Chef Carro Oldham’s hands are small, yet strong. They move quickly and efficiently through the task at hand, no movement too large or too small, no energy wasted. It’s immediately clear that she has performed this ritual countless times, her expertise born of inherent talent married to hours of practice. Oldham mixes the ingredients masterfully as she demonstrates how to make a savory pie dough. Masterfully in that she makes butter, flour, salt and water behave just as she wants them to, and not as they might otherwise.
I am thinking that I wish my kids were made of flour and water and other more malleable things…when Carro arrived to my house #2 was holding his chicken in his lap like a baby and playing with its claws..I mean feet. The boys were identifying her private parts, which they could not find, and stroking her waddle, which may indicate that she is not a he…but I digress…..the bottom line is that she had a look on her face like she definitely wasn’t in
Kansas Paris anymore.
Anyway, Carro is obviously an expert, and I want to learn from her, so I offered her a strong drink, which she politely refused.
I know how to make a great pie crust the way my mama taught me….but (no offense mom) I want to make it the PROPER way, the FRENCH way. And so I am watching Carro carefully. In the comfort of my own kitchen (even better!!). PS She was in very high heels while she made this pie, which I think is apropos to the occasion. I think I will do that too next time I make pie, so I can feel more Frenchie and fashion-y and sexy. Heels, but sweating and covered in flour. HOT STUFF, I tell you!!
Oldham earned a university degree in French and Native Studies, but found her heart returning again and again to her love for cooking. Just a year later, she returned to school, this time at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, where she graduated with the “Le Grande Diplome”, a comprehensive program that requires instruction and practicums in both pastry and cuisine. Her first job, right out of school, was at Helene Darroze, a 2-star Michelin restaurant located in the 7th arrondissement. She left there and opened her own catering company. She’s the bomb…..
Here in my kitchen, Carro is far, far away from Paris…..she doesn’t like my wooden utensils “They don’t use anything wooden in French kitchens anymore–it can attract germs. I use plastic”. (I use plastic too, OK!!….you just didn’t see it, I want to say, but I know I try to compensate only because she’s all Frenchie and I am all Omak-y and I want to be more Frenchie).
Oldham has rolled hundreds, if not thousands of crusts in her career, so I appreciate her demonstration, knowing at the same time that for most folks, making a piecrust from scratch is not easy. In fact, it is downright intimidating. Kneading and rolling a crust by hand was commonplace in our mothers’ and grandmothers’ kitchens—my aunt and mom still make their own crusts and I still watch them do it as if I were seven again and begging for the bits to make cut out shapes to top a holiday pie—but it’s an art that requires time, patience and attention to detail. Rather than master the technique, modern home cooks often turn to store-bought crusts. Which is fine, but not what we are focusing on today….
A successful crust, Chef Oldham says, starts with the ingredients. For a basic crust that can be used for sweet or savory pies like pumpkin, apple or even quiche, you only need four things: butter, salt, water and flour. Although these ingredients sound so simple, each is important:
The flour should be all-purpose and unbleached. Carro vastly prefers King Arthur flour because of the protein content in the wheat. Avoid bread, pasta or cake flour, which is processed for different applications.
The butter should be high quality, without added preservatives, oils or water, and very cold. “Butter is essentially cream—in fact, good butter is very simply whipped heavy cream. The fat in the cream holds the flour together, while also lending texture, richness and flavor, so it’s important to use good butter,” Oldham advises. She uses butter in her piecrust recipe because she says that for most people, it’s easier. “Lard can quickly start to soften and even melt. Just the heat from your hands can impact the lard quickly. Butter is a little hardier”. The butter should be cut into one-inch cubes, and refrigerated until just before use.
The salt should be common table salt. Kosher or sea salt is too large to incorporate into a smooth dough. Their size will not only change the texture of the crust, but also the flavor, as they are much stronger than fine table salt.
The water should be ice cold and clear. Well water, for example, may be high in iron, and that taste may come through the dough. No need for fancy or carbonated water.
