Nothing to Fear But Pastry Dough

Okay, so it’s pretty widely known that although I thoroughly enjoy baking and making desserts, I don’t possess a very distinct sweet tooth.  I have never been one to get too excited over a box of chocolates or squeal with delight at the sight of a dessert menu.  I prefer salty over sugared.  Savory over cloyingly sweet.  However, I’ve really never been able to say no to pie.  I love pie.  The flaky crust, the sweet (and sometimes fruity) filling that spills out onto the plate.  Ice cream?  No, thank you.  I’ll take my pie on its own.  Just a fork, please.  

But lurking behind that lovely and delicious slice of pie is a problem not easily solved if one gets too flustered. 

The problem, you may ask?  Why, the crust itself, of course!  It’s only pie if there is a crust.  And making the crust can seem like an insurmountable obstacle to the novice cook – heck, even to the seasoned foodie.  Perhaps you’re thinking, “Sara, it’s just crust.  How hard can it be?  Flour, butter, sugar, water…what’s the big deal?”  The big deal, people, is the fact that the crust could potentially make or break a pie.  It holds the pie together, so it must be substantial, but nobody wants to eat a dense and doughy crust.  They want flaky, light, and buttery.  Of course!  So simple!  No, it takes diligence, practice, patience, and the right temperature of ingredients.

Now, my Scratch Cherry Pie (crust) recipe calls for shortening.  I dislike commercial shortening a great deal.  I prefer lard.  Yes, lard.  If you’re able to find it, buy some, put it in your freezer and it’ll be there, patiently waiting for situations like this.  I just so happened to have home-rendered lard in my freezer. 

(I know, who renders lard in their own kitchen?  Evidently, I do.  And I don’t recommend it.)

Make sure your butter and lard are very, very cold before you get started.  Pop them both in the freezer for 10 minutes if you have to.  The key to flaky crust is cold butter.  If it’s cold (and you keep it cold) throughout the process, when the pie bakes, the water will evaporate from the butter and create a light, flaky crust.  Just what you want, right?

If you don’t have access to a marble board (which helps to keep the whole shebang cold), and you find your dough becoming warm, just pop it back into the fridge (or freezer) for 5 minutes or so to get the chill back.  Then continue on as if nothing ever happened.  Nobody’s watching.  It’s just you and the dough.  Do what you want.

As for the cherries, I use a mixture of frozen red tart and dark sweet cherries.  Yes, frozen.  Since cherry season in the Midwest is practically over the second it starts, frozen is the way to go, at least in Nebraska.

Some last minute reminders, if you please:

  • If you can afford it, invest in a marble pastry board.  You’ll use it, trust me.  For pastry, pasta, bread dough, etc.  If you have marble or granite counters, well then, you’re set.  You don’t need anything extra.
  • Pick up a pie crust shield.  It’s necessary and making a shield out of foil isn’t the easiest thing in the world.  Besides, you run the risk of burning yourself trying to mold it to your pie.
  • Lard and real butter, cold.  Enough said.

Scratch Cherry Pie
loosely adapted from Gourmet, July 2007

For the Pastry:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 cup cold lard
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
5-7 tablespoons ice water

For the Filling:

3 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
2 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom (if desired)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
6-7 cups frozen (not thawed) pitted cherries (mix of sour and sweet – approx. 2 pounds)
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon bourbon or Grand Marnier (if desired)
Whole milk for brushing

***Special equipment:  electric coffee/spice grinder or mortar and pestle; a pastry or bench scraper

Make the Pastry:

In a large bowl or food processor (my preferred method) blend together the flour, butter, lard, and salt just until the mixture resembles coarse meal with pea-sized lumps of butter going through it.  Drizzle 5 tablespoons ice water over mixture and pulse (or stir with fork) until incorporated into flour mixture. 

If you squeeze a small handful of dough and it holds together, you’re good.  If not; if it seems too dry or sandy, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough is able to hold together.  Don’t go crazy with the water or the mixing at this point.  It’s important not to overwork the dough.  If you do, your butter and lard will begin to melt and we don’t want that.  We want cold, cold, cold dough!

Turn dough out onto your board and gather with bench scraper.  Divide dough into 4-6 equal portions and with the heel of your hand, smear each portion once or twice in a forward motion to equally distribute the fat.  Gather it all together with the scraper.  Divide dough into two portions, one just a little bigger than the other.  Form into ball and then press each gently into a disk.  Wrap tightly in cling film and chill in the fridge until firm.  I usually let mine chill overnight, but if you’re anxious, leave them in the fridge for at least an hour.

Make the Filling and Bake Pie:

Preheat your oven to 425ºF and place a baking sheet on middle rack.

Finely grind the tapioca in the grinder or mortar and pestle.

In a large bowl, whisk together ground tapioca, cornstarch, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom (if using), salt, and sugar.  Add cherries, vanilla extract, and Grand Marnier or bourbon (if using alcohol).  Toss well and let stand for 30 minutes, tossing a few times to distribute sugar.

Remove the larger of the two dough disks from the fridge and let sit on your marble surface (dusted with flour) for a few minutes to take the chill off.  Roll with a lightly floured rolling pin into a 14-inch (approximate) round.  Fit into a 9-inch pie plate.  Trim off excess dough to leave a 1/2-inch overhang.  Chill shell while rolling out top crust.

Roll out remaining dough to a 12-inch round (approximate).

Toss cherries again and add them to the shell and cover with the top crust.  Press the edges together, trim, leaving a 1/2-inch overhang.  Fold overhang under and press.  If you feel the need to decoratively crimp the edges, feel free.  I just press them together in a “rustic” fashion with my fingers.  Brush top crust with milk.  Make a few slits in the top of the pie to allow steam to escape.  Sprinkle pie with granulated sugar (approx. 1 tablespoon).

Bake pie on preheated baking sheet for 30 minutes, then cover edges with a pie shield or foil and reduce the temperature to 375ºF.  Continue baking until crust has a golden brown color to it and the filling is nice and bubbly in the center, 50 minutes to 1 hour more.  Transfer pie to a rack to cool completely, 3 to 4 hours.


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2 Comments on “Nothing to Fear But Pastry Dough”

  1. […] many years of baking pies, I have finally gotten over my fear of making pie dough.  Really, it’s not that hard.  All you have to do is make sure your ingredients are really […]


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