By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
"Everything I've done my entire life with pies is wrong!" Sarah Fairbrother declared in my Adams Morgan kitchen a few weeks ago.
She had just watched Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of the landmark "Pie and Pastry Bible," roll out a silken, butter-infused circle of perfect pie crust dough and couldn't fathom how she would be able to make such a thing of beauty.
Fairbrother, a 42-year-old project director for Cultural Tourism DC, also got a lesson in what happens when you ask Chef on Call for piemaking advice.
"I lost my ability to make crust," she had written to us. "It just comes out dry or soggy (there's no in-between) and won't roll out. Can you help me make edible pie again?"
It was a natural lesson for summer's fruit season. Beranbaum, 64, agreed to make a day trip from New York and give Fairbrother a three-hour tutorial, adapting recipes from her cookbook for flaky cream cheese pie crust, a two-crust peach pie, a cherry pie with a lattice top and a pecan pie, which Fairbrother specifically had requested.
Beranbaum's method and appearance were neat, delicate and precise. In a soft, enthusiastic voice, she relayed a constant stream of anecdotes and information, bringing to mind my first favorite teacher.
And she got in a few well-placed, good-natured zingers.
"Could someone clean up some of this mess?" she inquired innocently at one point. "Someone who lives here?"
The only actual demand she made, and understandably so, was that the lesson take place in an air-conditioned kitchen, which disqualified Fairbrother's Petworth home. The most important thing about pastry, Beranbaum stressed, was keeping it cool, because the minute it starts getting warm, butter is absorbed into the flour, and that can diminish the crust's flakiness.
Beranbaum began the lesson at noon by addressing Fairbrother's dilemma. She explained scientifically how the crust's flavor, tenderness and golden-brown crispness depend on achieving the right balance of protein, fat, water and acid, and then maintaining that balance during baking.
Given that she holds bachelor's and master's degrees in food science from New York University, it was not surprising that Beranbaum approached the subject matter in that way. Chemistry cannot be ignored or rushed; therefore, it follows that to make a good pie, no step in Beranbaum's process is expendable.
Let's face it. The reason so many cooks make imperfect pies is that we take shortcuts and then rationalize failure by saying we lack a pastry chef's touch; that's more acceptable than admitting laziness or impatience.
Beranbaum gets that concept.
"I used to do unnecessary things, so I hate telling people to do unnecessary things," she said, letting on that she knew her meticulousness sometimes goes too far. "I once took the weight of beans every hour to see just exactly at what point they stopped absorbing water," she said with a giggle.
Teacher and student stood side by side and started making a two-crust batch of flaky cream cheese pie crust, Beranbaum's favorite, which would be used for three kinds of pie. It's not as flaky and crisp as an all-butter crust, but it has a delicious extra tang and doesn't distort much during baking.
To the classic ingredients of cream cheese pastry (cream cheese, butter, flour), she added vinegar to relax the dough when it is rolled out, cream to impart extra richness and baking powder to make it puff up in the oven, which translates into greater tenderness.
All ingredients were kept cold at all times and combined in a food processor as minimally and quickly as possible. Beranbaum said that if you process the dough too much, you lose flakiness, but if you don't process it enough, big clumps of butter become holes in the rolled-out dough.
"As soon as you can gather the dough together, then you knead it just slightly," Beranbaum explained. She recommends wearing food-safe latex gloves to do so (keeping hands cool) and preferably working on a cool counter. "When you're finished and you pull it, there should be a slight elasticity, just slight. You see all the nice buttery streaks, but it doesn't just break apart. Don't handle it much more after that."
She wrapped the kneaded dough in plastic, formed it into a disk and relegated it to the refrigerator for a 45-minute rest, long enough to help make the dough easier to roll out and less elastic, to reduce shrinkage during baking. Fairbrother did the same with her half of the dough.
What was truly amazing about the dough was that it was already cool at that point; cool enough, in fact, that it could have been rolled out right then, formed and sent to the fridge for resting.
Beranbaum deemed 65 degrees the right temperature for dough that is to be rolled out. (If it has been refrigerated overnight rather than for 45 minutes, she suggests leaving it out for 10 minutes.)
The rolling-out process, done in strokes from the dough's center that stopped short of the edges, was a breeze, thanks to a few bakers' helpers. Beranbaum placed a canvas pastry cloth rubbed with flour underneath the dough and covered the rolling pin with a cloth sleeve, both of which prevent sticking and overuse of flour. Fitted, 1/8 -inch-thick rings placed on the ends of the pin ensured the crust would be rolled to an even thickness.
"When you can't roll it any thinner, you're done," she said.
The hardest part was over.
Well, perhaps Fairbrother didn't think so right then, but she soon got the hang of it.
Onward to the fillings. Beranbaum had made a promise that her pecan pie would be distinctive, and she made good on it. She eschewed Karo corn syrup for Lyle's Golden Syrup, which is made from cane sugar. She baked the pie in a tart pan to equalize the ratio of nuts to filling to crust.
Instead of relying only on cornstarch to thicken the peach pie filling, Beranbaum collected the fruit's juices, reduced them to a near-caramelized syrup and added them back to the peaches. Once assembled with its filling and top crust, the pie had to rest in the refrigerator before baking, a notion that exasperated Fairbrother a bit. "This is very demanding pie!" she blurted.
So was the cherry pie, as it turned out. We had furnished bing cherries rather than the sour ones the recipe called for, so Beranbaum had to compensate for that variety's extra liquid by thickening the juice in a saucepan before baking the pie. Problem solved.
Throughout the afternoon, directives on handling dough, making fillings, crimping edges and baking oven-ready pies came in waves. Key among them:
· Use templates to cut out pre-measured sizes of top, bottom and lattice crusts. That will ensure a correct fit and avoid cumbersome trimming after the dough is in the pie pan.
· If using a tart pan with a removable bottom, push the dough thinner against the sides. That will make it rise up higher than the rim. When the crust shrinks during baking, it will still have a good height.
· For blind baking (baking a pastry shell before it is filled), use a large-urn coffee filter to hold rice as the weight that keeps the crust from rising. The filter absorbs butter from the crust, and the rice, which toasts slightly, can be used for pilaf.
· Try baking a pie on the oven floor for the first 20 minutes or so. Use a clear glass pie plate so you can monitor darkness. Once the bottom crust is nice and dark, bring it up to the lowest rack and finish baking.
· Baking a pie that starts out frozen is good; the bottom crust gets a chance to crisp before the filling has softened. Baking from frozen generally takes 20 extra minutes. (Freeze a pie only after it has rested in the refrigerator for an hour.)
By 3 p.m., Fairbrother's head was swimming, and Beranbaum had a train to catch. The start-to-finish pecan pie came out of the oven; the cherry and peach pies were ready to go in. Beranbaum eyed them with approval, saying she could tell from the evident swirls of butter in the crusts that they were going to be good.
Which reminded her of a story.
She was in Oakland, Calif., years ago, visiting her brother, who had bought a pie for dessert. Her then-6-year-old nephew led her to it and voiced his disappointment.
"He said, 'You can tell by looking at it that it's not going to be any good!' and I thought, 'I taught him something!' "
Him and countless grateful others.
David Hagedorn, chef and former restaurateur, can be reached at email@example.com. His Chef on Call column appears monthly.