Which is a pretty interesting take from a woman who, with her husband, raised chickens, milk goats, honey bees and organic vegetables and made her own yoghurt and cheese from the proceeds for decades. Because for me, what she and my Dad did are at the heart of being a "foodie." Choosing organic produce, sustainably raised meats and eggs, buying food directly from the farmer; to me these are moral choices. And, of course, they taste waaaay better than that other stuff, and they're waaaay better for you than that other stuff.

Ah, but what you all really want to talk about is pie crust, yes? So, I had the mistaken impression that 1) pie crust was too much work, 2) the other stuff was perfectly fine, and 3) my pie crust efforts would be lousy. This, despite the memories of the best pie crust ever - my sister Cynta's home-made delectable strawberry rhubarb pie in the tastiest crust in the world. So, I'm willing to admit I was wrong. Isn't that big of me? That's right: wrong, wrong, wrong. It's not hard, or time-consuming, and that divine taste and flaky texture just can't be had any other way.

Now, what I gather from all of the pie crust lore I've been collecting, is that pie crust makers are hard-core in their loyalty to certain fats. There's the butter camp; butter makes a flaky crust, where the layers separate out like mica shards. And of course, butter has that, for lack of a better descriptor, "buttery" taste. Then there are the shortening folks. Shortening also makes flakes; shortening proponents say they are better flakes than butter. Ahem. In a word, trans-fats. "Trans-fats" are created when liquid vegetable oil is forced to bond with extra hydrogen atoms, which transforms them into solid shortening. When they enter your body, the hydrogen atoms seek out the good fat and make it go bad. Yes, there are organic shortening alternatives (Spectrum makes one from Palm Oil, which is naturally solid at room temperature) but my experiments with it have yielded somewhat tough results. Shortening is therefore easily knocked off the list, in my opinion. And of course, there is the lard camp; lard makes a tender, yielding crust, with a savory back-note. This can be a lovely contrast with say, apple pie, or as a complement to a quiche. Which to choose, which to choose; butter or lard? Ah, but then there is the happy compromise - half lard, half butter! Flakes + tender + both flavors = yum.

There are a few technical considerations when blending two fats; butter is much harder than lard; lard is very soft; it becomes almost liquid at room temperature. Both ingredients should be cold when you use them to keep gluten from forming. Gluten is the protein in wheat which bonds into chains when they are exposed to warmth + smooshing; these bonds are desirable in bread and pizza, but makes for a tough pie crust. To deal with this, here are two simple methods; either cut in the butter first, followed by the lard, (my idea) OR, follow the advice in James McNair's Pie Cookbook; soften both fats, blend them together, and then chill them before you use them.

This is adapted from James McNair's recipe; there are many, many fine recipes out there. I don't have a favorite so far; the important thing is to use the best ingredients and follow the basic guidelines.

Basic Pie Crust

Makes 1 double or 2 single crusts. (If you're making a single crust pie, you can make both, and freeze one for later!)

I. Standard Version

3 cups all-purpose, organic unbleached flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp organic granulated sugar
1/2 cup cold, organic, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup cold lard
1/2 cup or more ice water 
1/4 cup or more ice water
1/4 cup iced vodka

Follow universal steps below for all recipes.

II. Whole Grain, Low Carbohydrate Variations

1 1/2 cups Spelt Flour
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

OR: 3 cups Spelt Flour,  OR:3 cups whole wheat pastry flour, OR any combination of the two!

1 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar or xylitol
1/2 cup cold, organic, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup cold lard
1/2 cup ice water
1/4 cup or more ice water
1/4 cup iced vodka

(If you are using a food processor, the fats should be in small pieces and frozen. However, made it both ways, I have to say doing it by hand produces a MUCH more pleasing texture.)

1. Measure the flour using the "spoon and sweep" method; use a spoon to fill the cup, then scrape off the excess with a knife. This ensures the right proportion of flour is measured. This technique comes from "The Bakers' Dozen Cookbook;" I use this method for all baking, but it's especially important for pie crust making.

2. In a medium sized bowl with a nice, smooth, flattish bottom, combine the flour, salt and sugar. Mix well with a fork or whisk.

3. Prepare your ice water by putting water and several ice cubes in a cup or bowl.

4. Add the small hunks of cold butter individually to the bowl of flour, and use your fork to toss them into the flour. Using a pastry cutter (some people use 2 knives or their hands; I like my pastry cutter just fine) cut the butter into the flour, occasionally scraping the gathered hunks of butter and dough off the blades of the cutter with the fork, and occasionally tossing the ingredients to keep them evenly distributed. Do this until the bits of butter are about pea-sized; don't overwork the dough, or it will form gluten bonds and get tough!

5. Now add the cold lard, adding spoonfuls and tossing them into the flour mixture with your fork or spoon. Cut the lard into the dough; it is much softer, and therefore easier and quicker to cut in than the cold butter! Follow the same instructions as for the butter, but now you want the final pieces to be more like coarse breadcrumbs.

6. One tablespoonful at a time, sprinkle in the ice water. After each addition, stir and toss the flour mixture with your fork, until it makes a shaggy dough that is beginning to stick heavily to the fork. If you are using the vodka, add the ice water first, then the vodka to finish. You may use a little less than the whole amount of liquid, or a little more. Squeeze a little hunk together to see if it just barely holds. If not, add a little more liquid. If it's coming together nicely, lay two large pieces of waxed or parchment paper on your work surface, gather up the dough into a nice smooth ball with your hands, divide it into two even balls, and place on the paper. If it sticks to your hands a lot, you have added a little too much water. No biggie; just sprinkle a little extra flour on the paper and over the dough balls, and make a nice smooth ball. Using the paper, smoosh the balls into flat, smooth disks. Try not to handle the dough too much, either with your tools or your hands.

7. Wrap up the disks in the paper, then put them into a plastic bag and put them into the refrigerator. Let it "relax" in the refrigerator for at least 15 minutes. This loosens up the gluten bonds that have formed, and firms up the fats before you roll them. If you chill it for longer, you may need to let it warm up for a little while before you roll it; otherwise it will crack when you try to roll it - very frustrating!

NOTES FROM CHRISTINE: Flour Choices - Whole grains are full of wonderful nutrients and fiber, and are more evenly metabolized by those with metabolic/blood sugar issues. Any of these combinations are delicious; here are the considerations when choosing your flour. Why choose Spelt? Spelt is fine grained and light, with a lovely, tender texture. Some people with gluten issues can tolerate it better than regular wheat. Why Whole Wheat Pastry Flour? Whole wheat pastry flour is lighter than all purpose whole wheat flour, lower in gluten (the protein that makes bread get chewy) and makes a flakier crust. It's also easier to find than spelt. The blend gives you the best of all possible worlds. Water: the spelt flour absorbs less water than the whole wheat flour; be more sparing when you add the ice water.  Vodka gives you the moisture you need to hold the dough together, but it evaporates more readily than water, giving the pie crust a much more tender and delicious texture - well worth it - I really recommend this technique!

Spelt is available in natural food stores and in well-stocked grocery stores.

Next up: Pie!

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