Pie is sublime. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against cakes (even with the slightly overdone cupcake phase we’re in), cookies (see my recent post Sharing is Caring for my thoughts about cookies), or ice cream in general…in fact, I encourage them all with equal gusto. But there’s something special about pie. Perhaps it’s because pie is more dimensional than other treats, meaning that pie doesn’t just have to be dessert…pies can be sweet or savory, and the latter category opens up a whole world of possibilities with which other baked products just can’t compete. Give pie the ability to be held in your hand, and you’ve got a meal on the run. And how many treats can boast a special day just for them…Pi Day! You know, March 14th (3/14, get it?). Yes, my math geek is showing. [As a quick digression, we just had Band Day on March 4th (march forth..the command to go forward). Ok, maybe we just notice Band Day in my house. I like the joke and am a former Marching Band member so I’m entitled to be a Band nerd!]
Now back to our regularly schedule blog post…
Hand held pies are nothing new, and cultures all around the world have their own versions of them. Wrap a savory filling in bread dough and you’ve got a calzone or an empanada. Make the wrap a pie crust, and you have a boureka, a pasty, or a bridie.
Now, pie crust can be formidable. How do you get it to be flaky, not tough, with just enough flavor to complement the filling without taking away from it? Prior to my culinary awakening (aka culinary school), I didn’t try to make pie crust. I’m wasn’t good at rolling out dough, and I didn’t have the temperament (read: patience) to fiddle with it. It was just easier to buy a frozen pie shell and be done with it. But then I started looking at the ingredients in those commercially made shells. Mostly, it was the lard that turned me off. Now before you gasp in horror, I’ll say that I’ve nothing against the pig in general, and I certainly know that many chefs make many wonderful items using it (including pie crust). It’s just that I don’t eat lard (remember, no pork products for me).
[Nerd Alert…we’re heading into the weeds of making pie crust now. You can skip down to the recipe if you’d like. Really. I won’t be disappointed at all…]
In culinary school, I had a wonderful baking and pastry class. Our Chef Instructor Teresa Zamora taught us how to make an easy chocolate mousse that worked every time, pastry cream that didn’t run off the plate or need to be chiseled out from the bowl, homemade vanilla extract (just save those spent vanilla beans from the pastry cream in vodka…who knew?), and so much more. Chef Zamora showed us how to properly roll out pie and pastry dough, and I started to gain a little confidence. But I needed more guidance…I just didn’t want to follow a recipe, I wanted to understand what goes into the dough so that I could change it up if I wanted.
Remember Michael Ruhlman’s book Ratios? (See …and now to explain the “& Scones” for that scintillating discussion). From his book I had a simple way to remember how to make my own crust without a recipe…3:2:1, i.e. 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, and 1 part liquid (as measured by weight). As they say, it’s easy as pie! (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Add to that a little salt (and sugar, if you’re making a sweet pie), and now you’re cooking with gas (or insert your own ridiculous cliche here). I’ve recently discovered that adding a little bit of apple cider vinegar helps tenderize the dough, so I’ve incorporated that advice as well. The fat used in making pie crust could be butter (my choice), vegetable shortening (like Crisco), lard (many people’s choice), or something else entirely. I’ve seen recipes with coconut oil (to make it vegan), and I’ve used rendered beef or chicken fat on occasion (for savory pies).
Okay, I’ve really gone into the deep end about making pie crust (you were warned!), and not much about hand pies. (Warning…topic pivot starting!)
So, just what can be put into a hand pie? Well, almost anything that isn’t too drippy, really. There’s a restaurant down the street from me here in Boston called the Cornish Pasty Co. Their menu of pasties is extensive, from traditional beef and potatoes to curries to meatballs with mozzarella (I’m getting hungry just thinking about it). Actually, hand held pies are a great way to use up leftovers from chili, chicken pot pie, or beef stew. Just remember to thicken up the sauce so it doesn’t get the crust too soggy. You can use a small amount of cornstarch mixed with water (a slurry for you traditionalists) or equal parts of flour and butter mixed together (a “bain marie”…see I was paying attention in school!) and cooked into the stew.
