I’ve always been the pie maker in the family. If company was coming or for a holiday, my assignment was the pies. I made lots of pies. I loved to experiment with different fillings—say adding blueberries to a peach pie or a layer of ganache beneath my pecan pie filling. So I would line up my pie pans and make lots of crusts. I would like to think that my family and friends enjoyed the resulting array of pies as much as I enjoyed making them.
I still do lots of experimenting with pies but now most of it in our test kitchen at work. Last year I spent several days experimenting with pumpkin and sweet potato pies. From that came several memorable recipes including Sweet Potato Pie with Pecan Streusel, a pumpkin pie made in a gingersnap crust and with a pecan toffee topping.
One thing has changed though: Most of the time I reach for our just-add-water professional pie crust mix. It’s quick and easy, it helps me make pies en masse, and if I don’t overwork the pie dough, they’ll turn out as good as from scratch.
Five Essential Tools
Every pie maker worth his crusts will have five essential tools in his or her kitchen. Here, you’ll learn about these tools and their functions and how to use them. We’ve added a couple tools at the end that we rely on but that are not essential.
A Pastry Knife
The fat–butter or shortening–has to be distributed through the flour prior to making the dough. Once mixed and rolled, this fat creates small, flat pockets of fat in the formed crust. In the heat of the oven, these melt—and in the case of butter—create pockets of steam. This delaminates the dough and makes the crust flakey.
Pastry knives are constructed with a series of parallel blades to cut through the butter and flour and which are attached to a handle. Since the blades are forced through the butter with some pressure, we recommend a pastry knife of sturdy construction. Our personal preference is for pastry knives with sure-grip handles as we tend to grip and twist the knife as we drive the blades through the butter.
A Rolling Pin
Look for a rolling pin that is rigid, sturdy and has a slick surface so the dough does not adhere to the rolling pin. We recommend one with a ball bearing chassis for smooth, easy, non-slip rolling.
We carry three rolling pins: a nonstick rolling pin, a marble rolling pin, and a stainless steel rolling pin and have used all three. The stainless rolling pin is a big, heavy chunk of steel. (The weight of the rolling pin means that you do not need to press as hard since the weight is creating some of the pressure.) The marble rolling in is turned from solid marble. The nonstick on is constructed of a nonstick Teflon® surface bonded to a wooden roller.
We like all three. The nonstick rolling pin gets the most use; we reach for that for most light work and when rolling soft, light rolls. When we are making cinnamon rolls or rolling pastry doughs, we usually reach for the stainless pin.
In doughs using butter, it is critical that the dough be kept cool so that the butter does not melt. If the butter turns to a liquid, the dough is ruined and must be discarded. The advantage of steel and marble is that rolling pins made with either can be chilled in the refrigerator or freezer. These chunky bocks of steel and marble can chill the dough and extend the time that you can work with the dough before the butter becomes soft and turns to a liquid. This feature is a real advantage.
The professional grade nonstick pans will be used for most of your work. They are sized for most recipes. Because they are heavy and dark, they will absorb heat, bake the crust evenly, and reduce the chances of an underbaked, soggy crust. We do not recommend glass or ceramic pans.
The surface should be so slick that you can slide the cooled pie from the pan to a platter or plate for serving. You can then cut the pie into neat slices without having to dig slices from the pan and since you are not cutting in the pan, you will not mar the nonstick surface of the pan.
The deep dish metal pans will be used for deep dish pie recipes. Again the dark metal will bake the crust thoroughly.
The stainless pans are perfect for crumb crusts, either unbaked pies or baked pies made with crumb crusts. Since the crumbs are cooked, you don’t need to further bake the crumbs and the shiny surface reflects rather than absorbs heat protecting the rather fragile crumbs.
You may also wish to invest in mini-pie pans. Four mini pie pans are the equivalent of one standard pie pan. They will require more dough than a standard recipe but the same filling.
Pie weights can be purchased in two types: ceramic beads and pie weight chains. Both work satisfactorily.
In the long heat of the oven necessary to bake a fruit or custard pie, the rim of the pie crust—exposed to heat from above and below—is over baked. A pie crust shield protects the edge of the crust from above, reflecting the heat. Unless you want to use strips of aluminum foil, which are an aggravating nuisance, pie crust shields are essential. Simply slip them on the pies before they go in the oven.
Pie shields come in aluminum and silicone. We’ve used aluminum. Silicone shields collapse and are easier to store.
We use a flour shaker every time we make dough on the counter. We dust the counter, dust the rolling pin, and sometimes dust our hands. They are not expensive and are a good investment.
A bench scraper is one of the most used tools in our kitchen. We use it to scrape dough clear of the counter, to lift pie dough to place it in pie pans, and to cut the excess dough from around the rims of our pie pans. It seconds as a straightedge and as a ruler with inch and fractional measures etched in the metal blade.