Whoever coined the phrase “easy as pie” likely never baked one. The most experienced and professional bakers use other words to describe the process, particularly when it comes to the crust.
“You’re creating art when you craft a pie, and you have to enjoy doing it,” says local author and culinary instructor Barbara Swell, whose 11 cookbook titles include The Lost Art of Pie Making Made Easy. “It’s a process and it takes time. You can’t rush it.”
Kelsianne Bebout, pastry chef for All Souls Pizza, agrees. Though the ingredients for pie crust are simple — flour, butter and salt — “making it all come together is complicated and takes a lot of skill,” says Bebout, who also sells custom desserts through her Instagram account, @beebowbakes. “Pie is very finicky.”
As we approach high pie season (what is Thanksgiving without that dessert on the table?), pie anxiety nibbles away at the confidence of many hosts. As a result, they often turn to — shudder — store-bought, premade crusts.
According to food writer Megan McArdle’s July opinion piece, “Can America Save Its National Dish?” published by The Washington Post, over 50 million Americans used frozen pie crust in 2019, while an additional 40 million opted for the refrigerated cylinder of dough to roll out at home.
Swell sighs. “I was talking with friends last week about Americans accustomed to eating store-bought crusts — terrible, inadequate and mediocre crusts. But many people just look at the crust as a vehicle for holding the innards. It’s no wonder people often leave the crust on the plate.”
And while neither Swell nor Bebout pretends making pie crust is easy, the two have shared with Xpress helpful tips and recipes this holiday season to encourage bakers of all skill levels to try their hand at creating the seasonal favorite from scratch, with additional insights and encouragement from emerging baker Annabel Pulman, a 2021 graduate of Asheville High School.
The big chill
The basic butter crust is key to whole pie success, says Swell. “If you can nail a butter crust, that will take you pretty far.” Along the way to the summit, there are multiple possibilities for failure, but Swell and Bebout stress a couple of immutable foundations: temperature and handling.
“Keep your fat cold and don’t overhandle your dough,” Swell advises. “Flour has gluten, which will seize up if you handle it too much, and your crust will be tough.”
Bebout admits one of the major mistakes she made when starting out was not having her butter cold enough. “If it’s not straight out of the refrigerator, you’ll go wrong immediately. Take it out of the refrigerator, dice it, then throw it in the freezer for ten minutes. Butter that’s not cold enough will blend in and you’ll get shortbread.”
She typically mixes the salt — and occasionally sugar and herbs — into the flour and refrigerates that too. “Have everything ready before you start,” she stresses. “Don’t walk away from your dough to get something.”
Bebout elevates the traditional butter crust by using different flours from Farm & Sparrow, an Appalachian-based seed project, grain collection and mill. “Instead of using basic 100% white Appalachian flour, I add a portion of a specialty flour like buckwheat, spelt or rye. One of the pies I’m making for Thanksgiving will be a flour collaboration between Gaining Ground Farm and Farm & Sparrow that is a really pretty gray-blue color.”
Once the butter is broken down in the flour to pea-sized pieces, add ice-cold water one tablespoon at a time. “If you get your dough too wet, it will be a nightmare to roll out,” warns Bebout. “It just won’t happen. Once there is no dry flour in the bowl, stop. You don’t want sticky dough.”
Or agitated dough, says Swell. “I am adamant about making sure the dough rests in the refrigerator overnight. Some people say 30 minutes or an hour, but it takes a while for the flour to absorb the moisture from the water.”
Bebout flattens her ball of dough into a disc about an inch thick before refrigerating. Swell says she likes to roll the dough out the day before baking the pie. She likes wooden rolling pins, and clear-glass, shallow pie plates, as well as ceramic and silicone-covered metal, but steers novices away from deep-dish pans.
Par-baking (also known as blind baking) a crust before adding the filling is recommended for custard-type pies. “Pecan and pumpkin pies have eggs in them, so they’re tricky,” says Swell. “Partially bake your crust at 400 degrees, then cool it, then add the filling and bake the pie at 350 degrees. Don’t underbake. You want that crust a nice, golden brown.”
Swell acknowledges that pumpkin is not everyone’s favorite Thanksgiving pie. “For a lot of people, it’s a texture thing. People love pecan pie, and it’s apple season right now, so take advantage of that. I’m making an apple-pear pie right now.”
Miss American pie
Despite McArdle’s discouraging report on the country’s reliance on premade crusts, there is hope for the future of American pie. It can be found in the likes of 19-year-old Pulman. In addition to being a 2021 graduate of Asheville High School, she is a longtime member of the Asheville Performing Arts Academy. Currently, Pulman is a freshman studying musical theater at Oakland University in Michigan.
“Pie is my favorite subject to talk about,” Pulman says with great enthusiasm. The conversation began nearly a decade ago when she expressed interest in pie baking and her mother, Katie Locke, told her homemade crust was too hard and took too much time. “Something went off in my brain, and I was like, ‘I have to learn how to make pie crust!’” Pulman says with a laugh.
Though her earliest desserts were with premade crust, she later began making it from scratch, thanks to hands-on help from her pie-loving, NASA scientist cousin. “My first solo pie was a vanilla bourbon pecan pie,” she remembers. “It was pretty OK. What I do now is very different from what I did then. It’s been a lot of practice.”
And an intense practice amid the pandemic shutdown, she adds. “My mom got me [Erin Jeanne McDowell’s] The Book of Pie, and it became my quarantine hobby. I’m pretty sure I made every pie in that book and really got into making intricate decorations on the pies and started giving pies as gifts.”
