Small Pies for Small Fries

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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?”

Bingo.

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!”

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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?”

“Six?”

“Yes, sixths!”

Now we had perfect little cubes to put in the freezer to chill while we measured out the other ingredients.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Time to mix in the water.

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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.

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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?”

Careful consideration…”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.

Onto rolling.

“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.

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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.

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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.

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We didn’t worry so much about getting a perfect circle, we just worked towards an even thickness.

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Any excess flour got brushed off with a dry pastry brush.

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We piled sliced, cinnamon-sugared apples onto the dough circles shapes, leaving enough space to fold it over onto itself.

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The kids squeezed and sealed the edges together, some even getting a bit fancy with the pleating.

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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.

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It was the quietest moment of the entire day.

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All Butter Pie Dough

2 cups all purpose flour
2 T sugar
¾ t sea salt
8 oz, (2 sticks) sweet butter
water
ice cubes

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

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Cabbages and Cream Puffs

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Lesson 2: Pate a choux (paht ah shoo)

Literally translated it means cabbage paste. Sounds delicious doesn’t it?

Also known as choux, it is the crispy and slightly eggy pastry that plays a supporting role in all kinds of deliciousness.

I tell the kids the reason I want to teach them how to make it is because it is very versatile.  Like the brick in their lego sets, you can create lots of different things with it…cream filled puffs and eclairs, sugar topped or stuffed with ice cream and bathed in chocolate sauce; but it can also be piped and fried to make French crullers or beignets; made savory by adding cheese to make gougeres, or even boiled like dumplings to make Gnocchi Parisienne.

Fancy fancy, right?  I think mostly they hear “blah blah sugar, blah blah chocolate, blah blah ice cream.”

They will thank me later when they are in college and all they have in the apartment is a bit of flour, some eggs, and a lonely stick of butter.

So to the recipe we turn.  We quickly gather our mis en place and get down to business.

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We discuss why it’s important to measure liquid ingredients in a liquid measuring cup rather than a dry measuring cup…”because it will spill!”, and why you should always get down to eye level to measure the liquids accurately…”it looks like there’s too much!” from above.

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Then, a reminder of what the different measuring spoons mean…”1/4 means that four of these go into one of these.”

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And butter…”1/2 cup is always one stick, so if your recipe calls for 1 cup of butter you need what?”, “2!”

The water, milk, sugar, salt and butter all get dumped in the pot.

Then we get a bit messy with the flour.

This recipe calls for 1 cup, sifted, (which means measured first, then sifted). I wanted to show them that the best way to measure flour is not by scooping it with the measuring cup, (as most people do), but by placing the empty measuring cup down, then using another utensil to lightly fluff and lift out the flour, and add it to the waiting cup.  Finally, without tamping it down, just level it off with the straight edge of a knife, spoon, etc.

The theory is that no two people scoop with the same force and therefore, by measuring the first way, more often than not you will end up with more than the recipe requires.

In theory.

So I whip out my digital scale and ask one of the children to measure a cup of flour by the usual method.  Then I measure mine by this way more accurate method.  We weigh them, and…lo and behold they are exactly the same!

Um.

Ok!  So everybody is scooping and weighing and the kids are digging the scale and we have flour everywhere and nobody else comes up with exactly the same amount.

Aha! I. am. vindicated.

Back to it then.

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We sift to remove lumps. Don’t skip this step!

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Then the kids take turns cracking the eggs into a pitcher.

Only after all our ingredients are measured do we turn to the stove.  The contents of the pot are brought to a full boil and then, off the heat, we add the flour all at once, and stir rapidly with a wooden spoon.

“It looks like mashed potatoes!”

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It’s just like making play dough.

Everything goes back on the heat and cooked for another few minutes.  The pate a choux should be stirred until it comes away from the sides of the pot and forms a smooth, shiny mass, leaving a bit of film on the bottom of the pot.

What’s happening in there anyway?

I remind the kids that in our last lesson we kneaded our dough to activate and strengthen the gluten that provides the elastic structure needed to capture the carbon dioxide expelled by the yeast.  Think of it as an expanding balloon. Without that strong but stretchy exterior, the gas would just break through the dough and leave you with flat and heavy bread.

