Well, I learned from my father.
He learned from his mother.
When she was cooking at her home, in West Valley,
NY, a little south of Buffalo, she made about one
pie a day. Mostly she made apple pies, but there
were some occasional cherry, etc.
Yes, when my father taught my mother to make pies,
the crust was the hard part.
Long after I learned from my father, I read lots of
descriptions in books, American techniques, French
techniques, etc., and the books mostly didn't do
what my father did.
I think my father's pie crust is good for pie crust,
but it's not puff pastry or some such.
It's not a 'tart' or 'flan'. Instead, it's "as
American as apple pie". It's not what you might
serve at a state dinner or in one of the world's
best restaurants. It is appropriate for someone
that is to make one pie a day, by hand, at home, to
feed their family. It is pragmatic. Still, done
well, it's tough to beat no matter what elaborate
gymnastics are performed.
For the flour, my father just used all-purpose. For
the fat, he used just shortening (Crisco). I did
some trials once, for a cherry pie, with lard, and
found that it can yield a better texture in the
My father used a wooden pastry board, not a marble
working surface, and he didn't wrap the dough and
let it rest, use butter, etc.
Yup, the idea is to get the crust tender and flaky.
Okay, for both of these, the big key is DON'T WORK
THE DOUGH VERY MUCH. So, you are deliberately
leaving small chunks of fat. These little chunks
are what become essentially the individual flakes.
To help with all of this, it helps to keep the dough
cool. It's a little better to have a cool kitchen,
but you don't have wait for a blizzard, throw open
all the doors and windows, and make the crust
standing in snow up to your knees. Actually, I grew
up in Memphis; we had lots of terrific apple pies
there, and the kitchen was never air conditioned.
Start with the Crisco from the refrigerator. When
you add the water, add ice water (without the ice).
And, generally minimize how much your hands contact
the dough. And, work quickly, and roll out the
dough only once. If you make too many mistakes in
the rolling part and have to gather the dough and
roll it out a second time, then the results will be
much less good. The crust will be tougher and less
Now, to mix the fat and flour, don't do very much.
One option is to use a little hand-held 'pastry
blender': This thing has a U-shaped piece of metal
with a wooden handle across the top of the U. The
bottom of the U consists of about 5 parallel crude
blades. So, with this thing, you can mash the flour
and fat and get them mixed together. But, my father
and grandmother thought that such a tool was
over-kill, offered too little control, and risked
over-mixing the fat and flour. So, they liked using
a dinner fork in one hand and a dinner knife in the
other. So, maybe the fork is in the right hand --
it is held upside down from the usual way of holding
a fork. Then the knife and fork just touch at their
sides and form an X in the bowl. Some of the
mixture is against the tines of the fork, and you
pull the knife to the left and, thus, cut some of
the mixture. No, the knife blade doesn't go between
the tines of the fork -- that's too intricate. This
is AMERICAN pie crust, and we are pragmatic! That
is just one blade cutting, no more. Instead of a
knife and fork, it is also good just to use two
Your goal is to get the fat into little pieces about
the size of a pea with flour all around. Each such
pea will become one nice flake. And, yes, there
will be some fat and flour not so neatly deployed --
that's okay. But, when the largest piece of fat is
about the size of a pea, STOP cutting! So, when you
are cutting, you don't just cut randomly or blindly.
Instead, at each cut, your target is the largest
piece of fat not yet cut. That is, once you cut a
piece of fat, the cut surfaces get coated with flour
and then no longer want to stick together, and
partly that's what you want. JUST DON'T CUT MUCH.
And, keep the mixture spread out in the bottom of
the bowl; you are not trying to form it into a ball
yet, and having the mixture spread out lets you
better see and control what is happening. Or, once
some of the mixture is in a large clump, then you
can't see what is in the middle of the clump or get
to it to do things to it.
Then you add the ice water. How much water depends
on the moisture content of your flour, and that
depends on the source of your flour, your kitchen,
the weather, etc. But no matter: You want only
just enough water to get the dough to hold together
To add the water, just dribble it over the flour-fat
mixture. Then use the knife and fork pair again
very gently to spread the wetter spots to the drier
ones. Don't pull the mixture together into a ball
yet because once you have a ball, you can't
distribute anymore water into the mixture. So,
until you are sure you have enough water, keep the
mixture loose in the bottom of the bowl.
