Gretchen McKay

Pie Crust Demo has her going from ‘duh’ to dough

Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

Every home cook has her Achilles heel, the one dish or technique that she simply cannot master. For me, it’s homemade pie crust. Or as it’s referred to in my kitchen: stinking $#• &%@ pie crust!

To say I’m dough-phobic is something of an understatement; the mere thought of trying to combine flour, shortening and water into something that’s supposed to melt in your mouth is enough to make me cry. Just ask my husband, who’s counseled me through many a pie-related meltdown.

This is apple season, though, when my kids start whining for pie. Which is how I ended up in an apple pie crust demonstration at Gaynor’s School of Cooking in the South Side after work this past Monday.

“You know, you do kind of have a thing about crust,” my editor reminded me, when he suggested — ever so nicely — that I take the workshop, co-sponsored by Slow Food Pittsburgh and the upcoming fifth Urban Applefest and Apple Pie Baking Contest Oct. 23 at the Union Project in Highland Park.

Hmmm. Guess he was tired of hearing me complain, too.

Here’s the problem with my pie crust dough. It’s either too dry, which causes it to crack in the pan and stick instead of flake in the mouth when baked, or it’s too wet, which makes it impossible to peel off the rolling pin. So then I add more flour, which makes it too dry, which makes it tough instead of soft and elastic, and well, you get the picture. Of me cursing.

But I’m not the only one.

“I think you either get the crust gene or you don’t,” noted an equally clueless woman sitting next to me at the demo, with a wistful sigh.

More likely is that some other family member (in my case, my mom) always supplies the holiday pies so you never have to make one yourself and master what my accomplished baker of a boss assures me is a very easy process.

Adding to the confusion is that everyone has his or her own recipe for dough. Applefest organizer Don Gibbon likes a mixture of oil, milk and flour, while PG food contributor Marlene Parrish, one of the workshop’s two instructors, prefers an old-fashioned crust made from flour, Crisco and water and blended by hand.

“You don’t need no fancy, dancy French pastry,” she told us, sensing our apprehension. “A basic, old-fashioned crust will never let you down!”

I’m guessing Barrie Mars of Slow Food Pittsburgh might disagree. After Marlene left the stage, Barrie demonstrated a pie crust made in a Cuisinart with chunks of chilled butter and kneaded together using the French fraisage technique.

See what I mean? As many recipes as there are chefs.

After serving as Marlene’s guinea pig, and then watching Barrie work her magic on the cooking school’s butcher block counter, though, I realized it really isn’t as difficult as I’d always thought.

Turns out, one of the biggest mistakes I was making was not letting my dough rest in the fridge for at least an hour before rolling it. I also didn’t know I had to fluff my flour with a fork before spooning it into a measuring cup (it compresses in the bag) and that instead of wildly rolling across the entire surface of the dough, I should start at the center and gently roll out to the edge, rotating the crust like a clock’s hand.

Also, always start with a disc of dough instead of a ball, and don’t be afraid to gently reshape it as you go along with the edge of your hand. Perhaps most importantly, don’t be too hard on yourself. Being pie, it’s all good.

What else I learned over the course of the two-hour workshop:

• Lard makes for a great pie crust, but it’s a little “fussy” to work with. So it’s probably not for beginners.

• Don’t have a pastry blender? You can cut butter or shortening into flour with a pair of knives.

• Moisten your flour mixture with ice water; shortening turns oily when it gets warm. And add it slowly, because the temperature of your kitchen and ingredients can affect moisture levels.

• If you roll crust between two pieces of wax paper, it won’t stick to the pin. You’ll also have an easier time plopping it to the pan.

• Rolling right on the countertop? Fold the crust into quarters before transferring.

• The crust should be 1/2 to 1 inch larger than the pan; turn the pan over on top of it to measure.

• A little bit of water brushed on the edges will glue the top and bottom crusts together. A dusting of raw sugar on top (first brush the crust with cream or milk) will make it sparkle.

Double Pie Crust

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Remember to add water slowly and make sure it’s ice cold or you could end up with a crust that sticks to the rolling pin.

