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Being Flaky: Wheat Piecrust Recipes

Cordelia Toser, O.P. cnewsonsmith@yahoo.com


Pie, filled with either a savory or sweet filling, is a very old way of preparing food still popular today. Pie may be served hot or cold, at the beginning, middle or end of a meal. any time of year.

In Europe where metal for cooking pans was less abundant historically, a sturdier crust was frequently used as a warming vessel for leftover cooked foods (think casserole) instead of a metal pan. There was no expectation that the crust was to be eaten. The tough, sturdy crust, was made from lard, cheaper flour (which might not be wheat at all) and hot water, a subject for another day.

On the other hand, there are numerous recipes, a few of them listed below, which call for the best wheat flour, butter, often an egg, and a little water. The crust was more crisp and crunchy, and because it was made with butter rather than lard, its taste didn’t overwhelm more delicately flavored contents. Pies made in this way often contained vegetables, fruit or dairy. In the modern world pie crust is generally a “short” crust, which if done right is crisp and flaky.


About the ingredients:


Flour. One thing that helps produce a flaky crust rather than a chewy one is to choose a low-gluten flour, labeled as good for biscuits. I use White Lily brand flour, which is made from soft wheat, and is difficult to find outside the Southern states. If you simply cannot find low gluten flour, use all-purpose flour, but be aware that the gluten content is higher, and it also contain added ingredients. Avoid using flour meant for bread or pasta as the gluten content is very high. One way of keeping down gluten development is to work quickly, as the human hand is warm. Refrigerating the dough so it can “rest” also helps.

Shortening. Vegetable shortening is a 20th century invention. One of my great grandfathers ran a grocery store in a small town. My mother told me that she remembered being in the store when a salesman called on her grandfather with an exciting new product: Snowdrift! The new ingredient did not have the strong taste of lard, and was cheaper than butter for making piecrust, both of which housewives were sure to love. Since Mom was born in 1916, her memory would suggest that Snowdrift was put on the market sometime in the 1920’s.

Fat. Note that the big difference between the recipes below is the fat requirement. Why is this? As it happens, neither vegetable shortening nor lard (rendered pork fat) have any water content. On the other hand, butter does contain some water. How much water are we talking about? In the United States, the Federal food regulations are clear that butter sold in this country may not contain more than 20 percent water. How much butter would you expect manufacturers to use in the butter you can buy? Why, no less than 20 percent, of course.

Ice water. By ice water, I mean a large glass with ice cubes and water. A tablespoon will be required to sprinkle water over the flour mixture. The cold water will make it difficult for gluten in the flour to develop, which should make the crust more flaky and less chewy. You won’t need all the water, by the way, but the ice will keep the water cold enough to complete that step of the process.


A modern recipe for making piecrust


Single piecrust with butter:

1 1/4 cup flour, unsifted 1/4 tsp salt 2 cups ice water

5 ounces salted butter at room temperature (contains 1 /4 tsp salt)

More flour for rolling out the crust


Single piecrust with lard:

1 1/4 cup flour, unsifted 1/2 tsp salt 2 cups ice water

4 ounces (1/2 cup) lard at room temperature

More flour for rolling out the crust


Single piecrust with vegetable shortening:

1 1/4 cup flour, unsifted 1/2 tsp salt 2 cups ice water

4 ounces (1/2 cup) vegetable shortening at room temperature

More flour for rolling out the crust


For a double crust (top and bottom), increase ingredients as follows:

- flour from 1 1/4 cups to 2 cups

-butter from 5 ounces to 8 ounces

- lard or vegetable shortening from 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup


Tools:

measuring cups

measuring spoons

large mixing bowl

large water glass

two knives

plastic bag, quart size

waxed paper or similar surface for rolling out pastry (plastic wrap really doesn’t work here)

rolling pin

9 inch pie plate


Directions:

Place flour in a large mixing bowl, sprinkle salt over it. Work fat into flour with a fork, two knives, or some other kitchen tool you like until lumps are the size of peas. There should be very little loose flour.

Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of water over the flour mixture, stir the mixture gently to distribute the water. Sprinkle another tablespoon of water over the flour mixture and stir gently again. Take a handful of the mixture. pressing it together to see if it sticks together. If the mixture is still too crumbly, carefully add more water one tablespoon at a time until it does stick together. Note that if you add too much water, you will have a sticky mess that cannot be saved. Also note that on a rainy day you might not need as much water compared to a dry sunny day.

Gently form the dough with your hands into a round flat shape about an inch thick. The less you handle the dough, the less you risk developing the gluten. Immediately place the dough into a plastic bag and refrigerate it at least 3 hours, but no more than 2 days, to allow the moisture to be evenly distributed throughout.

When you are ready to make your pie, allow the dough to come to room temperature. Put a piece of waxed paper on your work surface and sprinkle a little flour over it. Put the dough in the center of the floured waxed paper and sprinkle flour on top of it. Now rub flour onto your rolling pin. Gently roll the dough from the center out until the circle is about 11 inches across.

Sprinkle a fine layer of flour into your pie plate to prevent the crust from sticking later. Carefully place the layer of dough into the pie plate and pat it into the shape of your pan, trimming off the edges. At this point you may put in the filling to be cooked, and then the top crust on top. Fasten the crusts at the edge with a small amount of water and press them together with your fingers. Cut one or more small holes in the top crust to allow steam to escape during cooking. The holes can be decorative if you choose. You can make a pretty edge. Any leftover pie crust can be made into fanciful shapes and applied to the top crust with a little water or raw beaten egg. The filled pie should be cooked in an oven preheated to the temperature required in the recipe for that kind of pie.

If the pie filling will not be a cooked one and the crust is to be baked empty, place enough pie weights or dried beans in the crust so it will remain flat; bake at 350 degrees F. for 10 to 15 minutes, or until slightly browned. When the crust has cooled to room temperature, remove the pie weights or discard the beans as appropriate, before adding the filling.


Period recipes for making piecrust

Best, Michael R., editor, The English house-vvife https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=eebo;idno=A06924.0001.001, McGill-Queens University Press, Kingston and Montreal, 1986, ISBN 0-7735-0582-2, Chapter II (recipe 108 - Of the pastry and baked meats) (recipe 109 - Of the mixture of pastes) (in recipe 137 – A Florentine).

*Das Kuchbuch der Sabina Welserin, (recipe 61 - To make a pastry dough for all shaped pie.) (in recipe 70 - A tart with plums, which can be dried or fresh). English Version.

Hess, Karen, editor, Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, Columbus University Press, New York, 1981, ISBN 0-231-04930-7 (recipe C148 - To Make Paste [Royall]).

Hieatt, Constance B. and Sharon Butler, editors, Cury on Inglysh, Early English Text Society, London, 1985, ISBN 0-19-722409-1 (in recipe - IV 116, For to Make Flaumpeyns).

Scully, Terence, The Neapolitan Recipe Collection. The University of Michigan Press, 2000, ISBN 0-472-10972-3 (in recipe 185 - French-Style Apple Tart).

*Wallace, Sam, editor, The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, London, 1597, (To make Paste, and to raise Coffins) (To make fine Paste a nother way) (To make short paste in Lent).

*Cookbooks downloaded from the Internet.


Modern cooks’ writings about making piecrust

Child, Julia, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 1, Fortieth Anniversary Edition, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001, ISBN 0-375-41340-5, pp. 139-141.

Claiborne, Craig, The Original New York Times Cookbook, Harpers & Row, New York, 1961, ISBN 0-06-01079-1, pp. 520-521.

Corriher, Shirley O., BakeWise, Scribner, New York, 2008, ISBN 978-1041-65-6078-4, pp. 286-288, 309, 343, 349-351.

Corriher, Shirley O., CookWise, William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1997, ISBN 0-688-10229-8, pp. 106, 115.

O’Roarke, Siobhan Medhbh, Cordelia Toser, Travelling Dysshes, Second Edition, self published, Hayward, CA, 2002, ISBN 0-9723843-0-8, p.41.

Redon, Odille, Francoise Sabban, Silvano Serventi, The Medieval Kitchen, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1998, ISBN 0-226-70685-2, p. 225.

Williams, Chuck, ed., Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library: Pies & Tarts, Time-Life Books, New York, 1998, ISBN 0-7835-0200-1, pp.8-9.

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