What Mom knew about pie crust
As she guided me through the doughmaking process, she also taught me how to cook from the heart.
Sometime during the first year I was married, back in the 1960s, my mom taught me how to make a pie crust. She didn't begin by handing me a recipe to follow, as I expected. Instead, she got out a mixing bowl, some all-purpose flour, salt, shortening, some cold water in a Pyrex measuring cup, a pastry blender, and a fork.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At first I assumed she was going to make the pastry, without a recipe in sight, as I watched. But that's not what she had in mind. I'd be the one to make the pie crust, as she watched, instructing me.
It was a deceptively simple procedure. She had me place a few scoops of flour into the mixing bowl and add a bit of salt. Then she had me spoon a good amount of shortening into the bowl.
The pastry blender was a U-shaped device with maybe five or six rounded wires attached to a wooden handle. The idea was to cut the shortening with it until there were pieces about the size of small peas evenly distributed throughout the flour.
Next, she had me add just enough of the cold water so that as I stirred the mixture gently with the fork, everything began to cling together. When that happened, she had me scoop the dough out of the bowl onto a floured board and gather it together, turning it a few times and gently kneading until it formed a ball.
The process wasn't as magical as it might sound. My mom's running commentary, advice, and direction, along with my constant questions, like "Is this enough? Is that too much? Am I doing this too hard?" was the frame of the lesson. The heart of it was the sensory experience of actually making the pastry myself.
I began to understand that there's a lot more to cooking than following a recipe and hoping for the best. It's a full-participation event where all the senses play a part, and, over time, I learned how each one helps ensure that the results are predictable, consistent, and delicious.
Making that first pie crust showed me the relationship between flour and fat, how to judge the amount of each by sight, and how the two, in ideal proportions, can produce a flaky, melt-in-the-mouth pastry. The salt and water play relatively minor roles, salt for flavor, water simply to hold everything together so it can be rolled out.
At my mom's side, I learned how the dough should look and how it should feel. Even more important, I learned confidence in the only way it can really be learned – by doing, rather than by observing.
I didn't realize then, but later I came to know that what I was learning that afternoon went far beyond how to make pastry for pie. My mom was teaching me how to cook in the broadest sense. She was inviting me to simply go ahead and do it, and by trying and failing along the way, to learn to trust myself.
That first pie crust was OK – not great, but promising. With practice, each one was better than the one before, and, eventually, I didn't even have to think about what I was doing as I made pastry dough for both savory and sweet pies and tarts.
I remembered that long-ago afternoon with Mom recently when I was visiting my sister, Peg, in Wisconsin. We decided to make an apple pie for dessert the day before I was to drive back to New York after Missy, my Welsh Springer Spaniel, and I had spent a week with my mom in St. Paul, Minn.
It was happy culinary collaboration, that pie. We'd bought some McIntosh and Granny Smith apples, three of each as I remember. While Peg peeled and sliced the apples very thinly, I made the pie-crust pastry.