Once these ingredients are ready, it is important to incorporate them quickly, without working the dough too much. “Working” is sort of a vague term for the novice. It means that the dough shouldn’t be mixed, handled or stretched even a little more than necessary; otherwise, delicate air bubbles will pop, the gluten will be overly stretched, the butter will be too soft and in laymen’s speak, the dough won’t be flaky or tasty, which is the whole idea! Oldham advises using a stand mixer rather than kneading by hand, mostly because it is faster and easier but also because it more efficiently incorporates the butter into the flour. “You can use a food processor, but the stand mixer paddle gently combines the ingredients in a smooth way that I find is better for the dough”, she says. Roll the dough smoothly and efficiently, refrigerate to let the dough rest and settle into the mold, then fill and bake.
So here is Carro’s recipe, step by step. Note: she likes to weigh the ingredients, and says grams are most precise. Of course they are, because grams are so Frenchie. I’ve added more common measurements, but keep in mind that you may need to add flour or water as these measurements sort of mess with her original….photos of this process follow…
Traditional Pie Crust for sweet or savory pies
- 340g flour (about 2 ¾ cups)
- 2 1/4 sticks butter (18 TB)
- 8.5g salt (about 1 ½ tsp.)
- 118ml water (about ½ cup)
To Make the Dough:
- Put flour and salt in the stand mixer, process for a couple of turns to incorporate.
- Break up the cubes of butter if they have stuck together, and scatter across the flour. Mix on low to medium speed until the butter breaks down to a little smaller than pea sized.
- Add cold water and mix on low speed until it starts to come together. You may need to add water, but do so cautiously, teaspoon by teaspoon. The dough should be smooth and not tacky.
- Dump the dough out onto a square of parchment paper that has been lightly dusted with flour, using the paper to help form a disc.
- Wrap the disc in cling wrap and rest in the refrigerator for about an hour.
To Roll The Dough
- Dust the workspace (a clean counter) lightly with flour. Carro has this awesome motion I am trying to master–its a pinch of flour and a light flick of the wrist. Something worth practicing. She says don’t worry about the mess, its a messy job…. Don’t add too much flour, which will change the consistency of the dough. Be cautious, because too much flour will change the recipe: the butter and water will absorb the extra flour and it won’t be flaky. On the other hand, you don’t want the dough to stick as you roll it. So just enough. Also lightly flour your pin.
- Starting in the middle of the ball, using a strong but light rocking movement, start rolling the dough to shape it into a larger disc. If you notice cracking around the edges, use your hands to smooth the cracks. As you roll, turn the dough clockwise, just a quarter turn at a time, which will help keep the shape round.
- It is important to roll evenly and also all the way to the edge, lightening your pressure at the end. If you roll too hard all the way to the edges, the pressure will cause a fissure. That fissure will split and the dough will start to stick. Just be gentle and even, feeling the edges as you turn the dough.
- Roll the dough to about ¼ inch thickness, then carefully fold the it over the rolling pin: put one hand under the bottom of the pastry, then use the other hand to glide the rest of the pastry over the mold. Make sure to not rest the pin on the edges of your mold or pie pan, as the weight of the pin will cut the dough.
- Once you have the dough adjusted over the mold or pan, use your hands and fingers to press the dough into the bottom corners of the mold—you don’t want any air gaps, which could create a bubble in the crust. The bubble could burst, leaking out filing and making service and clean up super fun.
- Depending on the type of mold you have, roll excess up form the edges of the pan to form the topcrust. Pinch the edges of the crust or smooth it with your fingertips to make it even and pretty all around.
- Refrigerate for around half an hour.
- To blind bake, pre-heat the oven to 375°. Cover the piecrust with parchment paper—enough to hold 1-2 cups of dried beans or pie weights.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the crust is golden. Remove pie weights the last five minutes, baking 20-25 minutes total.
And remember, its just flour, water, salt and butter. If you screw up, which you pretty much can’t unless you burn it, just try again!
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