Perfect Pastry – Every Time!

How it works…

There’s nothing more delectable than a bite or two of light, flaky, buttery pastry at the end of a good meal!

All you need to make great pastry for a nine-inch, two-crust pie is:

2.5 cups flour
1 cup / 1/2 lb hard fat
1 heaping teaspoon table salt
2 heaping teaspoons sugar
1/3 cup very cold water

But to make pastry that turns out beautiful every time, you need to know how pastry works. First, there are four rules you must respect!

The right flour

You can make pastry with all-purpose flour, but using proper “cake and pastry flour” will give you a lighter, flakier, more tender product. That’s because cake and pastry flour is made from “soft” wheat; that is, flour that is low in gluten, the substance that makes bread dough elastic. You don’t want rubbery, chewy pastry! Leave the hard wheat flour (high gluten) for the bread maker!

The right fat

You can use any hard fat to make good pastry. The key is to make sure you start with cold (even frozen) fat and work quickly so the fat does not get a chance to soften too much. You need to have small blobs of hard fat in your pastry so it will puff up and be flaky! More on how that works later.

You can use butter, vegetable shortening or even lard, if you wish, Just make sure it’s hard and cold!

The right water

Most pastry recipes call for “a few tablespoons of cold water” to bring the dough together into a coherent ball of flour and fat. I always use ice water or cold water from my refrigerator filter pitcher, to help ensure that the fat stays cold and hard while you combine the ingredients.

Work quickly!

Mix up your pastry as quickly as possible, to ensure that the hard fat stays hard. Combine the dry ingredients (flour, salt sugar) in a large mixing bowl. I like to use a whisk to ensure that the ingredients are thoroughly blended and the mixture is light and airy before adding the fat. I like to slice cold butter or shortening with a sharp knife and chop it into small pieces before adding it to the dry ingredients. This makes it much easier and faster to blend the fat into the flour mixture. I usually drop the fat pieces into the flour a few at a time and smother them with flour as I go.

Then, I use my fingers to “massage” the fat blobs into the flour, breaking them up into small flour-coated flakes as I go.

When all the blobs of flour are broken down into uniform small flakes (usually just a minute or so), it’s time to add the liquid. I have found no kitchen more useful for blending water into pastry than the handle of a wooden spoon. This limits contact between your hot little hands and the cold, hard fat in the pastry. Add the water in small amounts until the pastry just holds together in a ball. It should not be sticky or wet on its surface!

One more rule…

I always form my freshly mixed pastry into a ball, wrap it in a couple of layers of plastic wrap, and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least half an hour before rolling it out. This allows the hard fat (which has almost certainly softened somewhat during mixing) to harden up again. It’s important that the hard fat blobs stay hard and don’t melt into the flour. No blobs, no flakes!

Use that 30-45 minutes resting time to make up your pie filling and clean up your baking utensils.

Don’t over-work your pastry. Cut your pastry ball into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Use the large one for the bottom crust. You have more surface area to cover on the bottom! I do this so that each piece of pastry will be rolled out only once. Rolling causes friction, friction causes heat and heat melts hard fat!

On a roll…

Form your bottom crust pastry into a round ball and flatten into a rough disk about an inch thick. Starting with a round disk helps you end up with a round crust. Always scatter lots of flour on the pastry disk and on the surface you are rolling on so the pastry won’t stick. Roll firmly, but don’t push down too hard on the rolling pin. That may make the crust fracture at its fringes.

Roll towards and away from you, never side to side. That’s awkward! And the rolling pin is hard to control. After a few passes with the roller, scatter some flour on the top of the crust and flip it over. Also, turn it 90 degrees and scatter more flour on the new top side of the pastry. Make a few more passes with the roller and repeat the flipping and turning process always scattering more flour on the crust and the board.

With a little patience and a few more flips and turns, you should end up with a fairly round crust about an inch larger than your pie plate all around, and 1/8 inch to 3/16 inch thick. Roll up the finished crust onto the rolling pin and unroll it onto the pie plate. The crust should be robust enough to allow for some adjustment and smoothing the bottom of the crust into the contours of the plate.

Blind or direct?

