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Sunday, July 11, 2010

The One Pie Dough to Rule Them All

Is it hubris to call this a perfect pie dough recipe?  Well, it is perfect.  And do you know what's perfect about it?  You can do it too.  Yes, YOU.  I don't care what kind of sordid, tragic past you've had with other pie dough recipes.  You can forget it all and start anew with this one.  It will become your One Pie Dough to Rule Them All: pies, tarts, galettes, pop-tarts, you name it.  It will be the easiest and most forgiving dough you've ever handled.  It will be flaky and tender, yet somehow possess the strength of character not to crumble under pressure like other wimpy doughs.  Your slice of pie or galette will stay beautifully in tact to serve, only to surrender into tender, flaky, buttery, delicious crumbs as you bite into it.

Forget all the pernickety details everyone tells you about how to make a pie dough.  You won't need to keep all the ingredients at precisely five degrees below zero.  You need not coddle it like a new born kitten.  You'll put on your fiercest dominatrix attitude and you shall beat this dough into submission.  And, yes, it will like it too.

No, there's no secret ingredient: no vinegar, no shot of vodka (but for, perhaps, a celebratory one at the end).  There's nothing here out of the ordinary.  There will be three ingredients: salted butter (yes you read that right, SALTED butter), plain all-purpose flour, and a little bit of water.  That's it.  The recipe is so easy, do it twice and you'll remember it by heart.  You'll do it in the summer.  You'll do it in the winter.  You'll do it for something sweet.  You'll do it for something savory.  Heck, you'll do it just for the fun of it.

Besides the ingredients, you'll need a clean pastry board, or a clean countertop.  We won't be doing this dough in a fancy food processor.  All you need - this part is very important - will be a pastry scraper and a pastry brush.  If you don't have them, go buy them now.  You'll pay about $10 for both items, and it will be the best $10 you've ever spent.

Are you ready?  Get the ingredients ready first.

for flaky pastry dough (enough for two 9" rounds, for top and bottom pie crust, or two tarts)

250 g | 2 1/4 cup plain all purpose flour

225 g | 8oz cold SALTED butter

60 ml | 1/4 cup water


Measure the flour and dump it unceremoniously onto your pastry board or clean countertop.  Cut all the butter into large chunks, like in the picture, and lay all the pieces on top of your pile of flour.  Flip each butter chunks once so the top sides are coated with flour.  (Before you proceed, if you hands tend to be warm, rinse your hands quickly under cold water and dry them well.)

Now, press the butter into the flour with the heal of your hand: the left one if you're a righty, and vice versa.  With your right hand holding the pastry scraper, scrape up some of the flour and butter and flip it over the pile.  Keep pressing and scraping until the butter becomes thin flakes pressed into the flour.  Keep working until you see more butter flakes than loose flour.  If your butter flakes are really big, break them up a little bit, you should end up with a combination of big flakes and some crumbs.

 Make a well in the middle of the pile, pour the 60ml or 1/4 cup of water into it.  Now, work very quickly, use your finger tips to gently blend and distribute the water evenly into the dough.  Then, scrape up the dough again with the pastry scraper and fold it again over itself.  Do this until you have a somewhat cohesive lump of dough.  Gather it into a ball, and wrap tightly with plastic and let rest in the fridge for about 30 minutes or until cold.

After 30 minutes, remove the dough from the fridge and unwrap it.  Flour the pastry board or counter very liberally.  (I know most pie dough recipes caution you from using too much flour, claiming that it will toughen the dough.  You don't have to worry about it here, I promise you.  Use enough flour so that the dough doesn't stick to your board or your rolling pin.)  Place the dough on the board and flour the top of the dough liberally as well.  With a rolling pin, roll the dough out to an elongated rectangle.  Pick up the pastry brush, brush off the excess flour from the top of the dough.  Then pick up one end of the rectangle, fold it 2/3 of the way in.  Brush the flour off the newly folded section, then pick up the other end and fold it over that section. Now you have a dough that is folded neatly into thirds.  The dough will crack and might even break, don't worry about it.  Just make sure you brush off as much flour as you can between the folding so you don't trap more flour in the dough than necessary.

Sprinkle more flour over everything.  Turn the folded dough 90 degree so that the seams are now on the sides, roll the dough out again into a rectangle, and repeat the brushing and folding again.  You will see that the dough will become smoother and more pliable.  You can repeat this process once or twice more - I usually do it three times altogether.  If your kitchen is very hot, and the dough seems very soft and gets a little oily, wrap it up with plastic and refrigerate until cold before you roll it out again.

What you're doing here with the rolling and folding is working the dough a little bit to build the strength so that it is not so fragile when you roll it out later.  (Especially if you're going to make lattice top, you'll find this dough a dream to work with.)  You're also creating very thin layers or butter and flour, much like in puff pastry, so the dough becomes extremely flaky once baked.  

When you've had enough of rolling and folding, roll the dough out one last time to a smaller rectangle, about the right size so that when you cut it in half you get two square-shaped doughs.  Then, reshape each into a rough circle, just push the corners in and work it until each dough is more or less round.  Don't worry, you can't over-work this dough.  Wrap each up in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before you roll out into rounds for your pie.  

Once you are somewhat adept at this dough making process - having done it twice or three times should do really - you can double the recipe and have extra dough rounds ready for next time you feel like making a pie or a tart.  Tightly wrapped, the dough will keep in the fridge for a few days, and frozen for-practically-ever.  

When you're ready to make your pie, take the dough rounds from the fridge.  (If it's been there longer than 30 minutes you might need to let it warm up a bit to make it easier to roll.)  Roll each round into a circle that is 2-3" larger than your 9" pie plate.  Line the pie plate, fill with whatever fruits you're using, brush around the edges with some egg wash, then place the top dough over, pressing down to seal, and crimp the edges or pressing the tines of a fork around it to create a pretty pattern.  Cut a few slits to vent the pie before baking.  


Because there is no sugar at all in this dough, I like to brush the top (in case of a pie) or the edges (if it's an open faced tart) with egg wash to give it a little color.  I also like to sprinkle the top or the edges of my sweet pies or tarts with some sugar - large grains of sugar like demerara sugar do especially well here.

The pie you see in this picture above is my spiced cherry pie.  The recipe is coming up in the very next post.  This pie, if you will permit me to brag a bit, won first place at the pie contest at my friend Ali's July 4th party.  Here's a snapshot of a slice, you can see even from the darkish picture how flaky the dough is.


I also use this dough to make my fig tart, and my famous homemade poptarts.  This recipe was originally published in my book, The Foodie Handbook: the (almost) definitive guide to gastronomy.  Check it out for other awesome recipes and fun stories.

P.S. As a polite culinary thief, I am compelled tell you I got the idea for this recipe from the fabulous Zuni Cafe cookbook.  Almost by accident I discovered that I could use a lot less water in a pastry recipe (1/4 of the amount called for there), even simplify the process a bit, and still have a dough that's just as flaky and infinitely easier to work with.  So if you like this recipe, don't just thank me, thank Zuni's chef Judy Rodgers as well!


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