We are basically doing the same thing here, minus the yeast.  But, if we aren’t using yeast as leavening, what are we using to fill our “balloon”?

“What do you get when you heat water on the stove?”, I ask.  “Steam!”

This is where the eggs come in.  We dry the choux paste out on the stove so we can incorporate as many eggs as possible.  Not only will the protein from the eggs provide additional strength to the pastry, but when placed in a hot oven, the moisture from the eggs will create a burst of steam, resulting in a nice lofty puff.

Once the choux paste is sufficiently cooked on the stove, it should be transferred immediately to a bowl to cool for a few minutes.  The butter will seep out if left to sit in the hot pot.

Now comes the bicep workout.  This step could be done in a mixer with a paddle attachment, but I wanted the kids to be able to see the transformation of the pate a choux.  Also, I’m always looking for ways to wear them out.

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They take turns adding the eggs, one at a time, mixing each in completely before introducing the next.

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It sloshes around a bit, looks a bit, um, slimey, and gets a little more difficult with each addition, but eventually turns into a thick and supple mixture that forms a little peak when pulled up by the spoon.

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Now we are ready to form the puffs.

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The pate a choux gets scooped into a pastry bag and piped onto a parchment lined sheet pan.  (You could also use a heavy duty freezer bag with the corner cut off, or even dropped by the spoonful.  They won’t look as pretty but they’ll taste just as good.)

In order to help the kids pipe the choux puffs as close to the same size as possible, (they would finish baking at uneven times otherwise), I traced 1 1/2″ circles onto the backside of the parchment.  To keep the paper from sliding around, we “glue” it down with a little dab of choux paste between the parchment and pan in each corner.

It’s important to pipe as straight up as possible as the choux will want to expand in the direction it’s piped.

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I show them how to twist the bag at the level of the pate a choux, place that twist in the crook of their hand and apply pressure to the bag from there, not in the middle of the bag or risk choux paste coming out the top and bottom.

Then it’s just a continuous squeeze until the circle is nearly full and when it’s time to stop piping, a little swoosh of the tip in a “c” shape to break the tip away from the puff.  It also helps if you make a little “whoop” sound.

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Any “tails” or extra pointy parts are smoothed over with a slightly damp fingertip.

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A little time in a hot oven, and voila!

We rip one apart and see that there is a big space where the steam caused the choux to puff up and then baked off.

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The puffs need to cool for about 10 minutes before we fill them and dig in!

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So does it look like a little cabbage?

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Pate a choux

1/2 c water

1/2 c milk

1/4 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

1/2 c unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 c flour, sifted

5 large eggs

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a heavy saucepan, combine the milk, water, salt, sugar and butter and place over medium heat until the butter melts and the mixture comes to a full boil. Add the flour all at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon. Keep stirring over medium heat until the mixture has formed a smooth mass and pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 3 – 5 minutes. A light film should form on the bottom of the pan, do not scrape it up.

Transfer to a heatproof mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer and let sit for 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time and mix completely before adding the next. (Use the paddle attachment for a standing mixer). When all the eggs have been added, the mixture will be thick, smooth and shiny.

Transfer the choux paste to a pastry bag fitted with a ½ inch tip, adding only as much to the bag as is comfortable to work with. Pipe out rounds of pate a choux, spacing about 2 inches apart. Smooth over any “tails” with a damp fingertip.

Bake until puffed and starting to show some color, about 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees and continue to bake until the shells feel light for their size, about 12 minutes longer. They should be nicely browned and a skewer should come out clean. Remove from the oven and use the tip of a knife to poke a small hole in each to allow steam to escape. Cool completely before filling.

Makes about 30 medium size puffs

A note on filling:

You can split the puffs in half for easy filling or poke a hole in them and fill with the help of a piping bag, like so…

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You can fill the puffs with whatever strikes your fancy, classically it’s a combination of whipped cream and pastry cream.  If you decide to go that route you’ll need about 4 cups total in order to fill all the choux puffs.

I figure I can incorporate a lesson on pastry cream into the next baking series, in custards, or even an “amazing egg” sort of unit.  That could be fun.