Pie-Making 101: How I Overcame My Fear Of Crumbling Crust

Jul 2, 2012
Originally published on July 2, 2012 11:27 am

If you listen to my story on Morning Edition, you'll understand the generational divide that has led to my fear of making a pie crust.

So when I decided to overcome my fear, I did it the right way. I hopped on a train to the Culinary Institute of America, the nation's premier cooking school, in Hyde Park, N.Y. There I learned the foolproof pie crust formula that chef George Higgins teaches his students. "It starts with 3, 2, 1," he explains.

That's 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat (butter), 1 part liquid. We've laid it out for you in pictures here, to make it easy. And we also share his family's impossible-to-resist blueberry pie recipe that is made with a flaky crust.

But it takes just a bit more than that.

Higgins says a successful baker likes precision. So be sure to measure accurately. Then, of course, there's the technique.

The biggest mistake I made — and this is a pitfall for lots of newbies — was overworking the dough. Chef Higgins made me toss out my first attempt and start over! Less is more. Higgins taught me to handle it just enough to form the dough into a ball. (Kneading is for bread, not pie crust!) It's supposed to look like it's barely holding together.

Here are some other pastry chefs' tips to avoid disaster:

Your butter should be firm, cold and chunky. Ryan Westover, the pastry chef at Poste in Washington, D.C., explains that the chunks of cold butter will slowly release steam as the pie bakes. And this is important: "By releasing steam incrementally, you give the starches and gluten time to form a lattice, or a sort of balloon," he says. And this holds the steam in.

This is how a good pie crust develops its rich, delicate layers of wonderful texture and flavor, Westover says.

Additional temperature tips come from Theresa Souther, a pastry chef and head of the Professional Pastry Arts Program at L'Academie de Cuisine, a culinary school in Bethesda, Md.

She recommends putting ingredients, including the flour, in the fridge or freezer for 30 to 60 minutes before you begin.

And be sure to use ice water to mix the dough. "Cold temperatures help minimize gluten development," she explains. And if you have too much gluten, you end up with a chewy, rubbery crust.

Also, she says, let the dough rest in the fridge after you mix it and before you try to roll it and shape the pie. Cold dough is usually easier to roll and handle.

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It's Pie Week at MORNING EDITION, our celebration of an American baking tradition. Now, we've heard from thousands of you already as part of our pie survey on our food blog, The Salt, and we get it: You love to eat a good pie. But when it comes to making one from scratch, well, in lots of households, that's a bit of a lost art. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When it comes to making pie, I'm part of the lost generation. My grandmother and great-grandmother and probably her mom before that were all fabulous bakers. But then came my mom. She's of the generation that liberated themselves a bit from the kitchen. She had a career. And recently, she told me the one and only time she tried to make a pie crust on her own, it was disastrous.

BARBARA AUBREY: It wouldn't roll right. It just crumbled. It wouldn't come together. It wouldn't go in the pie plate. So, I gave up. And your dad came home, and there was no apple pie. It was just so sad.

AUBREY: And she asks me whether it's different for me.

AUBREY: Since you've been married, have you ever made a pie crust?

AUBREY: I tried one time, and I don't think it worked out so well.

AUBREY: So, you gave up. We're not very persevering when it comes to pie crusts.

AUBREY: Now, making a pie crust can't be that difficult, right? But the truth is, I'm scared. So when I decided to face this fear, I wanted to do it the right way. I hopped on a train and headed to the nation's premiere cooking school, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.


AUBREY: It's a beautiful, leafy campus - an old monastery, actually - overlooking the Hudson River. And I get the feeling that some great things happen here. Inside the classroom, we meet Chef George Higgins.

GEORGE HIGGINS: Good morning.


HIGGINS: How you all doing today?



AUBREY: This guy's been making pastries for decades.

HIGGINS: Today, we're going to devote the entire day to making pie.

AUBREY: Excellent. That's what I'm looking for.

There are about 12 other students in the class with me. We all wear chef's whites and tokes, those tall white hats. Most of them are in their 20s, and though they're dressed like pros, they look small and scared in this vast classroom. It's, like, 40 times the size of a home kitchen, and I feel their angst, too. Higgins is an imposing figure, but he tells us, really, this should be simple.

HIGGINS: It starts with something called three-two-one pie dough, three-two-one. That's the basic recipe for pie dough.

AUBREY: OK. Got it. This is the magic formula: three parts flour, two parts fat, one part liquid. Stick to this, he says. Be very exacting.

HIGGINS: And it's not like making soup, where you add a little of this or add a little of that. Bakers measure that precisely.

