I grew up on the first official organic farm in America. One of my earliest memories is baking pies with my mother. It wasn’t so much the pies I loved as it was the chance to work with her—Mom would give me a tiny bottle top so I could cut out “buttons” from any scraps of dough. They would come out of the oven all hot and flaky, and the hardest part was waiting until they were cool enough to devour. We didn’t eat too many desserts in our house (my grandfather wrote a book called Sugar and the Criminal Mind—go figure!). But when we had too much fruit on the trees, we would bake pies. While my mother encouraged me to be creative and to substitute ingredients in recipes according to my own tastes, when it came to pastry, she was a stickler for tradition. She insisted pies had to be made with lard.
By the time I was old enough to pay more attention to the art of pie dough, my mother had stopped baking. So as a grown-up I had to learn again on my own. To be honest, I’m more of a freewheeling cook than a fussy baker—I like to improvise, which doesn’t suit baking at all. But I wanted to nail pie dough from scratch because it was hard to find a ready-made organic version.
It took me a while to figure it out. At first I followed all the recipes, gourmet and otherwise, but for me they were all too finicky and way too hard. Many recipes required several bouts of resting and chilling in the fridge (who has the time?) and some even called for grated frozen butter to avoid overworking the dough, which leads to a tough crust. And yet my pies still didn’t come up nice and flaky even after all the effort. But then I learned the coolest secret that turned piecrust into the easiest thing you could imagine.
But then I learned the coolest secret.
The solution came from a friend, Haika Powell, who owned a local organic bakery. She used to make these incredible toaster tarts, which were really just thin rectangles of pie dough with fillings, and the dough’s perfect flakiness rivaled even my mom’s. When I asked Haika for her secret, her answer astounded me. Forget using chilled butter, she told me. Work with softened, room-temperature butter, and then chill the dough. This went against everything I’d ever heard about making piecrust—so of course I had to try it. (I just love a rule-breaker.) The technique was a revelation and made perfect sense. Cookbooks and pastry chefs alike all tell you the more you work dough, the less flaky it is. But by quickly pinching lovely soft nubbins of butter and lard into the flour between your fingertips, you can mix the ingredients in no time. A quick chill at this point before adding water and bringing the dough together will result in melt-in-your-mouth pastry. Ever since, I’ve never been afraid to make a pie dough with minimal fuss. (Plus, my youngest daughter now makes the pie buttons just like I did with my mother...and we still can’t wait for them to cool before eating them.)
I have adapted the technique for my book Scratch, because everyone should know how easy it really is to make pie. (You can find 200+ fun, foolproof recipes just like these in Scratch; here's how to order!)