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Bake Better Pies: Tips for Serving the Perfect Pie This Holiday Season

It’s as easy as pie, right?

The air is crisp, the leaves are falling, and our thoughts turn to the Holiday Season. Now that November is underway, it is time to start focusing on Thanksgiving. Just thinking the word "Thanksgiving" immediately conjures up mental images of the foods and traditions we as home bakers love about the holiday. When I think of Thanksgiving, two things directly come to mind. Thanksgiving leftovers sandwiches (yup, you read that correctly), and pie. Our family is so fanatical about pie that one year, there was a pie per person. We like to make sure there is a slice of everyone's favorite to finish off the meal. Heck, one year, when the oven was accidentally shut off, pie started our meal because the turkey wasn't ready until close to 9pm.

We all know the old adage, "it's easy as pie." For some, making pie is anything but easy. Before I learned the basics, I too struggled. My crusts were hard and stayed domed, and my fillings were soup; it was an overall mess. But, pie, when well executed, is a thing of beauty. You can take the humble apple and make it sing by highlighting the natural hints of honey and caramel notes found within your apple variety and giving it a slight warming scent of cinnamon and nutmeg. Those frozen cherries you've been saving, it's their time to stand in the limelight. Let's shake out our aprons and get you rolling out some dough!

What kind of dough are we going for?

The first action item is deciding what type of pie or tart you’d like to tackle. Once you know the pie genre, you can determine which dough will best fit your needs. The Butter Book offers many great recipes to add to your crust arsenal along with videos to explain the tips and tricks of making your pie a success. Whether you embrace the traditional pie or want to fancy it up with a tart, we've got you covered. While many are tempted to run to the store for a pre-made crust during the hustle and bustle the holiday season brings, this really is one of the most straightforward items to make at home. Pie crusts use basic pantry staples, and the actual prep only takes about 10-15 minutes. Below are the most common crust types.

  • Sweet Dough (Pâte Sucrée) is often used for fruit, custard, or chocolate tarts. It utilizes the creaming technique; it also has more sugar and less butter than other recipes, making it a less fragile dough. For added richness and a cookie-like texture, our unique recipe uses almond powder and eggs.

  • Shortbread Dough (Pâte Sablée) uses more butter and less sugar than a sweet dough. It is more fragile because of the butter, and because of this, it is most often used as only the bottom of a tart. The sides of the tart are then usually built with something else. This is made using a sanding method. In addition to tart bases, this recipe makes a fantastic cookie! Just roll, cut, brush with egg wash, sprinkle with sugar in the raw, and bake. I promise it will not disappoint when it comes to afternoon coffee/tea break time.

  • Pie Dough (Pâte à Foncer) can be salty or sweet and is used for an array of tarts and pies with more water or fruit. Our recipe is light, buttery, and flakey. Its use of egg yolks and vodka inhibits gluten development while mixing, resulting in a fork-tender crust. Don’t worry; the alcohol evaporates during the baking process, so this is undoubtedly a family-friendly recipe!

  • (Pâte Brisée) Pâte Brisée is a classic French pie crust best for savory liquid and semi-liquid fillings like quiche. Our version adds vodka, which creates a better crispy bite than with just water alone. The buttery and rich flavors complement a crumbly, flaky texture especially good with our Quiche Lorraine recipe or other savory applications.

Each of the recipes mentioned is perfectly calibrated to help you knock your guest's socks off when it comes to dessert. Many of us have a cherished family recipe we want to use but just can’t quite get it right. This is where The Butter Book shines. Take the science of ingredients they teach along with the method and apply it to Grandma Marie’s pumpkin pie, and you won’t be disappointed.

Once you understand each ingredient's structure building roles, you will make a better crust from your own recipes. For example, in most of these recipes, the sugar has a dual function; it not only sweetens the dough but makes it stronger. Salt, yes, adds flavor, but it also prevents oxidation, helps give color while baking, extends the shelf life, and absorbs liquid (water) from the butter, making it more stable. Did you know there was a reason the vanilla is mixed with the butter in the sweet dough? It’s because the fat from the butter coats the vanilla and preserves the taste. A basic understanding of ingredients' functionality can really make the difference in all of your pastry baking.

