For years I persisted with mealy pie crust, righteously using all whole wheat pastry flour and vegetable oil in my vegan days. Even after my switch to butter, I didn’t respect cooking technique– my inner-renegade took years to be convinced that what you do to your ingredients matters, and that sometimes recipe writers do know what the hell they’re talking about.
If you are stuck in similarly mealy pie crust doldrums, let me free you, here and now. I won’t say my every pie crust is perfection personified, but I’ve figured some things out and I can share. One renegade to another.
First of all, your pie crust does not need to be 100% whole wheat. Let it go sister, it’s a special occasion when you make a pie, indulge. Regular whole wheat flour is too coarse and strong flavored for pie crust, and whole wheat pastry flour does not have enough gluten, hence the mealy nature. You need some gluten to make flakes. Using 1/3 white flour solves the problem and not in a (sigh) compromise kind of way. You can make a wonderfully flaky crust if you follow the directions, and you won’t know or care that it’s still 2/3 wheat flour.
This has been said before, in fact I was encouraged into this post by the recent discovery of Smitten Kitchen’s Pie Crust 102. Good tutorial. I don’t want to rewrite all that. I’m just here to say, DO IT! KEEP THAT BUTTER COLD! NO, REALLY!
The other thing not to gloss over is the size of the butter chunks. Sure Joy of Cooking told me to leave some pieces as big as peas, but I didn’t believe them. It would look so horrifyingly irregular. I sought to tame my butter into even and homogenously tiny pieces. DON’T DO THAT!
I have learned my lesson. Nowadays when I go to add the water, my flour and butter conglomeration looks like hell. It’s perfect. I don’t use a pastry cutter, which cuts the butter and leaves you ball shaped pieces. I hear that works for plenty of people, but I find it easier and more effective to use my fingers to squish the butter into flakes. Flakes make flakes. When the lot looks like someone scraped the paint off of an old house, stop. Of course, your fingers are warm. You have to work quickly. I do a preliminary very quick squish, then chill the whole thing down in the fridge or freezer while I prepare the filling.
Then I continue the squishing until all the butter is ‘flaked,’ add the ice water and roll it out straight away. I know you’re supposed to chill the dough back down again first, and maybe that will be my next revelation, and my pie crust will achieve even more amazing flaky perfection. But for now, rolling it out right off means I can decide to make pie while I’m cooking dinner and we can be eating it after the kids go to bed. And there’s something to be said for that.
Calamity’s Perfect/Imperfect Flaky Whole Wheat Pie Crust
makes enough for two singles or one generous double cruster
- 1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
- 3/4 cup white bread flour (if all you have is all-purpose, it will be fine, just a bit less flaky)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2-3 Tablespoons oil (I don’t measure, just drizzle)
- 8 Tablespoons cold butter
- ice water
Whisk the flours and salt together. If by some chance you are thinking well ahead, stick the bowl in the fridge or freezer to chill it down first.
Drizzle in the oil and stir/mash thoroughly with a fork. Even though I’ve converted to butter, I still like a little oil. I feel like it keeps the crust tender.
Cut the butter into 1/2 inch cubes, and dump into the flour. Use a fork to break it up and coat each cube with flour. Working quickly, squish each cube with your fingers. Not all the way, just a first run. Then pop the lot in the freezer while you prepare your filling. If it’s going to be awhile, put it in the fridge instead. You don’t want the butter to actually freeze, just get very cold.
Fill a cup with ice and water. I’m not going to give you a measurement, because I have found it to be wildly irregular. I noticed in Smitten’s recipe that she called for 1/2-3/4 cup of water (I also noticed she called for 2 sticks of butter!). My mom’s recipe called for a mere 1/4 cup.
When the filling is ready, take your bowl of flour and butter back out and continue the squishing process. You want to create big flakes of butter. Don’t over-process!
When it looks like this, start drizzling the water in. Fold and press gently with a spatula until all the flour has been incorporated. Be very careful not to add too much water, feel the dough periodically with your fingers. If the dough is very cold I’ve noticed it can look firmer than it feels. You don’t want it to get mushy, but if it does, a few hours in the fridge will probably firm it up.
Once the dough has mostly come together, turn it out onto the floured counter. Gather up the stray bits and give it a few fold-and -presses to make it cohere. Don’t overwork, it will still be a bit shaggy and that’s okay. Cut it into two even pieces for single crust pies, or two slightly different for double crust pie. If the latter, roll out the bigger one first, it will be your bottom.
Use plenty of flour to roll, white flour works much better for this. Smitten has another good tutorial on rolling and crimping if you’re new to this pie making business.
I hardly ever use an egg wash. I like the matte look of plain crust, but I do sometimes brush the top with water and sprinkle on coarse sugar. And I have been known to roll out the scraps and cut them into leaves (willow leaves are easy as pie to cut with nothing fancier than a butter knife). But it’s hard for me to pass on what my mom always did with the dough scraps which is: roll out, cover with sugar and cinnamon, roll up into a log and bake for 15 minutes. I guarantee you’ll feel like a giddy kid again.
Now, since it’s Thanksgiving and all, here’s my tweak to the omnipresent Libby’s pumpkin pie recipe. I like it just a bit pumpkiny-er.
CJ’s More Punkiny Pie
makes enough for two pies
- 3- 15oz cans solid pack pumpkin, not the pie filling stuff!
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon each cloves and nutmeg
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1- 15oz can evaporated milk (this year I’m going to try half and half instead)
Mix it up baby, and shlop it into that perfect crust! Sadly, a single crust pie is not a good way to show off your newfound flaky skills. But maybe everyone will actually eat the crimped edges this year, instead of quietly scraping them into the trash when you’re not looking.