Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Way Of The Crust (Or: Make Up Your Mind!)

If there's one thing I know about myself as a baker it's that when I find a recipe I like, I stick with it. My goal is consistency: consistency of taste, of smell, of texture and most of all, consistency of enjoyment. Whatever dish I make, it has to be at least as good as the last time I made it so that my guests, or whomever is eating it, get the most pleasure out of the experience as possible. That's why I've used the same pie crust recipe for over twenty years now. Sure, I've refined it and made adjustments in my technique but it's still the same butter and shortening base I found over two decades ago.

A temporal side note: I get a kick out of using phrases such as "over two decades ago". It makes me sound like I've actually got some historical legitimacy to what I bake. But to be honest, I've just baked as the situation required. It's only now, with the advent of this blog, that I've taken to analyzing my process. In writing this blog, I pull from the past to talk about the present and then plan the future...which makes me see and experience the past in completely new ways. There. That ought to give my big sister, Karla, a fit or two. She's not overly fond of time travel stories. (*wink*)

Temporal side note ends.

My procurement of Handheld Pies lit up  a couple of light bulbs in my baking brain. Not quite like this...but very close. Okay. Not like that at all. What the recipes and the stories in the book got me to thinking about was my crust recipe. The authors are big proponents of using lard in their crusts. True, they use butter and cream cheese as well, but they despise shortening. My standard crust is a butter/shortening combination, so such a disdainful opinion of my old friend Mr. Crisco took me aback! Outrageous! How dare they besmirch the integrity...huffupuffgrumblesnarf! My indignation lasted all of ten seconds because I remember having desserts baked with lard, french fries made with beef tallow, and all manner of other foods cooked in, or prepared with, animal fats. I remembered how good those dishes tasted (seriously, there's nothing quite like homemade french fries cooked in leftover bacon grease). With those memories wringing out my salivary glands, I decided to forgive the shortening slight and give their recipe a try.

The first thing I had to do was locate a source of lard. Over the last four decades or so, lard has gotten a bad rap, despite it's long and storied history of adding great taste and texture to foods. Various and sundry vegetable oils took its place because they were supposedly more healthy. Butter suffered in the same way, being supplanted in most American homes by margarine and "spreads", which neither taste as good, nor cook up as well, as the real thing. There are more and more studies which say that butter is actually better for us than margarine. The jury is still out on lard, although it is experiencing a resurgence in some corners. I just needed to figure out if my corner of the baking world was going to be one of them. Lard isn't sold in grocery stores in NYC and I didn't fancy buying pig fat and rendering it into lard myself. There are on-line sources but I really wanted to find someone local I could trust to have a good quality supply.

Enter Schaller & Weber, a great butcher shop on 2nd Avenue at 86th Street, just a hop, skip and jump away from our apartment! They've been in business for almost a century and I figured if anyone in the city would have lard, they would. I was right and for three dollars and change per pound, the price was right. Not only that but it's truly a great store to wander through. It's not very big but it's jam-packed with some of the coolest stuff – from European cookies to award-winning sausages to interesting condiments. Schaller & Weber is one of my new favorite places to shop.

So. Now that I had what I needed, I was ready to start The Great Pie Crust Battle! Said battle would be between my classic crust ("A"), a one hundred percent lard crust ("B") and a fifty-fifty butter/lard crust ("C"). I figured I'd make enough of each type to send batches to my father, some friends in Salem, MA and have enough left over for testing here. That, of course meant making a lot of pie dough. And prepping a lot of apples for filling. A challenge that would daunt a less dauntless baker than I! Fortunately for me, I have strong hands and a couple of sharp knives. Yes, I know that my goal is to create my version of the Hostess cherry pie but cherry season was months away when I started this project and store-bought frozen cherries are pretty bad. Apples would have to stand in.

Assembling the different test batches wasn't difficult; I just used the copper cutter on the dough, plopped a dollop of apples (yes, a dollop) on one half.

I just like using the word "dollop"!
Then I folded the other half of the dough over the dollop, sealed it (this time with a fork because my crimper skills are woeful at best) and poked vent holes in the top.

Sealed and vented
One thing I learned when rolling, cutting and folding each of the different doughs was that the all-lard crust behaved much better than the other two. It rolled out better and sealed easier (without use of any liquid along the edges). That in and of itself was almost enough to make me decide to adopt it as my new standard! Almost. I wouldn't be able to make that decision until after I'd baked all the little pies and sent them to my designated testers.

Oooo! Little pies!
The total number of pies I made for testing turned out to be forty-two. I sent three batches of eight to my father in Florida, three batches of two to my friends, the Landsmans, in Salem, MA, and kept three batches of four here for me and Michele, and as it turned out, two friends visiting from Seattle (thanks Sandra and Jeff). Everyone here chose "B," the lard crust, as the tastiest and best texture and consistency. The crusts held together better and yet retained an exceptional flakiness throughout the devouring experience. "A", the butter/Crisco recipe pies was more crumbly than flaky. And "C", butter + lard, was good, but not as tasty as "B".

My father actually took the samples I sent him on a tour of northern Florida. (They held up surprisingly well for having spent time in the U.S. Postal system as well as traveling with him from town to town.) He shared some his sisters who live near him in Lynn Haven, took some to the ancestral home in Blountstown to share with family there, jaunted around to Tallahassee and got the opinion of his older brother and finally back to Lynn Haven. Overwhelmingly, "B" was the favorite, although there were a few of votes for "C" and one for "A".

Joe and Jan in Salem also picked "B" as the best tasting but "C" was close behind. It's always good to get opinions from transplanted New Yorkers, in my opinion. ("All yummy, anyway...")

Overall, I liked working with the lard crust more than I did my standard crust. It just handled better on all fronts. I think I've got a new go-to recipe (which I'll spend another twenty years perfecting). That's not to say I won't use the old recipe for some things but I think I'm ready to decommission it – which means I'll post it here in the near future.

An epiphany : I noticed that baking with the lard added something familiar that I couldn't quite identify, something that feather-touched the edges of my memory. It wasn't until I'd made a few batches of  the "B" test that it came to me: it was a "homey" smell that I used to associate with my Granma's (my father's mother) kitchen. That little kitchen in that small town in the panhandle of Florida had some of the most wonderful smells ever, and lard was one of the components of that mouth-watering aroma. Baking these pies brought a bit of that to my little kitchen on the upper east side of Manhattan. It felt great to be able to make that connection.

End epiphany

Currently listening to: Amanda Ghost - Silver Lining



  1. And now I need to watch Despicable Me again.

    1. We'll do that soon, honey. Maybe with some lemon ginger ice cream and cherry pie (hurry up cherry season)!