I have a confession to make: Despite my love of all things baking, I have yet to master the perfect pie.
‘Tis the season for harvest-y pies and Christmassy pies and all the wonderful fillings that can be baked in a pastry. But homemade pie crust is a true art. It requires delicacy, restraint and a light touch — sort of like performing deep tissue massage on a butterfly.
The pastry needs to stay ice-cube cold, or it will stick. Once that happens, you’ll be tempted to add extra flour, which could transform it from flaky, delicate crust to drywall. It’s the type of culinary project that takes lots of practice and the perfect fusion of conditions (the right temperature, the right amount of handling, the right prayers to the baking gods) to turn out right.
I’ve tried all sorts of recipes to master this flaky and formidable pastry. I’ve tried changing up the fat: butter, Crisco, lard and once, in a spectacular error of judgment, canola oil.
I’ve tried the most basic of recipes (fat, flour, salt) and the fancier kinds that incorporate weird ingredients like vinegar and vodka and 7 Up. These recipes produced a few upper-crust crusts, but the majority were too dry, too thick, too flavorless or too flimsy.
Just when I thought my only hope left was Pillsbury, I ran across this intriguing recipe from the Simply Recipes website. It not only includes two whole sticks of butter, but also a 1/2 cup of sour cream.
The author, Elise Bauer, claimed this is the easiest, flakiest and tastiest pie crust imaginable. It doesn’t contain a drop of water and it doesn’t need to be made with a food processor.
Bauer explains that traditional pie pastry gets tough when protein strands in the gluten form as the flour and water blend together. But the sour cream version creates a fatty cocoon around the flour protein molecules, which keeps water away from the protein molecules. Result: The crust stays tender.
Another difference with this crust is that the ingredients don’t need to be cold. Bauer suggests removing the butter from the fridge and letting it sit for five to 10 minutes so you can work the butter into the flour with your hands. The object is to flatten pieces of butter while mixing, which guarantees crust with super-flaky layers.
Of course, I had to try it. I scrounged up some apple pie filling, along with two Gala apples and three crab apples, to fill the pastry. As promised, the pastry was incredibly easy to work with. I was able to create two smooth disks of dough, which had the consistency of newly opened Play Doh.
I used plenty of flour to roll out the soft dough, which needed at least an hour of refrigeration beforehand. I kneaded and manhandled the dough pretty mercilessly but, as promised, it did not get tough.
It baked up beautifully — creating a tender, slightly tangy crust that melted in the mouth. In fact, one friend who popped over had a piece, and declared it the best pie she’s ever eaten.
One caveat: This crust is so fattalicious and soft that it doesn’t work well for single-crust pies that need to be blind-baked — like pumpkin. Without the “support” of a filling, it starts to slump, and you will wind up with a pancake vs. a shell. (Delicious, but not very functional.)
Bauer says she has found a way to successfully pre-bake a single crust: fluting the edges of dough extra high above the edges of the pan, freezing the crust for at least 30 minutes, lining it with heavy foil, filling it all the way to the top with white granulated sugar and baking it at 350 degrees for 50 minutes.
But that seemed a bit labor-intensive for a crust that is supposed to be “easy.” So for now, I will stick to using this recipe for super-nummy two-crust pies.
Sour Cream Pie Crust
Makes: enough dough for 2 single crusts, or 1 double crust
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar (omit for savory pies)
2 sticks unsalted butter, cubed and removed from fridge for 5-10 minutes
1/2 cup full-fat sour cream
After removing butter from fridge to soften slightly, whisk together flour, salt and sugar. Sprinkle the cubes of butter over the flour. With clean hands, use your knuckles, thumbs and fingers to vigorously squish the flour and butter together. Work the butter into the dough until it resembles a coarse meal with some flattened chunks of butter.
Add the sour cream to the flour-butter mixture; use a fork to incorporate well.
Gather the pastry dough together into a large ball. With a knife, cut the ball in half. Form into 2 disks.
As you work the dough, it should end up smooth, having the consistency of Play-Doh. Don't worry about overworking it.
Form the disks so that there are no cracks. Sprinkle all over with a little flour. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for an hour or up to 1 day ahead.
Remove dough from fridge, let it sit for 5-10 minutes, then roll out on a well-floured surface. If bottom is sticking, sprinkle more flour underneath the dough.
Use this recipe for double-crusted traditional pies. It will be prettier if you brush the crust with an egg wash (a beaten egg mixed with 1 teaspoon water) right before baking.
To bake, place pie on a baking sheet in a 375-degree oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the top starts to lightly brown, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees and bake anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour or longer (length of baking time will depend on the filling used). The pie is done when juices are noticeably bubbling or a digital thermometer inserted in center reads 200 degrees. If crust is browning too much, tent it with aluminum foil.
Recipe credit: No Fail, Sour Cream Pie Crust by Elise Bauer on simplyrecipes.com
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org.