  • 9-inch Pyrex glass pie plate
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into a measuring cup and leveled
  • 1 teaspoon salt, such as Morton’s table salt
  • 2/3 cup Crisco
  • 5 to 6 tablespoons ice water

Measure flour and salt into a medium bowl. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender or 2 knives until it looks like coarse meal.

Sprinkle water, a tablespoon at a time, on the flour-shortening mixture. Mix and toss gently with the tines of a fork. Use only enough water to make the dough stick together and “clean” the sides of the bowl. Give the dough a small squeeze and if it holds together, add no more water.

Tear off 2 sheets of wax paper. Divide the dough into 2 piles, 1 on each sheet of paper with 1 pile slightly larger than the other. The dough will be a little crumbly, but not dry. Cover each pile of dough with a second sheet of wax paper. Lightly press into a disc shape using the sides of your hands. Allow the dough to “rest” in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. Resting is important. The dough can also be frozen at this stage.

Remove the dough from the fridge, and allow to stand at room temperature for about 10 minutes. Starting in the center of the dough and rolling to the edge, roll dough part-way out. The sides will look cracked and uneven. To correct this, lift the edge of the top paper and, using the “pinky-edge” side of your hand, push edges of dough back in towards the center to make a neat round edge.

Replace the paper and continue rolling until the circle of dough is 1 inch larger than the inverted pie plate. If dough edge gets cracked again, repeat the pushing of the dough with the side of your hand.

Gently peel off the top sheet of wax paper and discard. Using the under sheet to help pick up pastry (it will adhere and not slip), invert the dough over the pie plate, paper side up. Center the pastry.

Carefully peel off paper. If dough sticks, start peeling in a different place. (When dough sticks, it means you probably used too much water. Remember the “feel” and adjust next time.)

Ease pastry down into pie plate, pressing lightly on the sides and bottom. Do not stretch. Trim pastry edge evenly with scissors leaving a 1-inch overhang.

For the top crust: Roll out the remaining dough between 2 sheets of wax paper to a circle about 1 inch larger than the inverted pie plate. It will be slightly thinner than the bottom crust.

Peel off the top sheet of wax paper and discard. Place the filling that you are using in the pie shell. Moisten the pie shell edge with water using your finger or a soft brush.

Using the bottom sheet of wax paper as support, invert and center pastry over pie. Peel off top sheet of paper. Make several gashes in the center of the pastry with a knife to allow steam to escape while baking.

The crust should extend about 1/2 inch all around the pie plate. Tuck overhanging crust under the bottom crust and flute the edge.

If you like, brush the top pastry with milk or cream and sprinkle it with sugar to add sparkle and crunch. Bake as your recipe directs.

Makes 1 double crust.

Marlene Parrish

Fast, ‘takeout’ breakfast choices can get your kids to eat

Got teenagers? Bet you have trouble getting something decent in their stomachs before they run to the bus on weekday mornings.

Here’s how the school day unfolds in my house. My 16-year-old rolls out of bed, bleary-eyed and this side of grouchy, about 20 minutes before his teenaged chauffeur shows up at 7 a.m., affording him barely enough time to drain our water heater and pull on a rumpled T-shirt, let alone sit down to a bowl of cereal. My reluctantly curly-haired 14-year-old daughters, meanwhile, have a standing 6:30 a.m. date with their flat irons. So by the time they join me and my husband at the kitchen table, they’re also counting the seconds to blast off.

Breakfast? No time, Mom!

No kidding. According to the American Dietetic Association, more than two-thirds of teenaged girls and half of teenaged boys regularly skip breakfast.

Yet even when they do make it downstairs with minutes to spare, eating isn’t a priority.

“Kids our age just aren’t hungry in the morning,” Catherine informs me. (I didn’t actually see her eyes roll when she imparted this little bit of teenaged wisdom, but I sure felt them.)

Having gone to bed too late and then gotten up too early myself, I don’t have a hard time relating: When you’re tired, the mere thought of eating can make you nauseous. Countless studies have shown, though, that kids who enjoy breakfast are more alert and perform better in school. A protein-rich breakfast also can reduce the number of calories they take in during the day, helping your child maintain a healthy weight, and perhaps — a recent study funded by Japan’s health ministry suggests — even help them keep their virginity longer.

My job, then, is to get something tasty into my teens’ bellies before the head out the door.

