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The pie's the limit

Sunday, January 20, 2002

By Jane Miller

It was BYOP -- bring your own (rolling) pin -- at Crate recently, when pastry chef Andrea Carros Schrenk taught two classes on how to make a good piecrust.

Piecrusts present a predicament for many. "This class is a hands-on favorite" and is offered a couple of times a year, said Linda Wernikoff, owner of the specialty kitchen store and cooking school in Scott.

Pastry chef Andrea Carros Schrenk, front right, helps take the intimidation out of making piecrusts for a class at Crate in Scott. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

"I always watched my mom make pies, but I never learned. It's about time I did," said Elaine Parente of Upper St. Clair.

"I grew up with really great pies," said Schrenk, 44, who has been a chef for 26 years and an instructor for 15. She lives in Bellevue with her husband and three sons. She is on sabbatical from Pennsylvania Culinary this semester, because she has been invited to prepare pies and other pastries for the VIPs at the Winter Olympics.

"Pies are truly an American food," said the chef, who trained in French restaurants in Paris at a time when it was rare to find a woman in a professional kitchen.

"You can't go anywhere else and find pies the way we make them. It's a part of our American heritage."

As the role of women has changed, so have pies. Today, more people buy frozen pies or purchase pies from supermarket in-store bakeries. In fact, how to make a good piecrust is one of the top three questions people ask Schrenk when they find out she is a chef. (The other two: how to keep a cheesecake from cracking -- see Page E-14 -- and how she stays so thin. "They work us hard in this industry," is her standard reply to the latter.)

"For many of my younger students, who grew up on frozen pie, the best crust they've ever eaten is the one they just made. I say, 'Look at what you've been missing for all these years,'" she said.

Creating a good piecrust requires the right tools. "You should use whatever rolling pin you feel comfortable with," she said, but added that her preference is a heavier, longer wooden pin. "Let the rolling pin do the work for you."

A metal scraper will make cleanup a snap, and the best pan for pies is a metal one. Surprisingly, she likes disposable pans. "The thin tin is a great conductor of heat," she said.

Piecrusts also need the right ingredients. Pastry flour is a must for her, because it has a lower protein content than all-purpose or bread flour. That makes the formula stick together better, without much handling.

"It's only 1 to 2 percent difference, but makes a big difference," she said.

Pastry flour is difficult to find here, unlike the big pie-eating Southern states. Locally, it can be purchased through the King Arthur catalog; the East End Food Co-Op, Point Breeze; or kitchen specialty stores. Crate sells Schrenk's favorite commercial flour from ConAgra, which is apportioned for consumer use at $1.99 for 3 pounds.

Schrenk shared theory on the concepts behind a flaky crust. Ice water helps set the fat (shortening). A good formula, or dough, has a "marbling" of shortening that will release steam and create the flakiness from baking. That's why it is important to mix the flour, shortening and water gently, she said.

How to bake a one-crust pie

Here are instructions from pastry teacher Andrea Carros Schrenk:

1. After placing rolled dough in pie pan, dock (perforate with a fork so steam can escape) the dough all over.

2. Refrigerate the dough-filled pan, or freeze it, for 5 minutes to firm the dough.

3. Place second pie pan on top and invert. Weigh down slightly with light tray, so that steam does not push off the top pan.

4. Bake at 425 degrees until golden, approximately 10 to 15 minutes.

5. Flip over, and carefully remove the tin. Place back in a reduced 350-degree oven for a few minutes until slightly golden. Cool before filling.

-- Jane Miller


Quality filling ingredients also make a difference. She prefers Granny Smith apples for apple pies. Schrenk's favorite chocolate is Callebaut's Belgian chocolate for cream pie, and she prefers Vietnamese cinnamon, which had been restricted in trade agreements for 25 years, but no longer.

From there, piecrusts are in the baker's hands. Schrenk translated "handling the dough gently" into "it's like tossing a salad with your fingers. Pieces of shortening should be between the size of marbles and peas.

"If it's all pea-sized, it's gone too far," she added, noting the crust would be tougher.

Participants made half-portion recipes -- enough for one crust each of the basic dough -- using all shortening, or its variation, with part butter, which is more difficult to roll out, "but, oh, the taste!" said Schrenk. She noted that butter-flavored Crisco could be used, but it's not a natural flavoring.

She gave word pictures for the tasks. Lightly flouring the rolling surface became: "Spread the flour like you're feeding the chickens."

The class paired up with partners to make a two-crust apple pie, using dough the teacher had made before the class. (Each person also had one crust to take home to practice rolling.)

"Don't wait until it's the size of Texas before you realize you're in trouble," she said. "You always have to move the dough. If it's not moving, it's sticking."

Most people either attack the dough or are afraid of it. It's important always to keep a circle shape as its being rolled out. Use a pastry brush to brush off any extra flour when placed into the pan.

But if a crust isn't perfect, scraps can be pressed into the bottom edges after the pie is filled (a heaping portion), and the second crust placed on and rolled under.

