Most people have a pie history. There’s something about this particular baked good that causes good people to lie and causes otherwise rational people a level of anxiety and frustration that I have not seen with any other item we teach at BAKE!. Students in the Baking Pies a Plenty class will confess to buying a Pillsbury crust and passing it off as their own. Students will say that one time, when the stars and planets aligned, they made the perfect crust…and were never able to recreate it. Most students have a mother, an aunt, or some relative that made the best pie crusts…that were never passed down and could never again be replicated.
I didn’t make a good pie crust until I came to Zingerman’s. Growing up, I used the Joy of Cooking recipe and a food processor. Inevitably, I always added too much water (“1-3 tablespoons more”) and ended up with a soggy blob of dough. I used the Cook’s Illustrated recipe of vodka in place of some of the water, which allows the dough to roll with more ease and less cracking but lets the vodka evaporate in the oven, which prevents the crust from being brittle (which can happen when you add more water than necessary). I tried all the ingredient combinations; ice-cold water, frozen butter, half butter/half Crisco, a teaspoon of vinegar, a tablespoon of granulated sugar, but I never made a crust I was proud of.
How did something so simple take on such tremendous weight? The way we make our pie crusts so delicious at the Bakehouse comes with 4 ingredients and two techniques: Fat, flour, salt, water, alongside “butter raincoats” and fraissage. In our class, we teach one crust with all butter and one crust with half butter and half lard (lard is the “good fat” as it is non-hydrogenated). The technique is the same regardless of the fats you use: With a pastry blender or your hands, cut and rub most of the cold fat into the flour until the flour takes on a yellow-ish appearance and fat is green pea size or smaller. I have to give Sue credit for her ‘butter raincoat’ analogy but it’s so perfect: by working the fat in this way, you are coating each particle of flour with fat, essentially putting a ‘butter raincoat’ on each one. This gives us a tender crust. With the remaining fat, you leave these pieces larger. When you add the water (always the same amount, never 1 tablespoon more or less!) and mix the dough, there is always a moment of panic. Students say, “Are you sure this is right?” They say, “This looks dry.” They say, “I don’t believe this will work.” I promise them it will. It is time for fraissaging! By schmearing dough across the table, the larger pieces of butter hydrate the dough and leave streaks of butter. This is what gives us a flaky crust. The water in the butter turns to steam which helps to lift our layers up. By hydrating with fat and not water, our crust doesn’t shrink in the oven (which happens when water evaporates from a pie crust).
Whenever I teach Baking Pies a Plenty I always start the class by asking people to introduce themselves and share their personal pie history, if they’d like to. The most recent class I taught was a great group and we had a lot of fun and learning—and included an especially touching pie-fessional.
Linda was a first-time student. After the class, I was in the room cleaning up. Linda came up to me and told me a story about how when she was growing up, her mother wouldn’t teach her how to make pies (said Linda made too much of a mess in the kitchen). Linda loved to bake but was always afraid of making pies. Linda said her brother was “the golden child” and when he got married, Linda’s mother taught the brother’s wife to make pies but never Linda, still. The sister/daughter-in-law then started making the pies for all the family gatherings, something which I can tell causes Linda some emotional strife.
As Linda is telling me this story, she starts to cry. She said that she’s never felt like she had the confidence or ability to make pies her whole life and that we’ve given her this gift, this confidence and faith that she was not a mess or a failure when it came to pies. She said she is a nurse and she ‘gives’ all the time and she honestly didn’t have the words to explain what we at BAKE! had given her that morning in class. At this point, I started to get teary myself and gave Linda a big hug.
I believe we all learn from each other all the time at BAKE!. I tell this story not as a testament to the way we make pie crust at Zingerman’s but as a way to show how baking can bring us together and sometimes tear us apart. Every day I value the community of bakers that support one another and appreciate the space that has been created at BAKE! for non-judgmental learning and sharing.
By Sara Molinaro, BAKE! Principal
Photos by Antonis Achilleos