Calculating the Perfect Pie

Be it custard or fruit, mousse or chiffon, a pie is only as good as its crust. Drawing as much passion as it does ire, the art of crafting the perfect pastry is a contentious subject among bakers and eaters alike. Everyone has an opinion about this essential dessert foundation, ranging from the most minimalist approaches inspired by the sage advice of grandmothers the world over, to high-end culinary graduate specifications that require a firm grasp of the scientific intricacies of baking to appreciate. There’s more than one way to go about the circumference of the dough, but there is one important rule that must be obeyed: Never let the hype go to your head.

When you find a solid formula, stick with it. There will always be new suggestions to explore, such as the substitution of vodka instead of water, or coconut oil as the primary fat, but if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

Since Pi Day, March 14th, is right around the corner, now has never been a better time to strengthen your pie making prowess. That all begins with the crust.

What follows is the crust that’s seen me through the stickiest of fillings, the most temperamental of ovens, and the hottest of summers. This “Old Reliable” is a baker’s best friend, capable of standing and delivering anything loaded into it. The ingredients are nothing noteworthy; it’s all a matter of how they’re combined for the magic to happen. Keep everything, including bowls and utensils, as cold as possible so as not to melt the fat. Though a point of contention, I do adhere firmly to the belief that an all-“butter” crust is best. You may lose a little bit of flakiness, but the added flavor and crisp texture is worth that small sacrifice. For a lighter texture, feel free to sub out half of the butter for pure vegetable shortening, and proceed as written otherwise. Do not be tempted to play around with coconut oil or any liquid oils in this one, as the structure simply isn’t built for that kind of tinkering.

Even when I’m planning to make a single-crusted pie, I always use the double-crust proportions, to make the most of my time. The extra disk of dough can be frozen for up to 6 months with no harm, as long as it’s thawed gradually in the fridge before use. That way, you’re always prepared to whip up a pie at a moment’s notice.

Classic Pie Crust
From Easy as Vegan Pie: One-of-a-Kind Sweet and Savory Slices by Hannah Kaminsky

Two Crusts (For a Double-Crust):

2 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
2 Teaspoons Granulated Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
3/4 Cup Vegan Butter, Chilled, Cut into Small Pieces
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
2–4 Tablespoons Ice-Cold Water

OR

Single Crust:

1 1/4 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Granulated Sugar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
6 Tablespoons Vegan Butter, Chilled, Cut into Small Pieces
1 1/2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
1–2 Tablespoons Ice-Cold Water

The easiest, quickest way to make a traditional pie crust is to get a helping hand from your food processor. Some say this approach sacrifices flakiness in favor of convenience, but I don’t believe that any of my pies have suffered as a result. If you have the equipment, my advice is to use it! Place the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of your food processor and pulse to combine. Add the margarine and pulse 6–8 times, until the mixture resembles very coarsely ground almond meal. A few small chunks of margarine should remain visible, but nothing larger than the size of peas. Sprinkle lemon juice and the first tablespoon of water in while pulsing a few times to incorporate. If the dough holds together when squeezed, you’re good to go. If it remains crumbly, keep adding water while pulsing, just a teaspoon at a time, until the dough is cohesive.

In case you don’t have a food processor or just don’t want to clean the darn thing afterward, the old-fashioned method is just as effective, if a bit more labor-intensive. Place the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl and use a pastry cutter or two forks to cut in the pieces of margarine. A few small chunks of margarine should remain visible, but nothing larger than the size of peas. Sprinkle lemon juice and one tablespoon of water into the bowl and stir well with a wide spatula. Sometimes it can be difficult to get the liquids properly incorporated, so it may be helpful to drop the formalities and just get in there to mix with your hands. If the dough holds together when squeezed, you’re set. If it remains crumbly, keep adding water and mixing thoroughly, just a teaspoon at a time, until the dough is cohesive. Do your best not to over-mix or over-handle the dough, as this will make it tough when baked.

If making a double crust, divide the dough into two equal portions. Regardless of how many portions you now have, shape them into rough rounds and flatten them into disks about 1/2 inch in thickness. Wrap each tightly with plastic wrap and stash them in the fridge. Let chill for at least an hour, or up to a week. To save the unbaked dough even longer, store the pieces in your freezer for up to 6 months. (Don’t forget to label them clearly!)

When you’re ready to roll, lightly dust a clean, flat surface with an even coating of flour. Work on one disk of dough at a time, and coat both sides lightly with additional flour. Starting at the center of the disk, use your rolling pin to apply light pressure while rolling outwards to the edges. Try to maintain the round shape as best you can, turning the dough as needed. It may be helpful to periodically lift the dough to ensure that it’s not adhering to the counter. Keep rolling until the dough extends at least 2 inches beyond the size of your pie pan all around.

