Michele Coulon of Michele Coulon Dessertier in La Jolla has, by far, the simplest technique. She took me under her wing to teach me her traditional French technique. It relies on just a few quality ingredients and sticking to a formula.
First, use the best ingredients possible. Coulon uses unsalted European-style butter (try Straus Family Creamery’s European-style organic butter or Plugra). Second, measure or weigh the ice water for the crust. Keep the dough chilled—this is a universal commandment for pie crust making.
Then there are the usual debates over pie pans: Glass versus ceramic versus aluminum or metal. Coulon uses aluminum pie tins for customers but prefers dark metal pans when baking for family, to help with browning. She’s not fond of ceramic pie plates and is firmly antiglass (sorry, Pyrex).
As for putting it together, instead of using a food processor, Coulon is about simplicity—a bowl, a couple of knives, a spoon, and clean hands. Slice the butter, mix together flour and salt, add the butter into the flour mixture, and, using the two knives, cut the butter into the flour to pea-sized pieces. Then add your ice water and start mixing it together with a spoon. Once that stops being effective, plunge your hands in to scoop and press together the dough until it just comes together.
Rolling comes next, then letting the dough rest, then fill it. But we’ll return to this.
Tina Luu is a pastry chef with a mission: teaching. She taught at the Art Institute in San Diego for many years and now is focusing her sights on teaching high school students.
Her favorite method uses cold butter for flavor, but also Crisco to get a flakier, more tender crust.
She also blends all purpose flour with pastry flour—and a little salt and sugar.
For simplicity, she uses an all-butter and all purpose flour recipe, presented here.
Finally, there’s Kathleen Shen. Shen had been the pastry chef of the late great Bake Sale Bakery in the East Village. She, like Luu, likes the classic blending of butter and shortening. And she explained why you don’t want to work all the fat into the flour.
“You want those pieces of fat because they create pockets of steam and thus flakiness. And you want to minimize how much you work the dough to avoid developing gluten. Then the dough gets tough. Instead, it should just hold together.”
Shen presses the dough into a disk before putting it in the fridge to cool. Then comes time to roll out.
Now rolling out dough can be the greatest source of pie-making anxiety. Shen is the one who gave me the foolproof technique I continue to use.
Here we go: Brush surface with flour and let the rolling pin do the work, not your arms. Roll the disk once. Turn it a quarter. Roll. Turn. Roll. Turn. You end up with a nice evenly rolled circle that doesn’t stick to the surface. (For extra flaky dough, you can also fold your rolled out dough into quarters and roll it out again--like laminating dough for croissants or puff pastry.) Fold the now large circle gently into quarters and lift it into the pie tin.
Unfold. Press into the pie tin and that’s it. For a double-crust pie—like apple—fold the top dough over the bottom at the edge, press to close, then crimp.
Want to do something a little different with your crust? Instead of graham cracker crust for a chocolate cream pie, Shen suggests making a chocolate chip cookie dough, sans the chips, bake it, run it through the food processor to get the crumbs, and add sugar and butter. Then press into the pie tin and refrigerate until ready to use. Want to add some extra structure to a pie dough for lemon meringue? Instead of rolling the dough out with flour, use graham cracker crumbs.
And don’t forget my Nana’s strategy for holiday pies—make the crusts in advance and freeze them either in a disk or rolled out in your pie tin. It’s like having pre-made crusts—only you made them.