Pies and Tarts
A flaky pie shell bursting with summer-ripe peaches…a sweet and spicy apple pie crisscrossed with lattice pastry…an elegant tart heaped with perfectly formed strawberries.
If there’s a happier ending to a meal, we can’t think of one! The perfect pie or tart is a balance of tenderness and substance, sweetness and tartness, juice and crunch. It’s also a test of the home baker’s skill, requiring careful mixing, deft rolling, judicious thickening and sweetening of the filling—and plenty of practice.
We’re here to make sure you pass that test with flying colors. We’ll be using fruit pies and tarts as examples, but most of these suggestions are just as useful when you’re baking a cream, nut, or custard pie.
A Pie or a Tart?
Some definitions first. It’s a pie if it’s baked in a one-piece pan with sloping sides. Pies may have a bottom crust only, a top crust only (as in some deep-dish pies), or both a top and a bottom crust.
- Pie crust is flaky, light, tender, and crisp.
Tarts are baked in straight-sided pans with removable bottoms. They are always “open-faced,” and although the crust is always “blind-baked”—without a filling—the assembled tart itself is sometimes left unbaked.
- Tart crust is crumbly, rich, crisp, and firm.
Some tarts, called galettes, are baked in free-form shapes. A galette doesn’t require a pan at all—just a cookie or pizza sheet. (In fact, you could think of a galette as a sweet, fruity pizza.) The dough is rolled out into a rough circle, the fruit is placed in the center, the edges are folded in, and the whole thing is baked for 20 minutes or so.
The standard size is 9 inches in diameter, although some tart pans are wider. Pie pans come in a variety of materials; if you plan to bake regularly, it’s useful to own several types. Here’s a summary of popular pan materials and their benefits:
Metal – Conducts heat well and ensures proper browning of the bottom crust. Essential for double-crust pies. Choose high-gauge aluminum, not lightweight disposable pans.
Ovenproof glass – Lets you check the progress of the bottom crust. Conducts heat more slowly; requires a longer bake time.
Ceramic – Results are similar to glass. Unglazed ceramic produces an extra-crisp crust.
Tart pan – A sturdy, light-colored metal pan with a removable bottom is best. With one-piece ceramic pans, use care in slicing, as pieces may break. Tartlet pans are one-piece; choose nonstick linings for easy cleaning.
The heavier the better, but make sure it’s comfortable. Choose a pin that’s at least 14 inches long and 2-1/2 inches in diameter. Wood is a classic; marble—which stays cool—is even better, but is more expensive and sometimes harder to handle because of its extra weight. Never immerse a rolling pin in water – the ball bearings may rust. Instead, just wipe it clean with a damp cloth.
Marble and granite, which stay cool, are considered the most desirable, but wood, laminate, or solid surface (such as Corian) work fine, too. Tiled counters make poor rolling surfaces because of the grout lines. If you have tile, cover it with a large cutting board or hard plastic cutting sheet.
Many recipes call for a pie shell to be “blind baked” (prebaked) before the filling is added. Pie weights keep the sides from shrinking and the bottom from bubbling up. You can buy metal or ceramic weights, or try an inexpensive alternative: Place a round of parchment paper over the shell and sprinkle it with enough uncooked rice grains to cover. (Make sure some of the rice covers the sides as well.)
It’s amazing that something as delicious as a well-made pie crust can be created from such humble materials as flour, fat, water, a bit of salt, and a little sugar. The secret is in the proportions, the blending, and the rolling—and, of course, in the freshness and quality of the ingredients.
Flour – Choose a good-quality, all-purpose flour, which is a combination of low-protein cake flour and high-protein bread flour. Make sure it’s fresh—if you haven’t used it in six months, replace it. Remember you’ll be adding flour as you roll out the dough to keep it from sticking, so use a scant amount during the initial mixing.
- To eliminate the chance of making the dough or crust tough, you can roll out on a surface dusted with powdered sugar.
Fat – Although lard was championed for decades, many of today’s good cooks recommend butter instead, because commercial lard can have off flavors. A vocal minority prefers vegetable shortening.
