Ahhhhhhhhhhh! This year's Thanksgiving was a good one! There wasn't one shred of stress, at least not at my house. We didn't host, but still, most years, there's always something. This year was pretty much perfect.
I was in charge of making the pies. This task has fallen to me in recent years, when I haven't hosted the feast (or fiasco, depending on the year), because I have two ovens, and my mom just has the one, and it gets really filled up with the turkey. Usually I cheat and buy the store-bought pie-crusts. I was always Scared to Death of making pastry. It never turned out right for me, and it was just easier to buy a crust, let it warm to room temperature, and gently roll it into the pie plate. But a couple months ago, my friend David held a long-awaited Piecrust Tutorial when we were all visiting our friend Dawn at her new house, and he was so cool and nonchalant about making that piecrust, right out of his head- no recipe cards needed! It revolutionized the way I think about piecrusts. He measured out the flour, and cubed up the butter, then just eyeballed the salt and sugar in the crust. Then he used his HANDS to incorporate the butter into the salt and flour and sugar. His HANDS! Woah! I've always hated using a pastry blender, but I always thought using my hands to make a piecrust would make the piecrust too muxy, like Play-Doh, and also tough. But it's actually easier than using the pastry blender! And then, where I'd always meticulously add in the ice water one tablespoon at a time and still somehow wind up with too much (and then add in more flour and make the dough too dry, so more water, and so-on until things were a Big Mess) David got a measuring cup of ice water and just poured some in. Dawn and I stood there watching him, and as he poured in the ice water, all at once like that, we both audibly gasped. Apparently Dawn's had as much luck with the ice water stage of piecrusts as I have!
But David's pie dough turned out perfect. It went into the fridge to chill for a little bit before he rolled it out. Rolling has always been dicey for me, too. I always end up with torn crusts and sloppy patch jobs. And tough piecrust. I asked David what to do if the piecrust tears, and as he put his crust in the pie plate, it tore. "You don't worry about it," he said, and gently patted it back together as best as he could, then went about filling the pie. He explained that he was all about the "rustic" crust, with the excess dough allowed to fold up and over the filling a bit in an open-face pie, instead of trimming around the edge of the plate and fluting the crust. Revolutionary! I always have trouble with getting things fluted just right, and was never good at the whole fork-fluting bit.
So since that bright September day that David shared his Piecrust Tutorial, I've been practicing, making potpies with different crusts. I made all-butter, as David had, and although mine were good, I thought they were a little too buttery. I'd always been told that lard crusts were the best, but the thought of lard grossed me out. My husband, who took all the biologies our undergrad college offered, set me straight on that when he said lard would be better than Crisco, because Crisco is made of oil, which is meant to be liquid at room temperature, and it's been altered to be solid at room temperature, whereas lard's meant to be solid at room temperature. So I bought a brick of lard (the ice blue boxes in the butter display at Wegmans!) and was surprised to find that it's white. I also figured what the heck? and took a taste. Huh. Pretty much no taste I could discern.
An all-lard crust is different from an all-butter crust. The dough's stickier, and you don't need as much water (errrrrrrrrrrmahgerrrrrrrrrrd- found that tidbit out the hard way as I slipped back into my hyperventilating pie-maker tendencies). The finished product is also verrrrrrrrrrrrrry flaky, but quite fragile. And it doesn't have much taste.
The crusts I made for the Thanksgiving pies, I tried out half lard, half butter, because it's always a really good idea to try out new recipes the day before an important meal! I wanted the flakiness of the lardy crust, but with buttery flavor. Once again, there were some dueling characteristics, a kind of split-personality during the incorporating phase. The buttery bits wanted to be dry, the lardy bits were sticky, they didn't want to be friends much, I added too much water to one batch, just enough to my second, and all the dough spent a little time in the fridge. What came out of the fridge were the easiest-working pie crusts I've ever made myself. I did have one tear some while I was putting it in the plate, but the filling covered up my sloppy patch-job.
They looked so nice in their pie plates that I brushed egg white over the crusts before I put on the foil to keep the edges from blackening in the oven, and weren't they ever going to be picturesque! Except when I peeled off the foil for the last 10 minutes in the oven to tan them up, some parts stuck to the foil (next time, don't let the foil actually touch the piecrust!), and the glossy crusts ripped right off the pie. I might have bawled in other years. This time around, I looked at it as an opportunity to have a sample of the crusts. And they were the perfect balance between flaky and buttery and I know this is going to be the way I make pie crusts from now on, as long as I can get my hands on lard, to mix in with the butter.
As for the ripped crust edges, only two of the pies got it really bad. They might have been hideous, but they tasted great- maybe I could use just a quarter-cup less sugar next time around, for the filling, but other than that, I can't complain.
I'm really glad my friend took the time to demystify pie crusts! I won't be making them all the time- not if I want to be able to wear my own blue jeans in the long term- but I think this is a skill that's worth having. Yeah, I can go to the store and buy up their pie crusts, but to me, buying a pie crust is like driving an automatic car and making pie crusts is like driving stick. It's cool to know how to do, and also really useful, because if you can make your own pie crust or drive stick, you'll never be stranded.
That's how I see it, anyway!