It’s that time of year again: family gatherings, feasts of plenty, food, friends and fun—and the annual panic about perfecting that most finicky of holiday standbys, pastry.
Even experienced cooks—the ones who can calmly pull off a perfectly timed roast turkey dinner with all the trimmings—quail in the face of making a simple pie crust.
Horror stories abound: tough crusts, greasy crusts, floury crusts, undercooked crusts, broken pastry, sticky rolling pins—it’s enough to make those pre-baked pie shells at the grocery store look very, very appetizing, even though they taste like cardboard and have the texture to match.
But homemade pastry doesn’t have to be difficult. Sure, it may take a little practice to become really comfortable, so don’t bake your first-ever pie when you’ve got 20 people coming to dinner. Here are some tried and true tips to help counter your pastry phobia.
Find a recipe that works
Pastry is pretty straightforward—it’s flour, some sort of fat, and something to hold it all together. That’s where the simplicity ends, though. Butter, shortening or lard? Add an egg? Vinegar? Vodka? Egg wash or cream wash? And what, exactly, are pie birds and pie beads?
It’s pretty dizzying. And there are pros and cons to each recipe. Butter gives you better flavour, but must be kept cold in order for the pastry to stay flaky (and woe betide you if you overwork the dough). Shortening is easier to work with and gives you plenty of flakiness, but doesn’t have as pleasing a flavour.
Finding a good recipe for pastry takes some experimenting, but this recipe, originally from Cook’s Illustrated, is one of our favourites. It uses butter for flavour and flakiness, and shortening for stability, plus the rather odd (but highly effective) addition of vodka.
(And, just for reference, pie birds are ceramic vents, often shaped like geese, that allow steam to escape from a double-crust pie. Pie beads are used to weigh down single crusts that are baked before the filling is added.)
Keep things cold
Good pastry depends on the fat being incorporated into the flour while it’s still relatively solid, so when it bakes and melts, it releases water that puffs the pastry up. Chilling your dough, keeping your butter chilled, and your water ice cold, as well as using a marble rolling pin, will help maintain the fat’s integrity until it gets in the oven. That being said, if your dough starts cracking as you roll it out, it may be too cold. Let it warm up a bit before working with it.
Don’t overwork your pastry
Overworked pastry becomes tough and dry, and no amount of succulent filling will save it. General guidelines call for working the dough until it resembles coarse meal, and no further, although an all-shortening crust will take a little more abuse. Don’t roll more than necessary, either.
Roll around the clock
Rolling a pie crust can be soothing and hypnotic, or it can be a frustrating mess. First things first: don’t roll back and forth. The easiest way to roll pastry dough is “around the clock.” Start with your roller in the middle of the dough. Roll up towards 12 o’clock, easing up on the pressure as you get to the edge. Pick up your rolling pin and place it back in the middle. Roll down toward 6 o’clock. Pick up your pin again, and roll toward 3 o’clock. Continue until you’ve rolled all the way around the clock and your pastry is the thickness you need. Turn the dough occasionally to make sure you’re applying equal pressure, and run an offset spatula under the pastry as you go to make sure it isn’t sticking.
Flour is your friend (just not too much)
Especially if your dough is a little sticky (and it should be), make sure to flour your rolling surface and rolling pin well. This will stop your pastry from sticking and ripping as it’s being rolled out. Just don’t go overboard—a generous sprinkle will do.
Try rolling on parchment paper
You could roll right on a floured countertop, but if you don’t want to deal with cleaning up, use parchment paper instead. Lay a cool, damp tea towel down under the paper to stop it from slipping, then flour it up and roll away. You can then fold the pastry in half using the paper for easier transfer into the pie plate.
Go for a galette
A galette is a rustic, free-form French dessert that involves pastry gathered around a filling, no complicated rolling or pie plate necessary. If you’re nervous about making a pie, a fruit-filled galette is much more forgiving than a traditional pie.
Do you have any tips for great pastry?
For more inspiration, check out these 7 Thanksgiving shortcuts and watch episodes from Cottage Life Television.