- Butter lends flavor and tenderness. Choose good-quality, unsalted butter, and handle with care to avoid toughening the dough.
- Shortening is flavorless but easy to handle, and produces a crisp crust.
- Lard (rendered pork fat) yields the flakiest, tenderest crust because it has no water. Preservatives in commercial lard often give it an aftertaste; if possible, render your own lard or have it made fresh by a trusted butcher.
- Margarine has more water than other fats, which can make the dough tough. Avoid “lite” or low-fat margarines, which have unacceptably high water contents.
For a good balance between crisp and tender, try blending one part vegetable shortening with three parts butter.
Sugar and salt –White granulated sugar (between a teaspoon and a quarter-cup) mixed in with the flour promotes browning and adds flavor to an otherwise bland crust. Salt also enhances the flavor.
Water – Make sure it’s very cold (add an ice cube or two to tap water), and add enough so that the dough rolls easily. Stir with a fork until you can press the dough into a rough ball.
Eggs – Some crust recipes call for the addition of an egg yolk or whole egg; it adds richness and body, especially to tart pastry.
The object of mixing pie dough is to surround small bits of fat with flour without allowing the fat to soften (which causes the flour to absorb it and yields a tough crust). Use very cold butter and work quickly. Before you add the ice water, pinch a little of the flour mixture between your fingers. Are your fingers greasy? Then the mixture is too soft; refrigerate it for about half an hour before proceeding.
How to Mix
By hand – Helps you develop a sensitivity to the proper texture of the dough. Cut the cold butter into small pieces and rub it very quickly between your fingers. Pick it up, rub it, and drop it until it’s mixed.
With a pastry cutter or two knives – Use a quick slicing motion to cut the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles cornmeal or bread crumbs.
With a food processor – Easy and reliable. Place the dry ingredients in the container and pulse once or twice, using the all-purpose blade. Add the butter, turn on the machine, and process until the mixture resembles cornmeal or bread crumbs.
With a stand mixer – Keeps the dough cooler than other methods. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment, add the fat all at once, and mix on low speed. Take care not to overmix after adding the ice water, which will lead to a tough crust. And don’t use a hand mixer—it isn’t strong enough.
Rolling Out the Dough
After you’ve mixed the dough, gather it up and press it into a thick, flat disk about 4 inches long and 2 inches thick. Wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 20 minutes to an hour. Or roll it out immediately (see below), set it in the pie pan, and chill in the refrigerator for half an hour to three days.
If you don’t plan to bake the pie the same day, roll the crust out, place it in a freezerproof pie pan, and seal the dough and pan in a plastic freezer bag. Unbaked pie crusts will last for several months in the freezer.
First, lightly sprinkle your work surface and rolling pin with flour or powdered sugar. Place the disk of dough on your rolling surface and begin rolling from the middle of the disk to the outer edges. As you roll, give the dough a quarter turn. Add flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking. To transfer to the pan, place the rolling pin along one edge and gently lift the dough onto the pin. Roll up the dough on the pin, then hold the pin over the pie pan and unscroll to lay down the dough. Press the dough toward the center of the pan and trim the edges, pinching the dough to create a high edge along the rim of the pan.
An alternate method that some bakers say produces less splitting along the edges: Roll the dough between two layers of plastic wrap. Flour the first layer generously, place the dough in the center, flour it, and cover with the second layer of plastic. As you roll, occasionally peel back the top layer of plastic and reflour. When you’re ready to transfer the dough, peel back one layer of plastic and invert the dough into the pie or tart pan. Then remove the other sheet of plastic.
Whichever rolling method you choose, for a 9-inch pie you’ll want to roll an 11-inch circle about 1/8-inch thick.
For a double-crust pie, don’t trim the bottom crust until you’ve filled the pie and placed the top crust over the filling. Cut steam vents in the top crust with a sharp knife or small cookie cutter.
If the crust is browning too quickly, cover the rims with strips of aluminum foil to prevent burning.
