Tips for Better Pie Crust

crustI believe the reason so many avoid baking pies is this: pie crust can be a pain in the behind. It’s hard to make it pretty and flaky – and sometimes the two seem mutually exclusive. In fact, if I have to opt for one of the other, I’m always going with flaky over pretty. I’d rather have an ugly pie that tastes good than one that looks gorgeous but has a crust like shoe leather.

The reason these two goals often seem mutually exclusive is this: the more you work with pie crust dough, the tougher it gets. Working the dough binds the glutens, resulting in a tougher pastry. Most pastries are the exact opposite of breads. With bread, you want to work the dough as much as possible to toughen up the gluten and bind it together. That’s why you knead bread dough. With pies, you want to create little bits of fat within loosely bound flour. That way, when the fat melts during the baking process, it leaves air pockets that produce flakes.

You can really use any pie dough recipe – I use Cook’s Illustrated’s recipes. What is important is that you follow a few procedures to make the dough just as flaky as possible.

  1. Handle the dough minimally. Roll it only once. Don’t re-roll it, or you will toughen it up. Likewise, only stir enough to bring the dough together. To do this, I combine butter and dry ingredients in the food processor, pulsing a few times to create a sandy mixture. Then, I pour that mixture in a small bowl and sprinkle water over the top – just enough to bring the mixture together. I lightly mix it with a rubber spatula until it forms a loose, shaggy ball, adding more water only if I need it. Your dough should not appear homogenous – just together.
  2. Use very cold butter, and cut it into 1/2″ cubes. The colder the butter, the better because this allows it to stay in small clumps within the dough that will melt away and leave flakes.
  3. Use ice water. This keeps the butter from melting before you bake the pie.
  4. Before you roll the dough, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate it for about 30 minutes. If you are making a two crust pie, wrap two balls separately. This facilitates ease of rolling. When you remove it from the refrigerator, let it sit for a few minutes to soften slightly.
  5. Roll the dough out on a very well-floured surface and use a well-floured rolling pin. I use either a Silpat or my Corian countertops, which I meticulously dry before rolling out the dough. I am also a fan of the French style rolling pin because I feel it gives me more control as I roll out my pie crust.
  6. If your crust breaks apart, rather than re-rolling it, patch it together. In my opinion, better an ugly pie than a tough one! You can always “fix” your ugliness by cutting decorations out of the remaining crust and putting it over the ugliest spots. I do it all the time.
  7. Don’t forget to cut slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.
  8. Re-refrigerate your crust for about 30 min before baking.

Looking for an even more foolproof crust? Try Cook’s Illustrated’s crust that uses vodka for an even flakier pastry!

Chicken Pot Pie

chickenpieWhen I was a kid, I HATED chicken pot pie. My mom would buy the Swanson’s premade chicken pies and bake them. The mushy vegetables and cubes of super soft chicken weren’t appetizing to me. Worse, they contained what I considered to be the most awful vegetable on the face of the earth. Peas.

I hated peas with a vengeance as a kid. For a while, I tried hiding them in my napkin or throwing them on the floor. Sadly for me, my mother was just a little cleverer than that I gave her credit for being, so those avenues of pea disposal were lost to me. I can recall a few dinners sitting long after everyone else was done eating, staring down the slimy green objects I found so disgusting. Then I hit on the perfect solution. If I swallowed them whole with my milk, I didn’t have to taste them at all. Chicken pie, however, made this exercise more of a challenge, and I dreaded seeing those Swanson’s boxes on the counter.

In high school, a close family friend was also my home economics teacher. Etta Kirk taught a class called Meal Management, and we made all sorts of really great foods like cream pies and cinnamon rolls. We also made chicken pie, a lesson I knew was coming and dreaded with the same intensity I used to fear seeing a bag of frozen peas in the freezer. Still, Etta encouraged us to try everything we’d cooked in the class. The chicken pie didn’t suck, but it still wasn’t my favorite. I avoided it for years.

It wasn’t until about five years ago that I had a revelation. I was a grown up, and I could put whatever vegetables I wanted into my chicken pie, and there didn’t have to be a single pea in it. I set out on a mission to create a chicken pie that I would love.

