Food & Drink

A peach of a pie crust

What could be better than the first great peach crop in two years?

A great peach pie, of course.

And this time, it involves making the most fascinating pie crust I've encountered. A pie crust so easy to handle, Cook's Illustrated magazine calls it “Foolproof Pie Dough.”

I know, I know: You're afraid of dough. And pie crust dough is so frustrating. It can be finicky. You can make it carefully and still end up with something that tears, or sticks to the rolling pin and work surface, or looks fine but chews like stale cookies.

Right now, you're probably rolling your eyes and reaching for the refrigerated pie crust.

You can do that if you want. With this year's peach crop – last year's was wiped out by spring freeze and summer drought – anything that gets peach pie back in your life is worth considering. I've bought plenty of the pie crusts in the red box, too.

But this pie crust is different. I wish I could give credit to the person who invented it, but I tear pages from magazines and stick them in my recipes-to-try folder. In this case, all I had was the second page of an article, torn from the November/December 2007 issue, that described the final stages of figuring it out.

Cook's Illustrated is known for exhaustive recipe testing. In this case, the writer admitted to making 148 pie crusts to come up with this. All I can do is bow in thanks.

Two weeks ago at a farmer's market, I spotted the first crop of S.C. clingstone peaches. It was early in the season, but I was so happy to see their blushing faces, I bought a bag. To tease me about buying hard peaches, the friend I was shopping with tapped one on the roof of the car while we were loading our bags.

“These will get cooked,” he said, smirking. (That's what I get for shopping with a culinary student.)

True, I said. Peach pie, it is.

Digging through my recipe file, I came across the folded page, tucked away months ago. And I paused to wonder why there was a picture of a bottle of vodka.

Here's why (hang on, it's science): To make a flaky pie crust, you coat butter with flour. But if too much flour gets mixed with butter, you develop too much gluten, the tough strands of protein that hold baked things together.

To make a pie crust that handles easily when you roll it out, you add more water to the flour-butter mix. But too much water also develops gluten, making the crust even tougher.

So this ingenious magazine scientist figured out a two-step process: Mix the fat – in this case, butter and shortening – in a food processor with part of the flour, then mix in more flour that doesn't get coated. That preserves flakiness.

Next, to add more water without adding more water, you mix cold water and cold vodka. Alcohol doesn't allow gluten development. Since vodka is 40 percent ethanol and 60 percent water, you get the effect of adding 8 tablespoons water while fooling the dough into thinking you only added about 6 1/2 tablespoons. The alcohol evaporates in the oven, so the crust doesn't taste like a Bloody Mary.

I made a couple more changes: I used White Lily, a lower-protein flour that's known for tender pie crusts, and I replaced the shortening with lard. Lard makes wonderfully tender crusts and biscuits, and I've been buying a good-quality version made by Grateful Growers Farm in Denver.

The result was one of the best pies I've ever made, with a picture-perfect crust and peaches that baked into plenty of juicy flavor.

Even after refrigerating and rewarming slices in the microwave, it stayed so tender the brown crust was the best part.

Here's the next chapter: Last weekend, I tried again with peaches and blueberries. And I made a classic error: I let the butter get too soft. I knew it, but I was in a hurry. The dough was so soft it was like goop. To mix in the liquid, I had to squish it with my fingers.

I wrapped the dough in wax paper, disgusted with myself, and threw it in the refrigerator. The next day, it was firm enough to roll out, but I didn't have much hope. Still, I had a party to go to; I took a chance.

It worked beautifully. How beautifully? There was a dessert contest at the party. I won first prize.

So, enjoy. Use another pie crust if you prefer. Or make this one the original way, using an all-purpose flour and vegetable shortening. When you're celebrating peaches, it's all good.

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