Smile Politely

Jean Thompson: Novelist, Short Story Writer and Pie-Crust Artist Extraordinaire

The world would be a better place if more people made their own pie crust. Amaze your friends! No more nasty store-bought crusts! I will share with you my hard-won knowledge, which includes a lot of trial and error, also more than a few pie-crust tantrums, when the stuff just wouldn’t stick together (or come unstuck), and had to be hurled at kitchen walls, accompanied by bestial oaths.

Basic pie crust is a balancing act between flour, water and shortening, with a little salt thrown in. Too much flour, too dry. Too much water, too wet. Too much shortening, too greasy. The recipe below is deliberately unthrifty, and gives you more than you will need for a two-crust, nine-inch pie. (Large, rather deep pie pans are best, especially for fruit pies, so that there’s room for the fruit to juice up.) The extra dough should give you confidence: plenty of room for mistakes, patch jobs and the like.

Sift: 3 cups all purpose flour.

Sift again with: 1 and ½ teaspoon salt.

Don’t omit this! Sift the damn flour! You’re trying to get air into it!

Measure and chill: 1 cup of vegetable shortening (like Crisco)

Chill that sucker! Set it in the freezer while you sift! And, if you don’t know this trick: solid shortening can be measured by water displacement, that is, take a two-cup measure, fill with one cup of water, then add the shortening until the water level is at the top.

Cut shortening into the flour mixture with a pastry blender, or, that old standby, your fingertips. The idea is to distribute it evenly in the flour, in pieces the size of small peas.

Sprinkle the dough with: 6-8 tablespoons of ice water

Best to stir it in with a fork, a little at a time. You want to be able to pick the dough up into a ball, without scraps of it falling away. Think of something about the consistency of Play-Doh. If needed, add a bit more water to the dry remnants, so that they adhere. Divide the dough in half, chill one hour — or however long it takes you to prepare your filling, preheat the oven, etc.

I roll out dough between sheets of waxed paper, which avoids having to use flour, and is in general tidier. Roll out one half of dough at a time. If one portion is a little larger than the other, use this for the bottom crust. Roll in a circular pattern, working from the center outwards. If it seems stiff, let it warm a bit. Too dry, it’s not too late to add a little flour. The dough should feel plump and airy, like a good pillow. This recipe gives you lots of extra dough, so make sure you roll thin enough — about an eighth of an inch. If you’re unsure how much you need, place the empty pie pan over the dough as a guide. If it tears or looks lopsided, patch it rather than re-roll.

Peel away top sheet (or sheets) of waxed paper. Pick up the whole contraption, flop it into the pie pan, peel away bottom sheet. Repeat process with top crust. Leftover dough can be wrapped tightly in Saran Wrap and refrigerated for another project, or rolled out into strips or diamonds, brushed with melted butter, topped with cinnamon and sugar, and baked along with your pie. Or just munched on raw. Some of us like that.

– Jean Thompson

Now retired from the creative writing department at the University of Illinois, Jean Thompson is a novelist, short story writer and National Book Award finalist. She’s also a cook with a wide range and a penchant for emphatic declarations about food. (“No more nasty store-bought crusts!” — you hear?) Her latest collection of short stories, Throw Like a Girl, includes the story “Pie of the Month” — proof positive that she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the art of pie preparation.

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