Homemade pie fillings prove easy. Crust not so much. Practice makes perfect. With every pie, our skills improve. It’s an acquired art to turn out flaky, beautiful crust. My mother regularly reminds us of her early crust adventures, many of which ended in the garbage can. No worries, she says, the crust ingredients cost far less than the filling.
So, when time allows, we practice making pie crust hearing her voice remind us to use a gentle hand when gathering the moist dough into a ball and later when rolling it out. Mom always uses a floured rolling cloth on the board and on the rolling pin. These days, I prefer to roll between two sheets of floured wax paper. We factor in plenty of time to refrigerate the dough so it’s at the perfect stage for easy rolling. The chilly rest also helps prevent shrinkage in the oven.
I’ve been using the same pie dough recipe for years now. I like the flakiness I get from vegetable shortening and the flavor of butter, so I use some of each fat. A bit of salt in the crust helps balance sweet fillings. The dough can be made in a few days in advance. Soften it at room temperature until pliable enough to roll, but not so soft that it sticks to your work surface.
Of course, when pressed for time, I substitute store-bought frozen crusts. Any freshly baked pie, with or without a homemade crust, is better than most store-bought versions.
Double-crust fruit pies challenge us to get the thickener amount just right so the pie is not soupy when cut. I’m a huge fan of instant tapioca in most fruit pies because it thickens the juices without adding flavor or a cloudy appearance. In general, I use one tablespoon instant tapioca for every two cups cutup raw fruit.
Pretty, lattice-topped pies have the added benefit of allowing more fruit juice evaporation while the pie bakes. Precooking the fruit for any pie helps ensure that the thickener is cooked through; I especially employ this technique when working with cornstarch or flour-thickened pie fillings. This also allows the cook to work in advance — a bonus around the busy holiday season.
We are loving the combination of juicy, sweet Bartlett pears with tart cranberries for a gorgeous pie with hues of pink; a few crisp apples and chewy dried cranberries contribute contrasting textures. Feel free to skip the lattice work and simply add a top crust; pierce the top crust in several places with a fork to allow steam to escape. For added flavor and texture, I brush the top crust with cream and sprinkle it generously with coarse sugar before baking.