When you have in enough water, with the moisture
distributed uniformly enough, use your fork to make
a rough ball; put some flour on your pastry board,
on your hands, and on top of the rough ball, reach
into the bowl, pull the dough together into a ball,
pressing enough to get it to stick together.
It's good to use your hands to squeeze the dough, no
harder than fairly gently, to encourage it to stick
together, but really MINIMIZE this handling.
Put the ball onto the pastry board on the flour.
Put some flour on top of the ball.
Maybe take out a few seconds to wash and dry your
Typically you will divide the dough into two pieces,
one for the top crust and one for the bottom. To
divide the dough, just use your table knife to cut
it. Then, for each of the two pieces, stick half of
the cut wet cut surface to its mirror image on the
other half of that cut wet surface so that all the
surface of the piece is dry with a coating of flour
again. If one piece is a little bigger, then use it
for the bottom crust.
To roll out a piece, take a rolling pin, say, wooden
with a smooth cylinder and where the cylinder rolls
on an axle, and roll the dough into a rough circle.
In this rolling, you may have to (1) add flour to
the pastry board to keep the dough from sticking to
the pastry board, (2) add flour to the top of the
dough to keep it from sticking to the rolling pin,
(3) use a metal spatula with a straight edge to
remove dough stuck to the pastry board, (4) use your
table knife to remove dough stuck to your rolling
pin, (5) use a few drops of water and maybe a
dusting of flour as glue to rejoin torn places in
your dough. That is, you have to use some common
And, before the dough circle gets very big and the
dough gets very thin, you should plan to put some
flour on top of the dough and turn it over. During
the rolling operation, you may turn it over twice,
likely not more than three times. This turning over
is the main way you have to get enough flour between
the dough and the pastry board.
Also, as the dough becomes thinner, the edges want
to crack and split. My solution is to (1) generally
minimize how much rolling and pressing is done on
the edges and (2) occasionally use my hands to push
the edges back toward the center of the circle, thus
reducing the diameter of the circle and making the
edges a little thicker.
For rolling out the dough, (1) look at what you are
doing and see what the dough needs and what it
likely will do, (2) plan ahead a little on the work,
(3) work quickly, (4) practice.
That's my advice for the hard issues.
My father's apple pies were not done with fancy
techniques, but the pies were shockingly good.
He just put the bottom crust into the pie pan --
usually glass. Then on top of the bottom crust in
the pie pan, he arranged the apple slices, sugar,
usually with some flour, and dots of butter. So, he
didn't pre-bake the crust, pre-cook the filling, or
water-proof the crust. He did pile the apples
fairly high in the center. Then, as the pie baked,
the pile fell and the top crust fell and became
wrinkled -- looked plenty good enough and tasted
For an apple pie or other juicy fruit pie, it is
important to get a good seal around the edge between
the top and bottom crust and to crimp the edge and
have it stand as a dam against the juices.
But, with a good crust, the crimped edge will be
nicely flaky and plenty nice to eat.
My experience is that using lard gives a flakier
crust but that handling is more difficult because
heat from hands can more easily cause the lard to
soften and the crust to fall apart.
It's not puff pastry or 'thousand leaves', etc., but
it is 'pie crust', and it's plenty good.
And, yes, a souffle is easier. Of course, if you
want to get the souffle texture just right, smooth,
firm, not like scrambled eggs, then a souffle gets
hard, at least until someone gives you the secrets
there! The many souffle recipes in my cooking
library don't even mention 'texture'.
Uh, for any leftover dough, roll it out, top it with
sinfully generous amounts of sugar, butter, and
cinnamon, bake it, and eat it before others come
Of course, this food is fine if your days are spent
working on a farm, especially in cold weather.
Growing up, my father could eat apple pie as part of
breakfast and then again as part of dinner, one or
both times with sharp chedder cheese. Between the
two, it's good to milk some cows, shovel some snow,
load some hay, repair some fences, chop some fire
wood, break for lunch with some apple cider, etc.