For fruit pies and tarts, choose seasonal fruit that’s ripe but not too soft to slice. As a rule of thumb, you’ll need four to five cups of fruit for one single- or double-crust pie. Frozen fruit makes a good substitute if you can’t find fresh, but don’t thaw the fruit before mixing it with sugar and thickener. The amount of sugar needed will vary according to the fruit you’re using. For example, most berries are quite tart, and need as much as a cup of sugar; the exception is blueberries, which need less sugar and even a bit of lemon juice to balance their flavor.
Be careful when baking with strawberries: They tend to turn unattractively brown when baked, and are best used in chiffon pies or unbaked tarts.
Thickeners keep fruit juices from puddling at the bottom of the pie; they also balance the sugar, which tends to draw liquid out of the fruit. Apple pies need little or no thickener, because apples contain a natural thickener, pectin.
Otherwise, you have several choices:
Cornstarch – Flavorless; cook thoroughly to avoid starchiness.
Tapioca – Use quick-cooking or instant tapioca. Mix with the fruit and sugar and let stand for five to fifteen minutes. Tapioca is an excellent choice for berry pies: the texture of the tapioca is concealed by the texture of the berries.
Flour – Must be thoroughly cooked to avoid grittiness. Best used with low-acid fruits such as pears and peaches.
For fruits other than berries, a one-to-one mixture of cornstarch and tapioca generally works well—many recipes call for 2 tablespoons of each. Mix the thickeners with salt, sugar, and other flavorings such as lemon juice or cinnamon, and toss with the fruit. Allow to sit for about 15 minutes before pouring into the pie shell.
One of the prettiest ways to dress up a fruit pie is with a lattice top. Make enough dough for a double-crust pie, and roll out the top crust. Using a pizza wheel or sharp knife, cut the circle of dough into strips about 1/2 to 3/4 inch wide.
Simple lattice top
Using the shortest strips on the outside edge and the longest in the center, lay them across the pan about 1/2 inch apart, half vertically and half horizontally.
Woven lattice top
Lay half the strips on the pan, then pull every other strip back. Place a short strip across, return the pulled-back strips to their original position, and pull back alternate strips. Continue weaving the strips until they’re all used.
Sealing the edge
After you’ve filled a single or double-crust pie, seal the edges by pinching or crimping. To pinch, gather the dough along the rim between your thumb, index, and middle finger, making a regular pattern. To crimp, press a fork’s tines along the rim.
Make a pretty adornment for a single- or double-crust pie by cutting leaf shapes out of a rolled-out disk of dough. Use a sharp knife or a leaf-shaped cookie cutter; with the dull side of the knife, draw “veins,” indenting no more than halfway through the dough. For a single-crust pie, overlap the leaves along the rim of the pan, using a little water to help them stick. To create a leafy top crust, arrange the leaves in concentric circles over the filling, overlapping as little as possible.
Give your double-crust pie a golden glaze by brushing a thin film of cream or milk over the pastry, then sprinkling with a light, even coating of Domino® Granulated Sugar.
How to Store Pies
Pies and tarts are best eaten within 24 hours, although they may be refrigerated for up to five days. Serve pies at room temperature or warmed in a 350ºF oven 10 to 15 minutes (cover loosely with aluminum foil to prevent burning of crust). Freezing a baked pie is not advisable.
Baking in Hot Weather
It’s unfair, isn’t it? With the exception of apples, all of the really wonderful pie-making fruits are in season during the summer months, when even eager bakers are swooning in the heat. Not only that: Heat can make your pastry stick and split. Here’s how to stand the heat without getting out of the kitchen:
- Do your baking early in the morning or late in the evening, when temperatures are coolest.
- If you have air-conditioning in your kitchen, turn it on.
- Cut refrigerator-chilled butter into small pieces, then re-chill before cutting it into the dry ingredients.
- Chill your mixing bowl and utensils in the refrigerator before using them.
- Mix the dry ingredients, then place the mixture in the refrigerator for half an hour to chill.
- If you’re blending the butter and flour by hand, use your fingertips, not your palms, which are warmer.
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