The Great (and not so great) Crust Experiments

Pie Crust CookiesOne of my favorite childhood memories is that of patting remnants of my mother’s pie-crust dough into a ball, gently rolling it the same way my mother rolled her crust, cutting the thin dough into strips with a pastry cutter, sprinkling on pinches of sugar and cinnamon and, finally, watching as my mother slid my pie-crust “cookies” into the oven, next to her beautiful pie.

Waiting was the difficult part. When they were finally out of the oven, (5 minutes is forever when you’re young), I was my own “test kitchen”. With the help of an ice-cold glass of milk, I gave the final verdict – “thin enough, tender like your crust and flaky”, or, “like rubber and they don’t melt in my mouth” – indicating how “lightly”, or not, I’d handled the dough.

As wonderful as my mother’s pie fillings were, whether apple, pumpkin or lemon meringue – the only “foods” she made from “scratch” – it was her pie crust, the recipe passed down by her mother, that everyone praised. My paternal grandmother, no slouch when it came to turning out a great pie, allowed ONLY my mother’s pies at the Thanksgiving and Christmas family dinners.

Over the years, I continued to use my mother’s recipes for my own family, my pies indistinguishable from hers. While researching nutrition a half-dozen years ago, developing a dietary plan for our son who has Autism, I ran across an article written by Sally Fallon, President of Weston A. Price Foundation and co-author of “Nourishing Traditions”, that described “traditional” food, especially the “right type” of fat, as being the healthiest and best for brain and neurological development. After spending a good number of months checking out Fallon’s sources and studies, I had to concede that corn or canola oil, the primary fat in my grandmother and mother’s pie crust recipe, did not qualify as “traditional”, or healthy.

Corn Oil Quote

In the beginning, I felt I was “losing” a connection, a tie to family traditions if I didn’t continue making the same pie crust. We didn’t have many traditions to begin with, and I didn’t want to lose the little bit we had. But, the more I studied and read the importance of maintaining a healthy ratio of Omega 6:Omega 3 oils in the 2:1 range (corn oil and canola are anywhere from 40:1 to 60:1), the easier it was to move on to other recipes, not looking back once I realized my grandmother and mother had fallen prey to modern notions, unknowingly, compromising everyone’s health.

I looked back, beyond my grandmother, great-grandmother and even great-great-grandmother, gathering ideas from a wide-variety of cultures researching doughs for making crusts, holding sweet or savory ingredients, to complement varied flavors and foods. Here’s a recap of ones we have tried:

  • Sour cream, cream cheese and yogurt-based “crusts” – more like pastries – used for Indian samosas, Mexican empanadas, and Irish-style meat/hand-pies, baked or deep-fried, and even in some cases, used to wrap whole-fruit, such as apple dumplings. We’ve yet to meet a crust in this category, that we didn’t like, but they’re useless for a pumpkin pie.
  • Coconut oil, a saturated healthy fat, was successful for cakes and muffins, unsuccessful for pie crust, given my husband’s sensitive palette – its flavor too overwhelming.
  • Nut crusts – pulverized nuts of your choice – almond, walnut, pecan, macadamia or pistachio – are “glued” together with sugar and butter (what’s not to love), but have limited applications, better for cream-based pies such as banana, coconut or chocolate cream fillings.
  • Lard has a deep, intense, rich flavor, not a favorite for fruit pies, but certainly tasty for meat-based hand-pies. It is difficult to find in an organic, non-hydrogenated form.
  • Baking Powder Crusts are similar in taste to baking-powder biscuits, but with a crust-like texture, wonderful for savory dishes like my Greek Garlic Tomato Tart.
  • French Pate Brisee (paht bree-ZAY) is my all-time favorite crust, wonderful for fruit pies, like my Sour Cream Apple Pie or savory quiches – flaky, delicate, easy to work with, as long as you use a gentle touch, and ice cold butter and cream.

My goal in the next few weeks, is to gather together the “great” crust recipes we’ve tried, in all of the above categories. I can’t wait until all my favorite recipes are converted to my blog! Now it’s time to dig through my dozen or so 3-ring binders holding my recipe notes…….