AUBREY: So now it's time for me to give it a try. I cut big chunks of firm butter and squeeze them into the flour.

HIGGINS: OK. So you're all flaked in.


HIGGINS: When you're done with flaky pie dough, it's supposed to look like flour with large visible chunks and flakes of fat in it.

AUBREY: OK. This is easier than I thought. Now, I add the water and start working the dough. I think I'm really getting it. I'm massaging the dough. It's actually kind of fun. But then Chef Higgins peers over my shoulder.

HIGGINS: Try not to knead flour into it.

AUBREY: Oh, 'cause I was thinking that the kneading is, like, sort of the cathartic part. It kind of like...

HIGGINS: When you make bread, it is.


HIGGINS: When you make pie dough...

AUBREY: Don't do it.

HIGGINS:'re going to stress me out. There'll be nothing cathartic about it.

AUBREY: He makes me go back and start over. He says I have ruined the dough.

HIGGINS: I'm going to come right back, and we're going to do this the correct way.

AUBREY: Yikes.

Turns out, the less you handle the dough, the better.

HIGGINS: Somebody bring that rolling rack over here.

AUBREY: My next try is more successful, and as I start to roll out the dough, I began chit-chatting, feeling a little comfortable. But Higgins tells me to pay attention, get back on track.

HIGGINS: Here. Who's the boss of the dough?


HIGGINS: You are. That's right. So, here, make a circle.

AUBREY: All right. All right.

HIGGINS: We know you know what a circle looks like.

AUBREY: Yes, I know what a circle looks like. I'm just having a hard time...

HIGGINS: And there you go.

AUBREY: ...rolling it up.

HIGGINS: And you just form it, manipulate it.

AUBREY: My dough looks like the state of Texas. It's thick at one end, stretched out on the other. But eventually, I get it.

HIGGINS: Oh, my God. All of the sudden, she became, like, a master of - yeah.

AUBREY: I am getting better at this.

Actually, it's not a perfect circle, but it's good enough. I get the dough in the pan. And it's at this moment, as I start to pour the blueberry filling into the crust, that the muscles in my shoulders begin to relax.

My anxiety level is so far down now. Now that I got this blueberry in the pie, I'm thinking...

HIGGINS: There's nothing to be anxious about. I listen to NPR every day, and I can't sleep at night because of the world I live in. But blueberry pie, that's nothing but joy. It's time to bake this pie.

AUBREY: When we get the pie in the oven, Higgins tells me his story is a lot like mine. He didn't grow up baking much because his mom didn't. The homemade pies in his house came from his grandmother.

HIGGINS: I make very good professional pie, but I don't think once ever it rivaled what my grandmothers did. There's something that grandmothers have been given by the forces of the universe...

AUBREY: It's always there's a secret sauce.

HIGGINS: Yeah, there's something, yeah, a power or force greater than I that gives grandmothers special abilities.

AUBREY: And all of that got me thinking: Food is about memories, right? I mean, cakes are for parties or birthdays. But pie, pie's about home. It's about being taken care of or coming together at the table. And making a pie is quite literally a labor of love.

HIGGINS: Allison? Your pie is ready.

AUBREY: All right. This is the moment. We pull it out of the oven. It smells fabulous, right?

HIGGINS: Smells fabulous. In my estimation, it looks fabulous.

AUBREY: Even before slicing it, it's safe to say that I did not fail Pie Making 101.

HIGGINS: Oh, no, you did not fail. You did an excellent job. Yeah.

AUBREY: Even if the blueberry juice is baked over the top a little and the crimping looks kind of like a Play-Doh project, well, never mind. Now, I get to taste it.

Mm. Wow. I almost want to cry.


AUBREY: That is so good.

HIGGINS: It is so good, and it's so simple. Congratulations.


AUBREY: After everyone took a taste, Higgins wrapped the rest of the pie in a nice, white pastry box and tied it with twine. And I had to take one piece home to my mom to let her try.

AUBREY: Mm. Good job, Allie.


AUBREY: Thank you. So, you approve?

AUBREY: I approve.

AUBREY: That's my daughter, who's almost two, babbling in the background, which means my mom is the grandmother now. And she says now that she's got the time, maybe she'll give pie-making another try.

AUBREY: When you see a homemade pie sitting on the counter, it does, it just says home, sweet home.


WERTHEIMER: That is Barbara Aubrey, mother of our own Allison Aubrey, who reported that story. We'd love to hear and see your pie stories and your memories. Just use the hashtag #PieWeek on Instagram and Twitter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.