Q. My father, who is on a low-fat, 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 on top of that, 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 and 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 flour particles and prevents the absorption of water by flour proteins.
Here's a recipe that should 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- to 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 a mixing bowl. Using a wooden spoon or your fingers, briefly mix the mixture 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 (inducing 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 or sesame seed paste -- available in the specialty aisle of just about all supermarkets -- will go a long way toward improving the flavor of this dough.
Reader Input on Freezing Stews
The Feb. 26 column regarding the thinning of stews after freezing and thawing stimulated some reader suggestions:
Freeze the stews unthickened. Then, as you reheat the stew before serving, add cornstarch mixed with a little cold water and bring to a boil. This, by the way, is called the whitewash-thickening method. First, you estimate how much water is in your stew. It's a safe guess that most stews are at least half water that needs thickening (as opposed to water within the meat and vegtables pieces; it wouldn't need thickening). Then, you roughly measure out 1 tablespoon of starch per cup of that water. A 2-cup batch of stew would therefore need about 1 tablespoon of starch. You must suspend the starch in a cold liquid such as a stew liquid or in a little extra water (or even wine). Finally, stir the starch-cold liquid slurry into the boiling stew. Within two minutes, the stew will thicken and, after 2 or 3 minutes of additional simmering to rid it of the starch taste, it is ready to serve.
Add cracker crumbs to the stew as it reheats. This is a very old-fashioned thing to do and may seem quite foreign to our current tastes. But the fact is, stews were thickened with breadcrumbs, cracker crumbs and pieces of bread for hundreds of years before starch was available or roux (flour cooked in butter or oil) had been invented.
I should also add that the high-meat, starch-thickened stew is really quite contemporary. Stews of the past relied on legumes and vegetables for thickness. Cassoulet, a bean stew, is one example. Vegetables and legumes contain sufficient starch and fiber to do an excellent job of thickening. And their thickeners won't retrograde as does roux or cornstarch when the stew is thawed.