Her go-to gift pie is salted caramel apple, and a family favorite is cranberry curd. For Thanksgiving, Pulman is thinking of a ginger snap crumb pear pie or spiced coconut pumpkin pie.
Whatever pie you may undertake this Thanksgiving, bear in mind this last bit of advice from Swell. “What trips people up is this fantasy of a perfect pie. People aren’t looking for a perfect pie. They’re looking for one that looks homemade and crafted and has a little bit of the filling bubbled onto the crust that makes you want to eat it. Perfect and pie do not go together.”
Apple spice pie, by Kelsianne Bebout
- 2 ½ cups flour
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1/2 cup ice water
- 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
- 2 sticks of butter
- 3 ½ pounds apples (thinly sliced)
- 1/2 cup apple butter
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 teaspoons melted butter
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup flour
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
- 1 teaspoon cardamom
- 1/2 teaspoon allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger
- 1 teaspoon salt
- For crust: Whisk flour, sugar, salt and fresh thyme in a mixing bowl. Dice butter into half-inch cubes, refrigerate for 15 minutes. Prepare ice water and add apple cider vinegar. Add very cold butter to the flour mixture, turn the mixer to speed 3-4. Once butter is broken down to about pea size, turn mixer to lowest setting, slowly add the ice water about 2-3 tablespoons at a time. When the dough starts coming together and there is no more dry flour on the bottom of the bowl, turn the mixer off. The dough should not be sticky. Separate dough into two rounds, for a 1-inch disc, wrap and refrigerate.
- Preheat oven to 450 F.
- Filling: While dough chills, thinly slice or mandoline apples and coat with lemon juice and vanilla. Add apple butter and melted butter to sliced apples. In another bowl, whisk together sugar, flour and spices. Add dry mix to the apples and gently stir with spatula to combine.
- Roll out one dough disc on a lightly floured surface until about 1/2 centimeter thick, line 9-inch pie tin. Roll out other dough disc; at this point, you can decide if you prefer a double-crust top or lattice. Add apple pie filling into lined pan making sure to fully pack into the edges. Top with double crust or lattice top, folding the ends under the bottom layer of lined pie and then crimp or press as desired.
- Freeze for 15 minutes. Put the pie onto a baking pan. Bake pie for 15-20 minutes at 450 degrees F. After initial browning turn the oven down to 350 degrees F. Bake for 30-50 minutes.
- Do not take the pie out of the oven until it becomes jammy. You will notice the filling bubbling around the edges, this means it is almost ready. But leave the pie in the oven until it is bubbling and jammy in the center. Take pie out of oven and wait 1 hour before slicing.
Barbara Swell’s butter pie crust (top and bottom for 9-inch pie)
Baker’s note: Make your dough the night before you bake and keep ingredients cold as you prepare.
- 2 ½ cups (330 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 8 ounces cold unsalted butter (2 sticks)
- Scant 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice or cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup ice-cold water plus a tablespoon or so more as needed
- Combine flour and salt in your bowl. Cut the butter into half-inch cubes. Divide the cubes into two piles. Add one pile of cubes to your flour mixture and blend quickly with fingertips until it’s the texture of cornmeal. (Pop into freezer for one minute if your mixture is not cold to touch.) Add the other pile of butter cubes. Use a pastry cutter or fingertips to cut the butter into the flour until the fat is the size of peas. Combine the lemon juice or vinegar with the water and sprinkle enough of the liquid into your flour and butter mixture until a small amount of the dough holds together when pressed. Look for moist crumbs.
- The schmear (fraisage) for extra flakiness, entirely optional. This step only works if your butter is still cold; if not, freeze dough for a few minutes. Toss the cold dough pieces onto a counter or board and divide into two piles. Take the first pile of crumbs and make a line across the bottom of your board. Using the heel of your hand, schmear the crumbs across the board and then stack the flattened smears. Form into a patty and wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or up to three days. Repeat with the second pile of crumbs.
- Skip the schmear? Divide your moistened dough into two piles and wrap each pile in plastic wrap. Flatten your packets lightly with a rolling pin.
Mrs. Painter’s pumpkin and bittersweet chocolate pie (courtesy of Barbara Swell)
An old-timey firm pumpkin pie with a chocolate ganache layer beneath the filling. Makes a 9-inch pie. Roast a local heirloom pumpkin or winter squash for best flavor.
- 2 cups pumpkin puree (fresh or canned)
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 1 tablespoon flour
- Pinch salt
- 3/4 cup brown sugar (or a bit less)
- 1 teaspoon each ginger and cinnamon plus pinch of nutmeg
- Parbake your pie crust to prevent soggy bottom crust: Poke fluted pie crust sides and bottom with fork. Line with parchment paper and fill with about a pound of dried beans. Cook about 12 minutes in a 400-degree F oven. Remove beans and parchment. Repoke with fork and continue to bake about 3 more minutes just until set, but not brown. Allow to cool.
- Chocolate ganache layer: Heat 4 tablespoons cream just to boil and stir in 3 ounces chopped good dark chocolate until creamy. Brush onto bottom of cooled, parbaked 9-inch crust and allow to chill while you make your pie innards.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Combine pumpkin ingredients and whisk well until blended. Pour over chocolate layer. Place pie in bottom third of oven and immediately turn heat down to 350 degrees F. Bake around 40 minutes until set in the middle. You can decorate with prebaked decorative crust cutouts and serve with whipped cream.
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