I've always said that I like to cook almost as much as I like to eat, but it wasn't until I started this most recent round of dieting that I learned that a) I actually like to cook more than I like to eat. I've also learned that except for the small matter of being kept alive through nourishment, cooking gratifies me in all the ways that eating does, plus a couple. Fortunately, we're entering the season where it's entirely acceptable to give people a whole lot of food that you've made yourself. For me, this season kicked off a couple of weeks ago when the church had its annual bazaar, for which I made about a dozen-and-a-half caramel apples and three pies. Pies are really the perfect baked good for the church bazaar: relatively few people make them, and they fetch a pretty decent price for the amount of work involved, provided that you make several of them at a time.
I've been thinking a lot about pie dough, recently, where "recently" means for the past twenty-five years or so. I have come to the conclusion that a lifelong contemplation and pursuit of the perfect pie dough is about as good a religious practice as there is: the perfect pie crust and God are similarly complex and elusive notions, but the pursuit of one will get you a lot of good food while the pursuit of the other has a tendency to lead to excessive self-righteousness. Wistful as I am for the days when faith was possible and even easy, I am not one to belittle anyone's religion, but go knock on twenty doors and offer a piece of good pie and then knock on another twenty doors and offer advice from the religious text of your choice and let me know where you're more welcome. Report back your results: I'll keep track.
There are, of course, many people who are convinced at an early age that they've found God and/or the perfect pie crust recipe, and I am not interested in disabusing them of either notion. But I've been searching for a long time, and while my pie dough is almost always flaky and tasty, I am never fully satisfied with it. Part of my dissatisfaction comes from my innate inability to leave well enough alone, but I think that a larger part of it comes from the unavoidable fact that pie dough involves fundamental trade-offs. For example, pie dough made with shortening is easier to handle and holds its shape better than pie dough made with butter. Pie dough made with butter tastes better, but it also burns more easily. Pie dough made with lard is said to be the flakiest of all, but: lard. Ew.
And then there's the matter of how much butter (or whatever) you're going to use. More is tastier, but more is also harder to handle.
In the past, my compromise has been to combine butter and shortening by melting the two together and then refrigerating them until solid. It's a good compromise, but it's still a compromise. Most recently, I decided to try using both butter and shortening but in different ways. I reasoned that if I mixed the shortening in very thoroughly but left the butter in larger lumps, I might get the tensile strength of a shortening dough and the flavor of a butter dough. What I got did taste very good, but I still don't think that it's a strong enough dough to, say, hold a crimped shape when baked blind.
Alas. Perhaps I shall, some day, achieve enlightenment, but I'm not holding my breath. In any case, when you're making a bunch of pies and you need to pre-bake the crusts, you're better off going with stacked crusts than with separate crimped crusts. That's what I did for the bazaar. I used a simple fork-press decoration, I left a slight overhang (to compensate for shrinkage while in the oven) on the disposable pie plates, and I stacked the crusts three high for baking. The best way to do this is to stack the three crusts upside down on top of an empty pie plate (that's four pie plates in total). Then you place the whole stack upside down on one (right-side up) sheet pan and put a second sheet pan (also upside down) on top of the bottom of the pie plate holding the last crust. The weight prevents rising and bubbling during the initial baking (about 15 minutes at 350), and then when that baking's done, you can take the whole pile out of the oven, and flip it over to cool slightly. Then you just peel the pie plates apart. If the dough overhangs the edges, you can even them up with some kitchen shears. At this point, you have a good, partially baked pie crust, which you can either fill and then bake or bake and then fill, depending on what pie you're making.
Large Batch Pie Dough
8 ounces cake flour
24 ounces all purpose flour
1 t. kosher salt
1/4 c. granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 pound butter
Put the dry ingredients into the bowl of your stand mixer. Mix for thirty seconds or so with the paddle attachment. Add the shortening in several pieces, turn the mixer on, and mix until the shortening is very entirely mixed into the dough. Move the mixture to the freezer.
Cut each stick of butter into 32 pieces (2x2x8). Put the butter pieces in the freezer for about half an hour.
Take the flour mixture and the butter out of the freezer. Put the butter in the flour and toss so that the pieces of butter are separate. With a pastry blender, cut the butter in very briefly so that there are still substantial pieces of butter left.
Crack the eggs into a bowl and whisk together with one cup of ice water. Add to the flour and butter mixture and toss with a large fork. If the mixture is too dry to gather into a ball, add additional water, one tablespoon at a time and toss again until the mixture can be gathered.
Divide the dough into six pieces (each should be about ten ounces), wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least two hours or until ready to use.
For the bazaar, I decided to go with a variation on my mom's chocolate pie. I made a slight error in calculation when I made the three pies for the bazaar, so that they had less peanut butter in them than I'd wanted, but I'm sure they were still delicious. I made another one this past weekend when a friend was coming to dinner, and I took a very, very small piece for myself just to verify that it was yummy. All four people who've tasted the pie agree: very good, very rich.
Cocoa Peanut Butter Pie
1 partially baked, 8- or 9-inch pie crust
1/3 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
2/3 c. granulated sugar*
2 T. flour
1/2 c. milk
2 eggs, separated
2 T. butter
1/4 c. peanut butter
Whisk together the cocoa powder, sugar, and flour until there are no lumps. In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk and the yolks of the eggs. Add these to the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.
Melt the butter and peanut butter together and let cool to lukewarm. Add to the other ingredients and mix well.
Beat the egg whites until you have stiff peaks. Fold them into the other ingredients, and turn into the pie shell. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until done.
The baking time for the pie will vary depending on the size pan you've used and how often you open the oven to fret over whether it's done yet. If you use an 8" pan and start checking after half an hour, it'll likely take forty-five minutes. If you use a 9.5" pan, and go do something else, it may very well be done in thirty minutes. I think that the best option is to use a 9" pan and look through the door. With any luck, it'll be done perfectly in thirty-five to forty minutes.