To make a one-crust pie, Schrenk puts the shell in the pie tin, and trims it flush with the edge -- you never want any crust hanging over the edge for any pie tin. Then she places another pie tin on top of the crust and flips both tins (with crust in the middle) upside down. Then, you bake it in the oven upside down, and it's guaranteed not to shrink from the sides of the pan.

Linda Underwood of Bethel Park pressed her index finger forward and back between the "pinchers" of her left hand to flute the piecrust's edges before placing in the oven. "I never could get this part, but now it's easy," she said.

The finishing touches were an "asterisk" on each piece, which "in the folklore history of pies signifies that this is an apple," and a distinguishing mark to determine the pie maker.

While the pies baked, Schrenk demonstrated how to make a perfect cream filling. "Follow each step exactly as it is written in the directions."

Fifty minutes later, the class enjoyed the fruit (and cream) pies. "People think it's harder than it is," said Schrenk, surrounded by the leftovers of eight beautiful pies.

"I just can't believe we made this," said Underwood, between bites.

Basic Pie Dough

It is best to weigh the ingredients for these recipes. This crust is made in a mixer, or you can use a pastry blender.

1 pound or 4 cups pastry flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
10 1/2 ounces or 1 1/2 cups shortening (Andrea Carros Schrenk uses Crisco)
5 ounces ice cold water ( 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon and 1 1/2 teaspoons)

Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl or mixer with a paddle attachment.

Mix 30 seconds to incorporate all ingredients, or separate lumps with fingers. (It is not necessary to sift.)

Add the fat (shortening) in golfball-size pieces. (If using a mixer, do not add fat with mixer running.)

Continue to mix or "cut" fat until it has broken down to between the size of a marble and a pea. Watch carefully. Do not allow the fat to incorporate past a pea size as the mixture will turn into a paste (and the dough won't be flaky).

Make a well at the bottom of the bowl and pour the ice water directly into the well.

Mix lightly or on low speed until the ingredients just form a dough. (By hand it's a "tossing a salad" motion and then pressing it together.)

Remove from the bowl and gently press into a cylinder, which may be rolled in a bit of all-purpose or bread flour to resist sticking on the table.

Wrap in plastic wrap and date. Refrigerate dough for 4 to 8 hours so that it "relaxes" for ease in rolling. Allow the dough to sit at room temperature approximately 1/2 hour before rolling. Pie dough may be frozen for up to a month but refrigerated only a few days for best results.

How much dough for the pan? The basic professional formula for uniformity of crust is 1 ounce per inch for the bottom crust and 1 additional ounce per inch for any top crust. Example: a standard 9-inch pan would need 9 ounces of dough for the bottom and 10 ounces of dough for the top.

This recipe makes enough for 3 crusts, or 1 double and 1 single pie.

For shortening and butter dough: Substitute 5 ounces unsalted butter and 3/4 cup shortening.

Fresh Apple Pie Filling

4 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into cubes (about 6 cups)
6 ounces sugar (1 cup minus 1 tablespoon)
1 ounce or 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon instant tapioca (optional)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch each of allspice and salt
1 ounce or 2 tablespoons unsalted
butter, cut into small pieces

Toss all ingredients together. Allow to sit in refrigerator until juice begins to form. Place in unbaked crust. Add top crust. Fold edges under and press edges with fingers to seal. Make an "X" in center with knife, cutting through bottom crust. Embellish top as desired. Bake at 425 degrees until golden (about 15 to 20 minutes), then lower temperature to 375 degrees and bake until filling bubbles in middle (about 20 to 30 minutes).

Makes one 9-inch pie.

Chocolate Cream Pie

1 pint whole milk
3 ounces or 1/2 cup minus 1 tablespoon sugar
3 ounces or 1/2 cup minus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/4 ounces or 5 tablespoons cornstarch
1 whole egg
3 egg yolks
2 ounces or 4 tablespoons unsalt- ed butter, cut into small pieces
3 ounces or 1/2 cup finely chopped bittersweet chocolate

Place milk and first addition of sugar in a heavy stainless-steel sauce pan. (Do not turn on the heat.)

Combine the whole egg and yolks in a bowl. Sift the second addition of sugar and cornstarch, mix together until smooth with a wire whip.

Turn the heat on high under the milk and sugar.

When the milk boils, remove from heat and slowly ladle 8 ounces of boiled milk into the egg mixture, with a slight, drizzling motion, whipping all the while.

Add egg mixture back into the pot with the milk. Over a high heat, whip constantly until mixture boils again. (There will be no foam. It is very important that mixture boils to activate the cornstarch.)

Remove from heat and add the chocolate and butter. Pour into a prebaked pie shell, and cover the top directly with plastic wrap.

Refrigerate overnight or several hours before finishing with 1 1/2 cups sweetened whipped cream.


Coconut cream: Eliminate the chocolate. Add 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract with the butter, and fold in 2 ounces or 1 cup toasted coconut.

Banana cream: Eliminate the chocolate. Add 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract with the butter. Slice 2 bananas, soak in small amount of pineapple juice, drain, and layer with pastry cream. Make sure that the bananas are totally covered with pastry cream.

Jane Miller is a free-lance writer living in Avalon. She made her first decent piecrust and a wonderful apple pie after attending the piecrust class.

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