Thanksgiving is really the most pie-centric holiday on the American calendar, the only holiday that is truly incomplete without a pie or three. Even people whose familarity with their oven doesn't get closer than eating cookie dough straight from the tube find themselves strangely drawn to the idea of baking their very own pie.
Or maybe that's just my romantic notion; probably most people who Do Not Bake don't bake on the third Thursday of November, either. Or they hit the bakery, or the liquor store, or the Mrs. Smith section of the supermarket freezer. But woe to the Thanksgiving hoster who doesn't, somehow, provide pie of some provenance. Remember how Peppermint Patty freaks out at Snoopy's popcorn-and-toast dinner? "Where's the cranberry sauce, Chuck? Where's the PUMPKIN PIE???" Don't let that happen to you.
One of the tenents of Pie Queen Planet is that ANYONE can make a homemade pie without using canned filling or one of those crap-ass premade crusts. Even if you've never made your own crust, you can. How come no one ever freaks out about making the filling? Crust strikes fear in so many hearts when it doesn't have to.
First, yes, shortening is easier to deal with. But here on PQ Planet, we make butter crusts, unless we're at someone else's house and there's already an open can of shortening lying around. I can't deny having dipped into the Crisco on occasion. But butter should always predominate. Remember, hydrogenated vegetable shortening is a freaky industrial product (even if it's the new trans-fat-free kind) and tastes like greasy nothing. Why eat fat if it doesn't even taste good? Yes, a butter crust is a little fussier. But it tastes a million times better, and it's a natural product, not something cooked up in a lab.
What kind of butter? If you can get "European-style" butter, go for it. This is the butter you've been waiting for--butter with more fat. This butter has less water in it than regular butter, making crusts browner, crunchier, tender and more delicious all around. If you're lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, try Straus's organic European-style butter. Fantastic, and made by a really nice family dairy up in Marin. Milk from happy cows--I've seen 'em.
Your piecrust's biggest friends are cold and time. Keep your butter very cold and your water iced, and be sure to allow enough time for your dough to chill before and after rolling.
Do you have to do a lot of fancy things involving freezing and rolling the butter? Many hotshot cookbook authors, like Shirley "Cookwise" Corriher and Rose Levy "Bible" Bernbaum, go through these extremely elaborate hoo-has around piecrusts, wherein they tell you to freeze half the butter, roll your butter out into long shards and so forth. I've tried these methods, and honestly, they didn't make a piecrust any better than the standard method. All they do is convince once-a-year bakers that pie crusts can only be made by those with advanced baking degrees from Pie Crust U. I'm a big believer in tradition in this case. Simple works. As long as your butter is cold and you don't completely maul the dough, you're going to have a lovely crust.
Actually, more than fancy butter, what you really need is good music, a decent amount of clear space for rolling, 2 quart-size zip-loc plastic bags for chilling the dough, and a nice heavy rolling pin (although I have rolled out many a pie with a wine bottle--even better if you get to drink the wine afterwards). Listening to Arlo Guthrie singing Alice's Restaurant, Hank Williams and a particular Poi Dog Pondering album has become de rigueur for my Thanksgiving pie making, and I've got to burn a CD of said songs to take to the PQ Mother's house right now. A wide, long offset spatula (which looks a bit like a long, flexible palate knife, with a stepped handle) is also a great boon for getting the dough off the table without tearing. I've heard good things about Silpat mats, but they seem bizarrely expensive for something so ugly, so I've never used one.
So, the recipe. You can really make your own decision about how much butter you put in. It's up to you. In general, a crust with the larger amount will be very rich and delicious, and correspondingly trickier to work with. Less butter will be a little less insane and mellower. If you're already wound up with holiday anxiety, use less and don't stress. I am going to try out a butter-lard crust at some point this holiday, but probably not before Friday, because I don't think my quasi-vegetarian veterinarian sister wants pig fat in her pie. (I'm now also feeling really bad for buying that lard, once I'd taken a look at the incredibly cute piggies on the Flying Pigs website. K. has suggested starting a pig farm that uses only liposuction, but I don't think that was the fat-removal method in this case.)
Basic All-Butter Pie Crust
Now, I'm not going to reassure you and call this "fool-proof" or anything comforting like that. Sometimes this crust is a right pain in the arse, sticking to everything and hating to roll out smoothly. Other times it's just ducky. But luckily, no matter how much drama it puts you through beforehand, it does always taste really good once it's baked. So hang in there. This makes plenty for a 9 or 10 inch double crust, with some extras for cute little cut out leaves or whatever. Extra dough also freezes well.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 sticks (6 to 8 oz, 12 to 16 TB) butter
6 to 8 tablespoons of water, maybe a little more or less; you can also replace 1 tb water with cider vinegar
Glaze: 1 egg yolk mixed with 2 TB water
Whisk flour, salt, and sugar together. Chop your butter into cubes and toss into the flour. Using a pastry blender or your fingertips, cut or rub the butter into little flat chips coated with flour. Do this until the mix looks like dry oatmeal flakes with a few bigger pebbly bits. Sprinkle in water, a few TB at a time. Lift and scoop with a fork to moisten all the flour. Stop adding water when you can gently squeeze together a ball of dough in your hand without it falling apart when you open your hand. You definitely don't want it wet and gloppy, but it does need to stick together.
You can also use the food processor; use the pulse button to chop the butter in short bursts, and make sure not to overprocess. Leave the butter a bit chunkier than you think you should.
Divide the dough in half. Put each half into a zip-loc bag, and press down with the heel of your hand through the plastic to make a flat round. Squeeze any excess air out of the bag and seal. Toss into the fridge and let chill for a few hours, if possible. Otherwise, put into the freezer for 45 minutes or so and hope for the best.
Sprinkle a big clean surface lightly with flour. Rub your rolling pin with flour, too. Take 1 dough bag out of the fridge. Let it warm up for a few minutes, then take it out and flop into onto your work surface. Starting in the middle, roll out to the edges. Imagine little arrows pointing outward, and follow them. Don't roll back and forth like you're paving a road; radiate outward like you're making sun rays. Every few rolls, slide your spatula under the dough and give it a quarter-turn to keep it from sticking, adding a little more flour underneath if necessary. This is key, so don't skip this step. Also, try to expand your round evenly, so it will fill your pie pan properly.
When your dough is about 2 inches bigger around than the bottom of your pie plate, loosen it gently one more time. Working quickly, fold it in half, then in half again. Drape the quarter-folded dough into the lower quadrant of your pie pan, and unfold. Patch any tears and press gently into the pan, and trim off the excess dough. Wrap in plastic or foil, and stick back in the fridge or freezer while you get your filling together and roll out the top crust.
Once you're got your filling in the crust, drape your top crust over and trim off any excessively drapey bits. If possible, tuck the excess top crust under the edge of the bottom crust (between the bottom crust edge and the edge of the pie plate, if you get my drift.) Or just pinch them together. Now, you can make pretty scallops by gently pinching the crust edges together between your thumbs (along the outer edge) and forefingers (inner edge), or pinch harder to make little tight peaks. Cut some steam slits in the top crust. Brush with glaze and sprinkle with a little extra sugar for a professional-looking shine. Slip into a preheated oven with a cookie sheet underneath to catch the drips. Keep an eye on the pie as it bakes, and be sure to drape foil over the edges if they're browning too fast. Make sure to bake until the crust is a nice golden brown; no one likes a pallid crust, and everyone will think you just chickened out and used that cheap shortening that stays limp and pale no matter what.
Take out and let cool for at least a couple hours, to give the filling time to cool down and firm up. Don't refrigerate leftover pie, as the crust will get flabby.