Here’s the good news. If you love peas, you can add them into this recipe. You can change up the herbs and vegetables, and make a chicken pie that suits your palate if you just use the really simple techniques I outline below. The result will be a rustic, delicious, comforting chicken pie that is sure to become a family favorite. The best part? You don’t even need to know how to make pie crust. I’ve hit on a simple solution that has earned rave reviews. Instead of making pie crust, I purchase pre-made puff pastry sheets in the grocer’s freezer section, and top my pie with that.

Deep Dish Chicken Pie

Ingredients

  • 1/4 pound raw pancetta, diced (you can find pancetta in the deli section of the grocery store. You can also use bacon, which will impart much smokier flavor. I prefer pancetta.)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
  • 1 pound chicken thighs, boned and quartered
  • Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper
  • 1 sweet onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 bag frozen pearl onions
  • 1/2 pound crimini mushrooms, quartered (mushroom haters – these are optional)
  • One sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed on the counter for 30 minutes, plus flour for rolling
  • 1 egg, beaten slightly
  • 3 tablespoons fresh or 2 tablespoons dried tarragon

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. In a large saute pan, heat oil on medium high and cook pancetta. Remove pancetta from oil with a slotted spoon and set aside in a deep pan such as a deep dish pie dish or a 9 x 9 deep dish square pan.
  3. Season chicken with salt and pepper and cook in oil from pancetta in batches, allowing it to caramelize before turning it over. Do this by leaving chicken in contact with the pan for 3-4 minutes before flipping it. You do not need to cook chicken all the way through – just allow it to develop flavor by browning it on both sides. Do not overcrowd the pan. I typically perform this step in 2-3 batches. Remove chicken from pan and set aside with pancetta.
  4. Using the same pan and oil, add diced onions, carrots, and celery (mirepoix). Leave the vegetables in contact with the pan to allow flavor to develop before stirring, about 3 to four minutes. Stir and allow vegetables to soften. Reduce heat to medium.
  5. Add flour to the vegetables and oil, stirring constantly for two minutes.
  6. Add wine to pan, stirring constantly and scraping any browned bits from cooking off the bottom of the pan.
  7. Add chicken stock and allow to come to a simmer and thicken slightly, stirring constantly.
  8. Pour the mixture over chicken and pancetta in deep dish pan. Add mushrooms,  pearl onions and tarragon. Stir to combine.
  9. On a floured surface, slightly roll out your sheet of puff pastry so it is large enough to overlap the edges of your pan. Place on top of the deep dish and crimp the edges by pinching them between your fingers.
  10. Brush beaten eggs along the top of the crust in a light wash.
  11. Bake for 40 minutes, until crust is golden brown. Serve immediately.

Serve this with a nice dry white like a Chardonnay.

Some tips:

  • Prepare all of your proteins and vegetables before you start cooking, so that everything is set out and ready to go when it is time to cook. This is referred to as “mise en place,” which means everything in place. This is the best way to cook anything – with all of your ingredients pre chopped, pre-measured, and ready to go before you cook.
  • Mirepoix is a standard combination of diced carrots, celery and onions. Try to cut all of your vegetables to roughly the same size so they cook evenly. The standard measurements for mirepoix are two parts onion to one part carrot and one part celery. It serves as a flavor base for many dishes.
  • Develop flavor by leaving chicken and vegetables in contact with the pan so it starts to caramelize. Don’t skimp on this step, because it makes a huge flavor difference, adding layers of complexity to your cooking.
  • Don’t shorten your cooking time with the flour. When you add flour to oil or melted fat (even if there are vegetables in the oil), you are making a roux. A roux is a standard way of thickening
  • When you add the wine to the pan, make sure you scrape all of the browned bits off the bottom¬† to incorporate the flavor into the broth.
  • If you wish to add other vegetables (like peas), use fresh rather than frozen, and add them just before you put the crust on top and put the pie in the oven.
  • You can trade tarragon for thyme, which is also really good in this recipe. If you add thyme, a little garlic would be nice, as well. Add it in the last few moments of sauteeing your vegetables, right before you add the flour. Garlic doesn’t need to cook long. As soon as you can smell it, it’s good enough. If you cook it too long, it grows bitter. If you are using tarragon, don’t add garlic – because the garlic will overwhelm the delicate character of the tarragon.