Carefully transfer the dough to your desired pie pan, and crimp the edges or decorate to your heart’s content. See page 24 of Easy as Vegan Pie for ideas. At the very least, trim away the excess dough so that only 1/2 inch is overhanging the lip of the pan. Tuck the extra dough underneath itself along the edge so that it’s smooth.

For an unbaked crust, you’re done here! Let the crust rest in the fridge while you prepare the filling. To blind-bake, see page 24 of Easy as Vegan Pie for the procedure.

If you’re making pie with a top crust, roll out the second disk of dough in the same fashion as before, reapplying flour to the counter if need. Use cookie cutters to cut out decorative vents before moving the dough, or simply cut six vents with a sharp knife. Gently place the flattened dough onto the filled pie, centering it as best you can. Use kitchen shears or a sharp knife to trim the overhang to an inch. Tuck the excess from the top crust under the edge of the bottom piece of dough, pressing together firmly but gently to seal. Bake according to the recipe for the filling.

Makes 1 or 2 Crusts

*Chocolate Pastry Crust: Reduce the flour to 2 1/3 cups and add 1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder.

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The World is Flat

When it comes to pizza, flatter is simply better. Having been raised on nothing but thin and crispy New York-style crusts, it seems like sacrilege to even consider deviating from that delicious formula. Never has this household seen the likes of deep dish, an abomination of doughy flat bread and vast pools of sauce. Perish the thought! Quite the contrary, the pizzas my dad rolls out for special occasions are so ethereally thin, each slice can sometimes seem like no more than a delicate wafer cracker, brushed with just a whisper of the red stuff. Thus, it’s a scandalous, shameful thing I have done in the name of dough just recently… Forgoing the rolling pin and long waits for the dough to rise, I made a quick and dirty pan pizza.

Lacking the grace of a paper-thin pie, it however makes up for this shortcoming in ease of preparation. Practically instant, there’s no down time waiting for the dough to rise, and you can go from zero to dinner in just about 30 minutes. Pleasantly chewy and sturdy enough to support whatever toppings are piled on, I think there’s room in my heart for this thicker, heftier crust, too.

Inspired by Vegalicious, I found the idea of a super-speedy white sauce completely irresistible, and with a container of plain, unsweetened soy yogurt sitting patiently in the fridge, it was clearly meant to be. Laughably simple yet complex in flavor, it’s subtly cheesy, almost gooey, and all too perfect to keep to myself. Who needs tomatoes on pizza anyway? You’ll forget all about that red spread with this gem of a sauce.

White Pan Pizza with Mushrooms

Pizza Crust:

1/4 Cup Oil, Divided

1 Cup Warm Water
2 Teaspoons Instant Yeast, or 1 1/4-Ounce Package Rapid Rise Yeast
2 1/2 Cups All Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Granulated Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon Salt

White Sauce:

3/4 Cup Unsweetened Plain Soy Yogurt
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
1 Tablespoon Dried Parsley
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Mustard Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
Tiny Pinch Ground Nutmeg

1/2 Pound Button Mushrooms
1/4 Pound Shiitake Mushrooms

Fresh Parsley or Basil

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees, and use 1 tablespoon in each of 2 9-inch round cake pans. Set aside.

Place all of the ingredients for the crust into your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or food processor, and start on a low speed or pulse to combine. Once everything is more or less incorporated, allow the machine to run and “knead” the dough for about 5 minutes. Allow the dough to rest for 15 minutes while you prepare the sauce and toppings.

In a medium bowl, stir together the soy yogurt and spices so that you have a smooth, homogeneous mixture. Slice the mushrooms and chop your herbs, and then set both aside.

Pull the dough out of the machine, and cut it into two equal pieces. Roll them briefly between the counter and your hands to round out the lumps, and then place one in each of the oiled cake pans. Use your finger tips to smooth the crusts into the bottom of the pans, so that they’re evenly covering the entire bottom. If the dough resists and pulls back, just leave it alone for 5 or 10 minutes and then try shaping it again. Brush 1 tablespoon of oil cross the top of each round of dough, and slide the pans into the oven.

Bake for 10 minutes and pull them back out. Distribute the white sauce equally between the two pizzas, and smooth it evenly across the surface, leaving just a small edge bare so that you can pick up the slices later. Sprinkle your sliced mushrooms on top, and return the two pies to the oven. Bake for 8 more minutes, and then switch to the broiler. Broil for 5 – 8 minutes longer, until the crust is golden brown.

Let cool for at least 5 minutes before sprinkling your fresh herbs on top, slicing, and digging in.

Makes 2 9-Inch Round Pan Pizzas

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