Michele Stuart, owner of Michele’s Pies in Norwalk and Westport, Conn., and author of the new book Perfect Pies & More, offered these tips for holiday pie-baking:
• Pie fillings aren’t hard to master, so focus on the crust.
• Pie baking takes patience. Try not to get frustrated and keep trying.
• Stuart prefers to use Crisco brand vegetable shortening for her crusts.
• Make sure to use ice-cold ingredients, especially the water.
• The biggest mistake pie bakers make is over-mixing the crust. Stop mixing when the shortening is the size of peas, gather the dough into a ball and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap.
• Refrigerate pie dough for at least half an hour before rolling it out.
• Dough that cracks when rolled out is probably too dry. Next time, add more water when mixing. Cracking means a problem with the dough, not a problem with the rolling technique.
• Invest in an oven thermometer to check your oven temperature for accuracy.
• Stuart brushes her crust with heavy cream before baking to ensure a golden brown finish.
Here is Stuart’s recipe for traditional pie crust:
TRADITIONAL PASTRY PIE CRUST
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
¾ cup plus 2 tbsp. Crisco vegetable shortening, cold
5 tbsp. water, ice cold
In a medium bowl, mix together the flour and salt. Add the Crisco to the flour mixture. Either with a pastry blender or with your fingertips, mix the ingredients together with an up-and-down chopping motion until the dough forms coarse, pea-sized crumbs. I prefer to use my fingertips, but take care not to overhandle the dough, because it will become difficult to work with; when dough is over-handled, the Crisco becomes too incorporated. In the perfect pie, the Crisco will have a marbleized look when the dough is rolled out, and you will actually be able to see Crisco swirls within the uncooked dough.
Add the ice-cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, delicately incorporating each tablespoon into the flour mixture before you add the next. You may have to use 1 more or 1 less tablespoon of water than the amount recommended, depending upon the humidity in your kitchen at the time of baking. You will know you have added just the right amount of water when the dough forms a ball that easily holds together.
Use your palm to form the dough into a dish shape, wrap it in plastic wrap, and place it in the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes. Once the dough has chilled, divide it in half. You now have enough dough for either one 9- or 10-inch double-crust pie, or two single-crust pies.
— Perfect Pies & More,