Hand pies to be exact. And apple because Thanksgiving is coming up!
People love pie. However, the idea of baking a pie from start to finish makes many people anxious. One need only peruse the aisles of the grocery store for the evidence: multiple buying options for ready made crusts.
The kids found this funny, the notion that anyone would be hesitant to make pie dough. Five ingredients that they’d already manipulated in three other projects; this would be a piece of cake. Or pie, rather.
“The most important thing about making an all butter pie crust is to always keep the dough cold, but how can we keep it cold while we’re working with it?”
Kids reading recipe…
“Start with cold ingredients?”
I showed the kids how to cut the butter into cubes. First in thirds, lengthwise.
“Does everyone know what I mean by thirds?”
“In three pieces!”
Then we rolled the whole cube of butter onto its side and repeated the process. This gave us nine skinny rods. Next, we cut the cube in half, crosswise.
“Anyone want to guess what I’ll get if I cut each half in thirds?”
Now we had perfect little cubes to put in the freezer to chill while we measured out the other ingredients.
A pitcher of cold water went into the refrigerator to chill down even further.
The kids measured the flour, salt, and sugar into a heavy, shallow bowl.
I placed the pastry cutter on the table and somebody said, “oh we’re going to make it like we did the pumpkin cake.”
I explained that yes, we would be cutting the butter into our flour mixture, though not as thoroughly as in the last recipe. Our goal was to blend some of the butter in with the flour, keep some of the butter separate, in bigger pieces, and leave a bit of the dry ingredients uncoated by the fat.
The best way to achieve this is to keep the butter, you guessed it, cold.
I pointed out that if we took a long time to cut our butter in, there was a good chance it would start warming up. Not that I wanted them to move so fast that we had flour flying everywhere, but…
“Should we each take a quick turn then?”
They were all very agreeable to this and after I started the ball rolling, the kids each took a few passes with the pastry cutter before pushing the bowl towards their waiting neighbor.
Luckily, most of the ingredients stayed in the bowl.
The whole process took just a few minutes and the butter stayed quite firm. I explained that if we could squish a piece of butter between our fingers without it leaving a melty residue, then we could keep going. If the butter had gotten soft at any point we would have needed to refrigerate the mixture for 10-15 minutes before moving on.
We took a look inside our bowl. There were three different things going on in there: coarse sand, slightly larger bits like lentils, and finally, bigger chunks, about the size of large peas.
Time to mix in the water.
Using a rubber spatula, I gently folded and pressed the ingredients together while each of the kids took turns dribbling in tablespoons of water.
We stopped adding water when large clumps of dough began to form, after about 6 tablespoons in all. They could see that there was almost no dry flour left in the bowl.
A few pushes of the hand was all it took to gather it into a ball.
We could still see chunks of butter in the dough, exactly what we were going for. This went back into the fridge so we could ready the table for rolling out our crusts.
Why wouldn’t we want the butter to be fully mixed in?
We talked about the texture of pie dough.
“Is it crumbly and sandy like a shortbread cookie? Or is it flakey?”
We discussed gluten, and how it makes baked goods like bread chewy. We reviewed the ways to avoid activating the gluten in flour: by using a gentle hand in mixing, and by coating the flour with fat so that it doesn’t absorb water, which we did, partially. This keeps the crust tender. The little bit of flour that was left uncoated does mix with water to kind of glue the whole mess together. When the resulting dough is rolled out, the pea-sized chunks of butter get flattened out and sandwiched between the thin sheets of slightly glutenized dough. When the pie crust is placed in a hot oven, the water in the butter converts to steam and causes the dough to puff up. Flakes!
We divided our ball of dough in two and flattened each half into a disc. (These would normally be the top and bottom crusts). Then each disc was divided into four even pieces for a total of eight.
My five year old son: “Hey, this is math!”
We would need to take turns with the pin, so the portions we weren’t working with went back into the fridge. I know, I know, but we have to keep the dough cold so the butter never melts into the flour.
“Give yourself plenty of elbow room!”
I grabbed a handful of flour and flung it across the table, not just a little sprinkle of flour, but more like a spray, like rolling a pair of dice.
The rounded portion of dough went on top of the flour and the top got dusted as well.
I showed them how to roll from the middle of the circle out, but not back and forth, and “around the clock”: 12, 2, 4, and so on. I slid my hand under the dough to make sure it wasn’t sticking and gave the dough a quarter turn.
I explained that the flour acts like little ball bearings under the dough, so they should flour the table as needed. The bench scraper would come in handy in the event the dough did stick.
I reminded them to use the dry hand towel to wipe off any bits stuck to the rolling pin as they would encourage the dough to stick to it even more.
When my dough was about 1/8″ thick overall, I stopped rolling and encouraged the kids to try.
We didn’t worry so much about getting a perfect circle, we just worked towards an even thickness.
Any excess flour got brushed off with a dry pastry brush.
We piled sliced, cinnamon-sugared apples onto the dough
circles shapes, leaving enough space to fold it over onto itself.
The kids squeezed and sealed the edges together, some even getting a bit fancy with the pleating.
Once all the hand pies were placed on a sheet pan, we used a pastry brush dipped in milk to brush over the tops. A sprinkle of turbinado sugar would make the crust extra crackly.
A sharp knife was used to cut a few steam vents, and the whole tray went into a 400 degree oven.
About 25 minutes later we spoiled our dinners with warm apple pies.
It was the quietest moment of the entire day.
All Butter Pie Dough
2 cups all purpose flour
2 T sugar
¾ t sea salt
8 oz, (2 sticks) sweet butter
About ten minutes before mixing the dough, cube butter and place in freezer. Fill a measuring pitcher with 1 cup water (you won’t need it all, but it’s better to have more than enough ready), and place a few ice cubes in the pitcher, refrigerate while you measure the remaining ingredients. Place the flour, sugar and salt in a heavy, shallow bowl. Whisk to combine. Cut butter into flour with pastry cutter until largest chunks are no bigger than pea size. You are looking for a mixture of sand, small bits of flour and butter combined, and larger chunks of butter coated in flour. Check to make sure that the butter is still fairly firm. You should be able to squeeze a piece between your fingers and feel some resistance. If the butter is soft, place the bowl in the refrigerator for 10 – 15 minutes. Sprinkle ¼ c water over the flour mixture and toss together with a spatula. Add more water as needed, 1 T at a time. Stop adding when you see clumps of dough form, with little to no dry flour at the bottom of the bowl. The dough should just hold together in large clumps. Remove dough to a lightly floured board. Press dough together and divide in half. Form into rounds. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate if not using immediately, for up to 3 days.
Photo credits: 4, 7, 10, 12, 14-16 by Helena Ottoson