I am fully devoted to from-scratch baking. The idea of buying a cake mix makes very little sense to me; the time it saves is that of stirring together flour, baking powder and sugar, which is approximately three seconds. When you add in the fact that the vanilla is imitation and the cocoa is dutch-processed, it just becomes a very unappealing option to me. Cookies are even easier than cupcakes, and even the convenience of slice and bake can be replicated by the home cook – just freeze your own dough! Really, the drag in making cookies is in baking them, anyway.
For a long time, however, the one thing I would employ a processed product in every time was pies. I had a terror of making my own pie crust. I’d heard horror stories – of doughs that came out tough and unpleasant, of crusts that cracked, or lacked proper flakiness, or wouldn’t roll out. I convinced myself that frozen Pillsbury dough was a reasonable substitute and contented myself with from-scratch filling.
Still, a part of me sensed that this was an untenable compromise. How could I ever be a truly worthy baker if I allowed Poppin’ Fresh, that fat little homunculus to be the secret behind my pies? The filling of most pies, after all, is dead easy – sugar, fruit, and spices for fruit pies, pudding or cream for most others. But how to conquer my fears and take control of my pastry destiny?
Salvation came in November 2007’s Cook’s Illustrated. In it was a recipe guaranteed to be fool-proof. Golden-brown, flaky pie crust could be mine through one simple secret ingredient. The answer to my pie fears? That bringer of courage to so many college coeds or guys looking to snag a number -friends, I’m talking about vodka.
What’s great about this recipe is that it totally appeals to that wanna-be chemist inside me. What the estimable staff at Cook’s Illustrated figured out was that tough pie crusts come from too much gluten being produced. Gluten is a composite protein in flour that increases a dough’s elasticity when it’s kneaded. More gluten = more stable dough. This is fantastic if you want to make something like bread. Your gluten network traps the little air bubbles caused by your fermenting yeast, and holds it nicely in place. It also makes your product chewier. Again, lovely for bread or a bagel, but a pie crust is meant to be flaky – it’s basically a bunch of scales of fat and flour overlapping.
In a pie crust the issue is that gluten forms when the flour mixes with water. You can’t make a crust without SOME liquid, both because you need a tiny bit of gluten to hold the pastry together and at a more basic level, so that the fat and flour hold together in the first place and let you roll it out. What the CI folks figured out is that gluten does NOT form in ethanol – the alcohol in your favorite cocktails. Vodka, being both 80% ethanol and flavorless, is the perfect replacement for half the water in the pie crust. Less gluten = more tender crust!
In honor of the wonderfully flaky and tender pie I have baking in my oven right now, here’s a link to the crust recipe. I personally replace the shortening with more butter, but that’s my personal preference. Go forth with confidence that you will bake a perfect pie!
Oh, and the filling in that pie in my oven? It’s apple – with bourbon.