Q. My father, who is on a low-cholesterol diet, must have his pumpkin pie. Since nutritionists are beginning to question whether hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils are good for you, he has decided to avoid them entirely. Unfortunately, I am unable to find a pie crust recipe without hydrogenated oils that tastes good. One recipe published in the American Heart Association Cookbook produced dough so dry it was impossible to work with and it was far too salty. Is there a way to produce an oil-based pie dough?
A. There certainly is. While it won't be quite as flaky as those made with hydrogenated shortenings, lard or butter, it will be quite tender. And it doesn't have to be dry or brittle, either. In fact, it's quite a bit easier to produce.
The cause of dryness in a pie dough is lack of water. It's easy to add too little, as the recipe's oil causes the flour to appear to form a dough, when actually the oil is just causing the starch granules and flour particles to adhere to each other. It is therefore very important to avoid overmixing the dough before you start adding the water. Otherwise, the oil quickly coats the flour particles and prevents the absorbtion of water by flour proteins.
Here's a recipe that would work for you. The dough feels a little greasy because the fat is, after all, an oil. Avoid using soybean oil; it has been partially hydrogenated to prevent undesirable flavor changes.
OIL-BASED PIE DOUGH (Makes one 8- or 9-inch pie crust)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup cold water
1 tablespoon tahini (optional)
Place flour, salt and oil in mixing bowl. Using a wooden spoon or your fingers, briefly mix together with only several strokes. Add all the water, and toss the ingredients quickly together. A ball of dough will form.
Place the dough on a clean flat surface and smear it briefly across the surface with the heel of your hand. This will aid in hydrating the flour proteins (including water absorption) without toughening the dough. Let the dough rest 10 minutes, then roll out to 1/8-inch thickness. Treat as you would any pie dough.
A little tahini (sesame seed paste, available in the gourmet aisle of just about all supermarkets) added with the oil will go a long way toward improving the flavor of this dough.
Q. Enclosed is a recipe for chocolate pie that has been in our family for generations. The pie seems more bitter these days. Could you please explain why?
A. The pie filling could be bitter for three reasons: one, the filling recipe contains water instead of milk. Water cannot mask the innate bitterness of cocoa powder whereas milk, which contains protein particles as well as emulsified fat, reduces cocoa's bitterness. And two, the recipe has you bring the water, sugar, starch and cocoa to a boil. This is not only an inefficient method for thickening a starch paste, it also makes scorching more likely. And cocoa powder turns bitter when it scorches. And three, the recipe contains a lot of cocoa. Either cut the cocoa content by a third, or use a mellower cocoa such as Droste.
Here is a revised version of your family's recipe. You will notice that I changed a number of techniques. The recipe now has you bring the liquid to a boil, and you add the boiling liquid to the sugar-yolk-cocoa-starch mixture.
CHOCOLATE PIE (Fills one 9-inch pie shell)
1 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup cocoa
3 egg yolks
2 tablespoons lightly salted cold butter
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 prebaked 8- or 9-inch pie shell
3 egg whites
1/4 cup sugar plus 1 tablespoon for sprinkling
Bring milk to a rolling boil. While it's heating, place sugar, cornstarch, cocoa and egg yolks in a mixing bowl. Add a fourth (approximately) of the boiling milk to the ingredients in the mixing bowl and stir quickly with a whisk until smooth. Add the remaining milk and whisk until smooth.
Pour back into the saucepan and return to the flame (this time, on medium low). Cook until the mixture thickens, whisking regularly to prevent scorching and lumping. Simmer an additional 3 minutes to cook the starch fully, remove from the heat, and stir in the cold butter and vanilla. Let cool 5 minutes, then transfer to the pie shell. Beat egg whites until they stand in firm but moist peaks, then beat in the sugar. Continue beating until a relatively stiff meringue forms. Spread over filled pie. Sprinkle with remaining sugar.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 5 minutes or until the meringue has browned lightly. Cool and serve.