Easy As Pie: Master The Art Of The Perfect Crust

Nov 27, 2013
Originally published on November 21, 2015 11:50 pm

Those of us slaving over pecan and pumpkin pies ahead of Thanksgiving already know that pie-making season is decidedly in full swing. And on a segment for Morning Edition airing Thursday, host David Greene and I discuss the best advice for pie-making newbies. Really, it comes down to this:

Baking is not like cooking a stew or soup. Bakers can't take as many liberties — adding a pinch of this or that.

Baking requires more precision. And perhaps it's a pursuit better suited for the rule-followers of the world, who are happy to simply follow the recipe. (Hint: Save all your creative instincts for the filling.)

Last year, I visited the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., for a hands-on lesson in perfect pie crusts from George Higgins, a professor of baking and pastry arts. (An encore presentation of that story airs on Morning Edition Thursday.) Higgins says great crust boils down to 3:2:1 — that's three parts flour, two parts fat and one part liquid. If you follow Higgins' 3-2-1 recipe (we outline it in five slides above) you'll be golden. And so will your pie.

So good luck — but more importantly, have fun.

As my mom, Barbara Aubrey, reminds us in my story: "Nothing says 'home sweet home' more than a homemade pie." Truly, it's a labor of love.

But if you're still hankering to get experimental with your pies, try swapping out the flour in your crust. My daughter Lilly and I made a pumpkin pie last Sunday using a recipe for a walnut crust, replacing the flour with ground walnuts. I was inspired by the spate of studies suggesting benefits of the Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oils and nuts.

There are lots of recipes out there. I found mine in a print issue of Cooking Light. It called for 2 1/2 cups of walnuts, 2 tablespoons of butter, 1 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Beware: This crust is more fragile than a traditional crust. It's nutty and rich as a bottom crust, so we loved the taste. But the aesthetics leave something to be desired. The top layer becomes more of a crumble.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm David Greene. This is the time of year when butter and sugar are flying off store shelves and everyone's rummaging in cupboards for baking pans and cooling racks. Cookies, brownies, or if you are really on your game, pie. Thanksgiving is the day for it, but pie from scratch is a challenge that I'm not taking on. But it is one that NPR's Allison Aubrey conquered a couple summers ago.

She took a Pastry 101 class at the Culinary Institute of America. In this encore broadcast we'll hear Allison tackle pie dough. This of this as our gift of moral support to all of you home cooks out there who are working hard this morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: When it comes to making pie, I'm part of the lost generation. My grandmother and great-grandmother and probably her mom before that were all fabulous bakers. But then came my mom. She's of the generation that liberated themselves a bit from the kitchen. She had a career. And recently she told me that the one and only time she tried to make a pie crust on her own, it was disastrous.

BARBARA AUBREY: It wouldn't roll right. It just crumbled. It wouldn't come together. It wouldn't go in the pie plate. So I gave up. And your dad came home, and there was no apple pie. He was just so sad.

AUBREY: And she asks me whether it's different for me.

AUBREY: Since you've been married, have you ever made a pie crust?

AUBREY: I tried one time, and I don't think it worked out so well.

AUBREY: So you gave up.


AUBREY: We're not very persevering when it comes to pie crusts.

AUBREY: Now, making a pie crust can't be that difficult, right? But the truth is, I'm scared. So when I decided to face this fear, I wanted to do it the right way. I hopped on a train and headed to the nation's premiere cooking school, the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.


AUBREY: It's a beautiful, leafy campus - an old monastery, actually - overlooking the Hudson River. And I get the feeling that some great things happen here. Inside the classroom we meet Chef George Higgins.

GEORGE HIGGINS: Good morning.


HIGGINS: How you all doing today? Good.

AUBREY: This guy's been making pastries for decades.

HIGGINS: Today we're going to devote the entire day to making pie.

AUBREY: Excellent. That's what I'm looking for.

There are about 12 other students in the class with me. We all wear chef's whites and tokes, those tall white hats. Most of them are in their 20s, and though they're dressed like pros, they look small and scared in this vast classroom. It's like 40 times the size of a home kitchen, and I feel their angst too. Higgins is an imposing figure, but he tells us really this should be simple.

HIGGINS: It starts with something called three-two-one pie dough, three-two-one. That's the basic recipe for pie dough.

AUBREY: OK. Got it. This is the magic formula: three parts flour, two parts fat, one part liquid. Stick to this, he says. Be very exacting.

HIGGINS: And it's not like making soup, where you add a little of this or add a little of that. Bakers measure that precisely.

AUBREY: So now it's time for me to give it a try. I cut big chunks of firm butter and squeeze them into the flour.

HIGGINS: OK. So you're all flaked in.


HIGGINS: When you're done with flaky pie dough, it's supposed to look like flour with large visible chunks and flakes of fat in it.

AUBREY: OK. This is easier than I thought. Now I add the water and start working the dough. I think I'm really getting it. I'm massaging the dough. It's actually kind of fun. But then Chef Higgins peers over my shoulder.

HIGGINS: Try not to knead flour into it.

AUBREY: Oh, because I was thinking that the kneading is, like, sort of the cathartic part. It kind of like...