Of course I want it to be as (deceptively) healthy as possible: in other words, no processed foods that are overly high in fat and carbohydrates, or sugary cereals that will give them a mid-morning hypoglycemic crash. (Cereals with 7 grams or less of sugar per serving usually are a good bet; if they balk at eating your whole-grain “good” choice, allow them to go halfsies.) With five kids, I’m enough of a realist to also understand that beggars can’t be choosers and that something, anything — even a half a bagel or a toaster pastry — is better than nothing.

So what works?

Given most teens’ mad rush out the door, a school-day breakfast first of all should to be fast. That means items that can be prepared a couple days or the night before, such as homemade oatmeal breakfast cookies, or thrown quickly together in the morning — say, a whole-wheat waffle or apple slices spread with peanut butter and drizzled with honey, or a cup of low-fat yogurt mixed with fresh fruit and granola.

Even better is a breakfast your kid can wrap in a paper napkin and take with him. Instead of serving scrambled eggs with toast, for instance, consider wrapping them inside a whole-wheat tortilla with some veggies and a bit of shredded cheese.

Here, we offer some grab-‘n’-go dishes that will entice your teenager to not only think about breakfast, but also actually eat it. Many of them also will make a nutritious after-school snack for kids who go from the classroom to the sports field or other activity.

My guess is that even mom and dad will find them tasty.

Homemade Pop Tarts

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OK, so breakfast pastries aren’t exactly on most nutritionists’ lists for healthy breakfast. But are these delicious — and that means your kid might actually grab one on his way out.

Whereas store-bought ones smack of cardboard, these flaky pastries will melt in your mouth. I suggest making 2 batches at a time, so you have extras in the freezer.

I’m not the best baker so it took me a few tries to get the dough not to stick to the rolling pin and to roll it to the proper size (I traced a rectangle on the back of a piece of parchment with a Sharpie). But all in all, these are fairly simple to prepare.

You might want to add a bit more jam and experiment with other fillings. For breakfast after a Saturday night sleepover, we made them with marshmallows and chocolate chips. Additional filling ideas: cinnamon sugar, Nutella, dulce de leche.

For the filling

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon water

3/4 cup strawberry jam (or whatever flavor you’d like)

For the crust

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold and cubed

1 egg

2 tablespoons milk

Prepare strawberry filling by whisking together the cornstarch and water, and then combine with the jam in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and let cool.

To make crust: Whisk together the flour, sugar and salt. Using your fingers or a pastry blender, work in the butter until it is the size of peas and the mixture holds together when you squeeze it. Whisk together the egg and milk and add to dough. Mix together with a fork until everything is evenly moistened. Knead briefly on a floured surface, if necessary, until dough comes together.

Divide dough in half. (If using later, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for up to 2 days; let come to room temperature for about 15 minutes before rolling out.) Roll out one piece of dough to about 1/8-inch thick, in a 91/2-by-12 1/2-inch rectangle. (If your kitchen is warm, you will need to refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out so that the butter doesn’t start to melt.)

Using a sharp knife, pastry wheel or bench scraper, trim rectangle to 9-by-12 inches. Cut the sheet of dough into 9 3-by-4-inch rectangles. Using a spatula, transfer rectangles to a baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Brush the lightly beaten egg on each of the rectangles. Spoon a tablespoon of filling in the center of each rectangle, leaving 1/2-inch of space around the edges.

Roll out and cut the second piece of dough in the exact same manner as you did the first. One at a time, place a second rectangle of dough on top of the 9 assembled ones. Using your fingers, press around the seams of the dough to make sure they are sealed. Press the tines of a fork around edges of the rectangles. Prick the tops in multiple spots to allow steam to escape

Refrigerate pan with the pastries, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. In the meantime, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool slightly before serving. Store pastries in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.

Makes 9 pastries.

— Michelle Norris of West Deer, who blogs as the Brown Eyed Baker (

Peanutty Caramel Apple “Gramwiches”

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Wrapped in aluminum foil, these protein-rich after-school snacks will give your kid a boost before sports practices.

1/4 cup peanut butter

2 tablespoons fat-free caramel topping

3 low-fat graham crackers (3 rectangle flats), each broken into 2 squares

1 large apple, cut into 6 lengthwise slices

In a small bowl, stir together the peanut butter and caramel topping. Spread on the graham crackers. Place 1 apple slice on each graham cracker square.