Several years ago on a visit to London I purchased a “take away” pasty (that’s “to go” if you’re in America). It was a chicken curry and it was delicious! Being an Anglophile, I was enchanted with the idea of the meat pie as something quintessentially British. It was something that I just wasn’t exposed to growing up, and I hadn’t yet made the realization of the interconnectedness of hand pies from around the world (soon you’ll break out in singing “We are the World”…just get on with it!). Leap to now, and with Outlander I find out that the Scots have had their own version of bridies for centuries. How about that! Theresa Carle-Sanders has a wonderful recipe for bridies on her Outlander Kitchen website. For a British-inspired version, Epicurious has a tasty recipe for Beef & Potato Pasties.
(So, what about a recipe here?) Ok, let’s pivot back to the crust then…
Many people are intimidated by pie crust, but they needn’t be. (As a side note, many people are intimidated by anything with more than four legs, and they are perfectly justified in that. Just saying…) The real key to pie crust is bein’ chill about it. Wait, no, I mean chilling it…a lot. Keep your fat cold (grating frozen butter is my method of choice), and your water very cold so as not to melt the fat (half water and half ice). The idea is to keep small pockets of fat within the flour so that when baked the fat releases steam and creates the flakiness so desired in pie crust. Chilling also helps protect against crust shrinkage, especially if you are blind-baking the crust, i.e., baking the crust before filling it with something that doesn’t get baked, like a pudding pie. So chill your fat before using it, chill the dough at least an hour after making it, chill it again after rolling it out, and chill it again after working it into your pan. You want the crust cold when it goes into the oven!
The pie ratio helps in deciding how much flour:fat:liquid to use…12 oz flour, 8 oz butter, and approximately 4 oz ice water will be enough for a double crust, while 9 oz flour, 6 oz butter, 3 oz ice water is good for a single crust. If you don’t have one already, invest in a good kitchen scale. They’re not too expensive, and they’re invaluable in baking…no more scoop and level guesswork. If you don’t know how to convert the volume measurements to weight, look online — there are plenty of websites and apps that can help. I prefer a free app (for my iPhone) called “Baker’s Tools”…you put in the volume measurement and it will tell you the weight measurements. Really, it’s doesn’t take that much extra time, and you can write the conversion on your recipe for next time.
3-2-1 Pie Crust (for double crust pie or 2 single crust pies)
[adapted from Epicurious’ “Our Favorite Pie Dough”]
12 oz (2-1/2 cups) all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 Tbsp sugar (if making a sweet pie)
8 oz (2 sticks) butter or your fat of choice, chilled, cut into small cubes (or frozen, then grated)
1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar, chilled
about 4 oz ice water
In a large bowl, stand mixer, or food processor, combine the flour, salt, and sugar. Add butter and mix until coarse, pea-sized crumbs appear. Slowly add the vinegar and ice water and mix until the dough just holds together (here you have to be flexible about the amount of water to add as the actual amount will depend on the humidity of the day). Squeeze a small amount of dough between your fingers and if it is very crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time (2 tablespoons maximum). Do not over mix the dough (you want to keep that butter cold and separate from the flour). Don’t worry if the dough has a slight vinegary smell…that will dissipate during baking and/or be overwhelmed by the filling.
Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and push together into a rough ball. Knead a few times to combine, then divide into two equal balls. Flatten each ball into a disc with smooth edges (no cracks), cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to overnight.
Roll out the dough to approximately 1/4″ to use, then chill 30 minutes (or freeze 15 minutes), then use as needed (remember to chill the dough before baking). Pies are generally baked at 400°F.
Note: for a single crust pie, I use the 9:6:3 ratio, reducing the salt to 1/2 tsp, the sugar to 1-1/2 Tbsp, and the apple cider vinegar to 2 tsp.
A quick word about flour…I like to use King Arthur Unbleached All Purpose Flour when I can because I can be sure of its quality and performance. I consistently use their website at KingArthurFlour.com as my go-to reference guide…it is a wealth of information for bakers, including many wonderful recipes for baking and blogs giving detailed instructions. If you haven’t been to their site, please check it out (and I’m not sponsored by KAF to say that…at least not yet).
Now go forth and bake a pie with confidence! I would love to hear about your recipes and suggestions for hand pies, pie crust secrets, epic pie crust failures, etc. Leave me a comment and let’s share with the group. I hope you enjoy a pie on the run. Happy Pi Day, everyone!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!
p.s. Happy Quarter-Century Birthday to the wonderful woman who first made me a mommy…this pie’s for you!