HIGGINS: When you make bread, it is.


HIGGINS: When you make pie dough...

AUBREY: Don't do it.

HIGGINS: ...you're going to stress me out. And there'll be nothing cathartic about it.

AUBREY: He makes me go back and start over. He says I have ruined the dough.

HIGGINS: I'm going to come right back, and we're going to do this the correct way.

AUBREY: Yikes.

Turns out the less you handle the dough, the better.

HIGGINS: Somebody bring that rolling rack over here.

AUBREY: My next try is more successful, and as I start to roll out the dough, I began chit-chatting, feeling a little comfortable. But Higgins tells me to pay attention, get back on track.

HIGGINS: Here. Who's the boss of the dough?


HIGGINS: You are. That's right. So here, make a circle.

AUBREY: OK. All right.

HIGGINS: We know you know what a circle looks like.

AUBREY: Yes, I know what a circle looks like.


AUBREY: I'm just having a hard time...

HIGGINS: And there you go.

AUBREY: ...rolling it up.

HIGGINS: You just form it, manipulate it.

AUBREY: My dough looks like the state of Texas. It's thick at one end, stretched out on the other. But eventually I get it.

HIGGINS: Oh my God. All of a sudden she became like a master of - yeah.

AUBREY: I am getting better at this.

Actually, it's not a perfect circle, but it's good enough. I get the dough in the pan. And it's at this moment, as I start to pour the blueberry filling into the crust, that the muscles in my shoulders begin to relax.

My anxiety level is so far down now. Now that I've got this blueberry in the pie, I'm thinking...

HIGGINS: There's nothing to be anxious about. I listen to NPR every day, and I can't sleep at night because - because of the world I live in. But blueberry pie, that's nothing but joy. It's time to bake this pie.

AUBREY: When we get the pie in the oven, Higgins tells me his story is a lot like mine. He didn't grow up baking much because his mom didn't. The homemade pies in his house came from his grandmother.

HIGGINS: I make very good professional pie. But I don't think once ever it rivaled what my grandmothers did. There's something that grandmothers have been given by the forces of the universe.

AUBREY: There's a secret...

HIGGINS: Yeah, there's something, yeah, a power or force greater than I that gives grandmothers special abilities.

AUBREY: And all of that got me thinking: Food is about memories, right? I mean, cakes are for parties or birthdays. But pie, pie is about home. It's about being taken care of or coming together at the table. And making a pie is quite literally a labor of love.

HIGGINS: Allison? Your pie is ready.

AUBREY: Alright, this is the moment. We pull it out of the oven. It smells fabulous, right?

HIGGINS: Smells fabulous, in my estimation it looks fabulous.

AUBREY: Even before slicing it, it's safe to say that I did not fail Pie Making 101.

HIGGINS: Oh no, you did not fail. You did an excellent job. Yeah.

AUBREY: Even if the blueberry juice is baked over the top a little and the crimping looks kind of like a Play-Doh project, well, never mind. Now, I get to taste it.

Mmm. Wow.


AUBREY: I almost want to cry.


AUBREY: That is so good.

HIGGINS: It is so good and it's so simple. Congratulations.


AUBREY: After everyone took a taste, Higgins wrapped the rest of the pie in a nice white pastry box and tied it with twine. And I had to take one piece home to my mom to let her try.

AUBREY: Mm. Good job, Allie.


AUBREY: Thank you. So you approve?

AUBREY: I approve.


AUBREY: That's my daughter, who's almost two, babbling in the background, which means my mom is the grandmother now. And she says now that she's got the time, maybe she'll give pie-making another try.

AUBREY: When you see a homemade pie sitting on the counter, it does - it just says home sweet home.


GREENE: And Allison Aubrey actually joins us in our studios now. Without a pie, I'm sorry to say.


GREENE: But Allison, you first reported that story last year.

AUBREY: Last summer.

GREENE: Last summer.

AUBREY: Uh-huh, that's right.

GREENE: Are you over your fear now? Are you making pie regularly?

AUBREY: You know, it's a lot easier now. And Lilly, who you just heard...

GREENE: Your daughter.

AUBREY: Yeah, she's taken an interest. Last Sunday we made a pumpkin pie. And though it probably ended up with a tablespoon of salt rather than a teaspoon, since she was...

GREENE: So your mistakes are her mistakes.


AUBREY: Easy to put it on her, right? It's really become a fun thing to do with her.

GREENE: And will pies be part of your holiday? Are you baking different versions?

AUBREY: So last Sunday we baked this pumpkin pie. And I've been inspired by all the studies on the Mediterranean diet suggesting that nuts and olive oil might be better for us than the animal fats. So last Sunday we made a crust using walnuts. So I basically made my own walnut flour and it turned out really nicely. The top doesn't look so beautiful, it sort of turns out more like a crisp or a crumble. But hey, it's got that nutty taste.

GREENE: I feel like you're advanced pie-making, using walnuts and...


AUBREY: I could teach the class now, right?

GREENE: Allison, have a wonderful holiday.

AUBREY: You too, take care.


GREENE: Thanks for spending the holiday on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.