Tuesday, March 8, 2011

About Pie Crusts (with and without gluten)

Pie crusts are tricky creatures. They need to be treated with care. When I was a teenager, I asked my Grandma W to teach me how to make a pie crust. She was a terrific cook. She told me to combine 2 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, 3 tablespoons of butter, and some ice cold water. She said to cut the butter into the flour/salt until it was the size of peas, then add the water until it stuck together. That was my basic pie crust recipe for many years. Once I mentioned to my mother that I used Grandma W’s pie crust recipe. Mom said, “You should ask my mother for her recipe. Her pie crust is much better than your Grandma W’s.” So I took her advice and asked her mother, my Grandma G, for her pie crust recipe. Grandma G’s recipe was identical to Grandma W’s! I couldn’t resist teasing Mom about it. I said that it was the old “Mom cooks it the best” deal. Mom grew indignant and said that was not the case, that her mother’s pie crust was far superior to that of her mother-in-law, and that Grandma W always ruined her pie crust because she “potchkeed” with the dough too much. There you have it in a nutshell. There is no English equivalent for the Yiddish word “potchkee.” But the moral of the story is that the fastest way to ruin a pie crust is to work it too much because then it gets tough. So don’t potchkee too much with your dough and you’ll be just fine.

Standard Whole Wheat Pie Crust

Here is a more detailed explanation of how to use the standard pie crust recipe of my grandmothers. Read the entire instructional section before starting. This is a whole wheat crust that I used for years with great success. If you don’t eat gluten, skip down to the gluten-free pie crust recipes below. Whole wheat crusts are not as light and flaky as white flour crusts, but in my opinion they taste much better. They are nutty and full-bodied. White flour crusts have limited flavor and no nutritional value.

For a standard whole wheat crust, put 2 cups of whole wheat flour on a large cutting board or other flat, smooth surface (that is easy to take to the sink to wash up afterward). Add ¼ teaspoon of salt. Next you cut in 3 heaping tablespoons of your choice of “grease.” By grease, I refer to solid fats, such as butter, palm oil shortening, or coconut. Cut the grease into the crust mixture using a pastry cutter or you can just as easily use two butter knives (drawing them across the dough). Cut the grease into the dough until the bits of grease are mostly no bigger than the size of peas (as Grandma W said). Heap all the dough together in a mound in the middle of the cutting board and create a well in the middle like a little volcano crater. Pour a tablespoon of cold water into the well and work it into the dough. The water should be very cold. Either use water that was kept in the refrigerator or let ice melt into it before you add it to the dough. Continue to add water slowly, a little at a time, and work it into the dough until the dough just barely sticks together in a ball. Don’t add so much water that the dough gets gooey. Sprinkle flour on the cutting board and on top of the ball of dough. Roll the dough out with a rolling pin, continuing to sprinkle flour on it so the rolling pin doesn’t stick. When the dough is rolled out large enough to fill your pie pan, lift and place it in the pie pan. Not to worry if it breaks up, you can mold it into place.

For a double pie crust, repeat the above procedure all over again for the top crust. Don’t put the filling in the pie until you are ready to lift the top crust off the cutting board and cover the pie, otherwise, you risk making the bottom crust too soggy as the filling soaks in. To help keep the top crust together, I usually roll it out on a piece of parchment paper. I can then lift the parchment off the cutting board and flip the crust onto the pie in one piece. You can use parchment paper to roll out your bottom crust as well if you like. I find that it makes it easier to lift a crust. I learned this trick when working with gluten-free pie crusts, which are more crumbly than wheat crusts. Be sure to pinch the edges securely all around on a double crust and then pierce the top in a few places to let the steam out.

Here are some variations on a theme. For a crisscross top crust, follow the directions above. When you have rolled out your top crust, take a butter knife and cut it into strips about ½-inch wide. Lay the strips across the top of the pie and gently weave them in and out of one another. Start with the middle, and longest, strips first (in both directions) and work your way down to the shorter strips. Other ingredients that you might want to add to your pie crust might include a couple of tablespoons of flax seed meal or wheat germ.

Gluten-Free Pie Crust Variations

The gluten-free pie crust is tricky because it tends to fall apart easily. Follow the same directions as above for rolling out the crust, but definitely roll it out on a piece of parchment paper for easier manipulation. I prepare a gluten-free crust in the same way that I prepare a whole wheat crust, but the ingredients are different. Here are two combinations that I have found to work well.

Here is my current most favorite combination: 1½ cups brown rice flour, ½ cup almond meal (I make this myself by whirling the almonds into the food processor for a minute or two), ½ teaspoon xanthan gum, ¼ teaspoon salt, 2 heaping tablespoons palm oil shortening, 1 tablespoon butter, cold water as needed to form dough.

Here is another combination: ½ cup Teff flour, 1 cup brown rice flour, ½ cup chopped walnuts (or walnut meal if you whirl the walnuts in the food processor), 2 tablespoons flax seed meal, 2 tablespoons tapioca flour, ¼ teaspoon salt, 3 heaping tablespoons grease of your choice, cold water to form dough.

Hopefully, these two different versions will give you some ideas about how to mix and match different flours to make a delectable gluten-free crust. The xanthan gum is like glue and very powerful, so don’t use too much. The tapioca flour also helps keep the crust together. Just as with the whole wheat crust, remember Mom’s warning: don’t potchkee too much with the dough.

Eat well, be well, live deliciously!

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