It’s not what you think. I haven’t been out drinking at the Pine Cone with the locals until 2am. Instead, while my husband has been on a much needed two-day motorcycle ride, I’ve been staying up until the wee hours of the morning widening my culinary horizons, or facing my fears if you like. You see, for many years I’ve had this terrible anxiety of making piecrust, of all things. Believe it or not, I’m not alone. I know many people intimidated by the thought of making their own pie dough from scratch, but I think my own insecurity stems from way back when I was newly married and learning how to cook, before my sweet sister Lisa gifted me with The Joy of Cooking, for my one year wedding anniversary.
My first attempt at making a pie from scratch was for work. It was Thanksgiving season and my office was having a potluck – I was to make the pumpkin pie. As a kid, I grew up watching my mom make pumpkin and cherry pie from scratch with confident ease. Watch mind you, which is not the same as doing. Now I was 25 years old and I’d never even attempted piecrust. So, after obtaining her award-winning pumpkin pie recipe, I got to work with borrowed confidence. Of course everything went wrong. The dough refused to form into a ball, therefore I simply added more water, but when I rolled it out the dough stuck to the counter, so I added more flour, then rolled it out again and again until it was a perfect 9″ round.
As many of you know, all this water and flour and manhandling merely made the crust as hard as cement, which I discovered at the potluck. When I ate my first bite I nearly cracked a tooth. Plus, the pumpkin filling was a bit runny. Sigh. It was not my finest culinary moment. To their credit, my bosses and colleagues never complained, but I noticed many of them had left uneaten pie on their paper plates. All except Dr. Watanabe, who sweetly ate two pieces when he saw my face, as I tossed the plates into the trash. “No! It’s very good.” He said, smiling in that kind way that always made me feel special.
Ever since that one failed attempt and all these years I have been skirting around making piecrusts, sneakily purchasing them in the freezer section at the local supermarket and filling them with my own concoctions. When I began to notice many store-bought pie crusts are made with the dreaded partially-hydrogenated oil, something my husband and I have vowed to cut from our diets, I switched to phyllo dough, but phyllo can’t compare to a tender, crunchy, buttery pie crust.
In truth, it was Julia Child who changed my opinion of making piecrust from scratch. I’m fortunate to have grown up watching J.C. on TV – her curly red bob, happy eyes and big teeth – and that voice! I remember feeling sad when she passed away in 2004 at 91 years of age, but I’d honestly never fully understood how important she was to American cooking, nor did I realize how COOL she was, until I saw the film Julie and Julia. Something about that movie brought back fond childhood memories for me, and filled my heart with a desire to make Sole Dore, much to my husband’s delight, Gruyere cheese puffs for my fellow UCB workers, French chocolate mouse (made with Scharffen Berger chocolate of course), and comforting potato-leek soup.
Years ago, my husband gave me Julia Child’s cookbook – Mastering the Art of French Cooking for my birthday, but it’s not until this past Spring, when I started selling my organic baked goods at the farmer’s market, that I really began using her recipes: Pate Sablee (Sugar Crust) for my lemony Pots of Gold, Pate Brisee (Pie Crust) for my Apple Pie and Pate Brise Sucree (Sweet Short Paste) for my English Tea Cookies. It was her technique for blending the butter and flour with my fingers, NOT my $40 pastry blending tool from Williams-Sonoma, that enlightened me. This hands-on approach, along with the fraisage – or final blending of the butter and flour – has made my piecrust ventures a complete joy. After chilling the dough overnight in the refrigerator, and then allowing it to sit at room temperature for a bit, I pound it with my rolling pin then roll, spin – roll, spin (which eliminates sticking). Then I gently fold and lay the pie dough into the lovely, blue Le Creuset pie dish my mother-in-love gave me. Et voila!
I am so grateful to Julia for her advice: “A pastry blender may be used if you wish, but a necessary part of learning how to cook is to get the feel of the dough in your fingers. Il faut mettre la main a la pate!” Thanks to J.C. I swiftly make piecrusts with genuine confidence and ease, leaving time to do other things…