If you are going to fill a pie with a pre-made filling that does not need further cooking, such as chocolate creme or lemon custard, you can pre-bake the crust and simply pour in the cooled filling after it cools. This is called “blind” baking. Bake at 375F for 12 to 15 minutes, until crust  is golden brown and puffed up. Be sure to “dock” the crust before baking! That means prick it all over the bottom and sides with a fork, so it won’t puff too much. These pies generally do not have a top crust but are instead topped with meringue or whipped cream before serving.

For fresh fruit pies such as apple, or a cooked custard filling such as pumpkin, bake the crust “direct”. That is, fill the unbaked crust with the filling.

Cover with a top crust if desired and crimp the bottom and top crusts firmly together with your fingers or by pressing with a large fork. Before placing a top crust onto the pie, gently rub the edge of the bottom crust with cold water. This will soften the crust just enough to form a “glue” that will seal the two crusts together.

Finally, cut four or more radial slits about an inch long into the top crust to allow steam from the cooking pie filling to escape during baking. I sometimes use a cookie cutter, to cut a single, small heart-shaped vent hole into the middle of the top crust before I place it onto the pie. This works well, too, and adds a distinctive “trademark” to my pies.

Can’t stand the heat?

When direct baking a pie, start off at 425F. Preheat the oven and leave it at 425F for the first 15 minutes. This will quickly set the bottom crust ensuring that it will not get soggy from the juices that come out of the filling ingredients. After 15 minutes, turn down the oven to 350F and continue baking for another 45 minutes, until the filling is fully cooked. Reducing the temperature ensures that the crust does not burn during the remainder of the baking time.

And finally, the secret revealed!

Here’s the secret behind the secret of perfect pastry…

All types of hard fat contain a relatively large amount of water. The little blobs of hard fat in your perfect pastry dough will heat rapidly in that 375-425F oven and their water will burst into steam, creating little air pockets between thin layers of flour. That’s how pastry gets tender and flaky! And that’s why it’s so important to work quickly when mixing and rolling pastry, and why its even more important to use ice cold fat and water in the process.

The old song says, “You gotta have heart!” For pastry, you gotta have little blobs of fat!

A shortcut

Some cooks like to limit contact between their warm hands and the cold ingredients in their pastry even more than I do in my method.

They place all the fry ingredients in the bowl of their food processor and pulse them for a few seconds to blend thoroughly. Then they add large chunks of hard fat and pulse the blender a few times more to break the fat into small blobs and distribute it evenly throughout the flour mixture.

The key here is to pulse gingerly and not over-blend the pastry. Just pulse for a second or so at a time, adding cold water in a thin trickle through the hole in the food processor bowl lid. If you pulse to long or too many times, you run a risk of cutting the fat into too-small blobs, or even melting the fat and ending up with a thick “batter”, rather than a pie crust. What do you get when you cream flour, butter, sugar and salt together? Yup! Cookie dough! Not what we want for a pie!

Pulse repeatedly, perhaps half a dozen times, just until the pastry starts to come together into a coherent ball. Then wrap and rest in the fridge like my crust. Roll out the same way.

You’ll refine your technique further with every new pie crust you make, whether you use your fingers or the food processor to “massage” the mixture!

Some refinements…

I like to add some ground nutmeg to the crusts I make for apple or pumpkin pies. It echoes the seasoning in the pie fillings.

If you are making a quiche or a savoury tart, try adding a little more salt, some white pepper (just a tiny pinch) and some dry herbs to your pastry. Rosemary Oregano, Thyme and Fennel are all good choices for anything French or Italian, especially if tomatoes, garlic or other strong flavours are involved in the filling.

You can even add different flours and grain products to your crusts. Try substituting 1/3 of your pastry flour for whole wheat or rye flour for an award-winning quiche. Try adding rolled oats and brown sugar to an apple pie crust. Just be sure to reduce amount of pastry flour by the amount of other “flour” ingredients you add, to keep the overall “flour” volume in the recipe the same.

Don’t be afraid to experiment! And be sure to tell us how your experiments turn out so we can share then with all our readers here at Maggie J’s Fabulous Food Blog!

~ Maggie J.