By Terry Thompson-Anderson
Photography ©iStockphoto.com/ Robert Linton
I attended a culinary school that, at the time, taught a classic French curriculum. That meant no food processors, no stand mixers, no blenders, no Microplanes, no immersion blenders; just our two hands, big spoons and knives. Upon graduating, I vowed that I would re-create the wonderful French classics I had learned using modern American kitchen gadgetry so that everyday cooks could prepare them easily. The first thing I tackled was simple pie pastry.
Since then, I’ve taught cooking classes all over the U.S. to untold numbers of people, and one consistent thread I’ve noticed is the level of intimidation that even skilled home cooks have about making pastry. I guess that’s why there are many brands of ready-made frozen pastries, pastry sticks and ready-to-bake piecrusts. Yet, homemade pastry is such an easy thing to make and is far superior to any of the store-bought varieties.
All that’s required to make a tender, flaky piecrust, for example, is a food processor, a rolling pin and adherence to a few simple rules. Number one: don’t overwork the dough. If you do, it will activate the protein in the flour and the pastry will be very tough and elastic. Number two: when adding the fat to the flour, don’t over-process it. After the fat is blended with the flour, there should still be pea-size chunks of it visible in the dough. (Those little bits of fat will melt into the pastry when it’s baked, leaving little pockets of air where they were. The dozens of air pockets will expand with the heat and make layers of flaky baked pastry!)
Once you get the hang of making pastry in the food processor, experiment with other pastry recipes. Just remember that the flour and fat must be blended first. Liquids are then added and the dough is processed very briefly—only until it’s crumbly and moist (as opposed to ball-like) or it will become overworked. It’s better to have the dough be a bit on the sticky side than too dry; you can always add more flour to the work surface when rolling out the dough.
This recipe is for an all-purpose dough that’s good for both savory and sweet uses. If you’re using it for a sweet filling, leave in the sugar; if it’s for a savory dish, omit it. For either use, always include the salt.
If the recipe calls for the pastry to be baked before the filling is added, fit the rolled-out pastry into the pie pan and prick the bottom all over with the tines of a fork. Line the pastry with a double layer of foil up to the rim of the pie pan—leaving a surplus of about two inches of foil. Fill the foil-lined pastry with raw rice or dried beans up to the brim of the pan. Put the pan in a preheated 375-degree oven for 20 minutes, then remove it and quickly lift out the foil with the rice or beans. Return the pastry to the oven for an additional 10 to 15 minutes to brown the bottom and sides. Reserve the used rice or beans for future pie use.
Okay, let’s make some pastry! This recipe makes a single pastry for a 9-inch pie pan, or a 10-inch tart tin and can easily be doubled.
¼. lb. frozen, unsalted butter, cut into ½-in. cubes
1 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
½ t. salt
1 t. sugar, if making a sweet pie
3–4 T. ice-cold water
Combine the frozen butter cubes, flour, salt and sugar (if using) in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse the mixture until the butter is broken up into pea-size bits. With the machine running, pour 3 T. of the water through the feed tube. Stop the machine and pulse 3 to 4 times. Check the consistency of the dough. It should form a ball when a bit is squeezed in your palm. If additional water is needed, add it a teaspoon at a time and pulse to blend.
When the dough is the right consistency, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Using your hands, bring the dough together and knead it gently until it forms a cohesive dough (don’t overwork it!). Pat the dough into a round disk, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 30 minutes. Spray a 9-inch pie pan with nonstick spray and set aside.
After the dough has chilled, roll it out on a moderately floured work surface to slightly less than ¼-inch thick. Roll in only one direction—from the center out—rotating the pastry 90 degrees after every roll. Check often to be sure the pastry isn’t sticking on the bottom—adding additional flour as needed. Then, starting at one side, roll the dough around the rolling pin and unroll over the pie pan.
Lift up the edges of the pastry and allow the dough to slide into the bottom of the pan. Don’t stretch it, or it will shrink when baked. Pat the dough into the bottom and sides of the pan and cut off the excess dough—leaving a 1-inch overhang at the rim of the pan. Tuck the overhanging dough under the dough’s outside edge and pat down gently all around. Flute the edges as desired, or crimp it down with the tines of a fork. Bake according to pie recipe directions.