Serves 6.

— “The New American Heart Association Cookbook, 8th Edition” (Clarkson Potter, 2010, $35)

Eye-Opener Breakfast Cookies

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Some kids might find these a little “healthy” tasting. (Or as my colleague Kate put it, “You need a little coffee to help wash ’em down.”) I say just add a few more dried cranberries, or maybe a handful of chocolate chips, and your kids won’t know they’re eating something that’s good for them.

I substituted 1 real egg for the egg substitute and left out the pecans.

Cooking spray

1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce

1/2 cup honey

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons egg substitute

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

2 tablespoons firmly packed light brown sugar

1 tablespoon canola or corn oil

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 whole-wheat flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 cups uncooked rolled oats

1/2 cup fat-free dry milk

1/2 cup toasted wheat germ

1/2 cup chopped sweetened dried cranberries

1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray 2 large baking sheets with cooking spray.

In a large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the applesauce, honey, egg substitute, orange zest and juice, brown sugar, oil and vanilla for 1 to 2 minutes, or until smooth.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the flours, baking powder and baking soda. Add to the applesauce mixture, stirring just enough to combine. Beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes, or until completely combined.

Add the remaining ingredients. Beat on low speed just until combined. The dough will be slightly sticky.

Using a tablespoon, drop by slightly heaping tablespoons onto the baking sheets, allowing about 1 inch between cookies. Using fingers, slightly flatten. You should have about 30 cookies.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned. Immediately transfer the cookies from the baking sheets to cooling racks. Let cool for about 30 minutes. Store any leftover cookies in an airtight container, such as a cookie tin, for up to 4 days. If you prefer softer cookies, store in a resealable plastic bag.

Serves 15.

— “The New American Heart Association Cookbook, 8th Edition” (Clarkson Potter, 2010, $35)

Bacon, Egg and Toast Cups

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I watched Martha Stewart prepare these on “Today” and they looked so good (and easy) that I had to try them myself. Put them in the oven when you start the coffee, and by the time your kids get out of the shower, they’re ready for on-the-run noshing.

If your kids don’t eat breakfast meats, make a vegetarian version with sauteed spinach and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

8 slices white or whole-wheat sandwich bread

6 slices bacon (or other breakfast meat)

6 large eggs

Coarse salt and ground pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Lightly butter 6 standard muffin cups. With a rolling pin, flatten bread and, with a 41/2-inch cookie cutter, cut into 8 rounds. Cut each round in half, then press 2 halves into each muffin cup, overlapping slightly and making sure bread comes up to edge of cup. Use extra bread to patch any gaps. Brush bread with remaining butter.

In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until almost crisp, about 4 minutes. Lay 1 bacon slice in each bread cup. Crack 1 egg over each cup. Season with salt and pepper. Bake until egg whites are just set, about 20 minutes. Run a small knife around cups to loosen toasts. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 cups.


Fruit and Cereal Bites

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I used cherry-flavored prunes in these bars and, to further tempt my daughter to eat before cross-country practice, dusted them with cocoa.

1 1/2 cups dried fruit

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons honey

Fruit juice or water as needed

1 cup ready-to-eat breakfast cereal (I used cornflakes)

Shredded, unsweetened coconut, finely ground nuts or cocoa for rolling, optional

Put the dried fruit, oil and honey in a food processor and puree until smooth, adding fruit juice a little at a time to keep the machine running. You’ll need to stop once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Fold in cereal until evenly distributed.

Take a heaping tablespoon of the mixture and roll it into a ball. If you like, roll ball around in the coconut, nuts or cocoa. Put balls between layers of wax paper in a tightly covered container and refrigerate until set, about 45 minutes. Eat immediately, or store in the fridge for up to several days. You also can wrap the balls individually in wax paper, like candies.

To make bars, line an 8- or 9-inch square or round pan with foil. Follow recipe through Step 1. Spread mixture in the pan, pushing it into the corners and evening the top. If you like, dust the top with coconut, nuts or cocoa. Refrigerate until set, then cut into squares.

— “The Food Matters Cookbook” by Mark Bittman (Simon & Schuster, 2010, $35)