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Pie Purgatory

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If you've never made a pie or never plan to make one, stop reading this right now. You'll never understand, and besides, I can't condone that kind of holiday lollygagging. Baking is, of course, what the holidays are all about. Lots of work and frustration, and very little recognition -- doesn't that just say "Christmas"?

Just to clarify things a little: I don't mean a homemade pie in a store-bought crust. No, no, no, that would be cheating. I mean a real pie in a real crust. I'm talking about the kind of pie that flakes into shards under the first incision of your fork, the kind with a filling that oozes through the tines and then melts in your mouth with a buttery finish that makes you bang on your empty plate for more. You can't buy that at a store; you've got to pull that pastry right out of your own oven and serve it up, hot and fragrant, with pride.

The catch (and there always is one) is that pie crusts are a pain to make. They're finicky and unpredictable. And in order to produce a flaky one, you have to work very quickly with cold butter and cold shortening, and avoid overworking the dough. Otherwise, you'll end up with a flour-based grout so powerful it could adhere the tiles to your backsplash. Or you could end up with a gummy, limp sort of top-of-the-mouth-adhering shell that's a pathetic excuse for a crust.

So, I parsimoniously pulse my Cusinart and barely stir the minimum amount of water I'm allowed to splash in. I then approach the dry, hard-to-roll lump with trepidation. Will it roll out to the expected 12 inches? How will I know if it's 12 inches? Do I need to use a ruler? Do I have a ruler?

My palms sweat, and I think about the chef I once heard saying you had to have naturally cold hands to make pastry. I think mine might be unnaturally overheated, even if the oven weren't pulsing out at an inferno-like 400 degrees Fahrenheit as I try to get this whole project wrapped up and out of the way. The dough sticks and as I try to patch it up, I worry that the last hour of my life has been wasted when I could have just bought a frozen crust no one would even notice and been done with it.

Every year my husband begs me not to make pies, not to think about making even one, because he knows it'll send me over the edge, holiday-wise, right into a flat-out, full-fledged conversion to atheism, complete with ranting. Of course, I ignore him. Once I taste that tender first bite, a kind of selective amnesia blots out any memory of the work that led up to it. I gaze at my pie mesmerized, and I swear I can almost see the spirit of the holiday season wafting through the crust.



Basic Pie Crust

Leigh Rodgers, a baker for Relish and owner of Mmm Mmm Baked Goods, shares her recipe for a successful pie every time.



1« cups all-purpose flour



1« tablespoons sugar



« teaspoon salt



1¬ sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, very cold, cut into very small pieces



2 tablespoons very cold vegetable shortening, cut into very small pieces



About ¬ cup ice water



1) Put flour, sugar and salt in food processor. Pulse to combine. Drop in butter pieces and shortening and pulse until they are cut into the flour. Pulsing, add about 3 tablespoons of water, using long pulses to mix the water into the dough. If it doesn't look evenly moistened, add more water until the dough is a little sticky. Scrape the dough onto a work surface. Roll into ball and flatten into a disc. Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour before rolling.



2) Have a buttered 9-inch pie plate ready. Flour the work surface and turn the dough frequently while rolling the crust into a 12-inch circle.



3) Fit the dough into the pie plate, and cut the excess to 1/4 inch. Fold excess dough under itself and pinch the crust.



4) Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Refrigerate crust while preheating oven.



5) Butter a large piece of foil and fit it against the crust. Fill foil-covered crust with dried beans or pie weights. Put the pie plate on a baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil, and if the crust is puffy, press it down with the back of a spoon.



6) For a partially baked crust, return the pie crust to the oven and bake 8 minutes more or until very lightly colored. To fully bake the crust, bake it for another 10 minutes until golden brown. Cool to room temperature before filling. Bake according to pie recipe.

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