Our Secrets for Baking Better Pie Crusts

While there is a wealth of information contained in our recipes. Here are a few main takeaways that you can extrapolate into your baking repertoire.

  • Takeaway one: Make sure your ingredients are the right temperature. If the recipe says cold water and cold butter, there is a reason! A scientific reaction takes place in the baking that causes flakiness, and you don’t want to lose that.

  • Takeaway two: Don’t overmix. The point here is to cut in the fat, not make a paste. If you overmix, your end crust will be hard and brittle. I cheat on this step and use my food processor. I simply add the dry ingredients, pulse, pulse, pulse, and then add in the cold butter and process until it looks like wet beach sand. At this point, I transfer it to a large bowl and continue adding the wet ingredients and go on with my recipe as usual.

  • Takeaway three: Don’t skip properly chilling the dough. While each recipe says you want the dough to rest at least three hours, overnight truly is best. It gives time for the water absorption to stabilize and the ingredients to become a cohesive mix. The result is smoother rolling and less tearing. Which, for most of us, results in less stress and reduced pastry tantrums.

Let's Get Rolling

So, we’ve made our dough, and it’s rested overnight. Now, it’s time to get rolling! If there's one piece of advice I can give you this holiday season as you enter into your butter/flour/sugar haven, it's "listen to your dough." Yes, your dough will tell you exactly what it needs; it almost shouts it. I, too, have been tempted to ignore its pleas, but if you listen, you will be rewarded.

The key to successful rolling is cold dough. If any dough becomes too warm, it will stick to the work surface and tear when moved. The higher the fat content, the quicker the dough softens. The higher the water content, the more elasticity the dough develops. So, if it’s too soft to work with, pop that dough into the fridge for 15-20 minutes and let it chill. You’ll be tempted to dust it with more flour and keep rolling, but don’t. It will produce a tough, chewy crust in the end because you have smooshed all the butter and flour together. If it’s too cold, you will again work the gluten by rolling too much, and it will split and tear in the process. When rolling dough, your internal mantra should be…listen to your dough, listen to your dough!

Is there a perfect pie filling?

Now that we’ve gotten our dough in hand, it’s time to turn to our fillings. The sky is the limit here, and it all depends on what flavor profiles you are looking to showcase. It can be fruit, custards, or creams; the list is endless.

I’m a fruit pie kind of gal, and over the years, runny pies have been the bane of my baking experience. It wasn't until recent years that I had a "Eureka!" moment from jam-making that I applied to my pie-making. I desired a silky filling supporting my fruit. I was previously afraid to pre-cook my fillings because I didn't want applesauce pie where the filling is, in essence, double cooked. I wanted my fruit to retain its structural integrity but still be cooked through.

In jam making, you achieve this by macerating your fruit with sugar and cooking the strained sugar/fruit juice down to your desired thickness. This is exactly what all my fruit pies needed! Now, when I'm making a fruit pie, I will take the recipe's listed sugars and mix them with the prepared fruit. I let that sit for about 30 minutes-never less than that-and then strain the fruit. I then take that juice and add it with the spices and thickeners that the recipe initially listed be mixed with the fruit filling. I cook that mixture until it is thick and bubbly and then cool it. Once cooled, simply fold in the fruit, fill your bottom crust, and continue on with the recipe as usual. Because I took the time to extract some of the natural fruit juices and thicken them, I will be ensured a perfect slice every time. Similar methods can be found in the Cherry Pie and Blueberry Cobbler recipes on The Butter Book.

While there is some science involved in making a great pie, it’s not rocket science. Don’t be afraid to be creative and try adding nut flours or different spice combinations to your crusts. While apple, cherry, pumpkin, and pecan are classic, don’t forget, there are lots of other great ones that could grace your table. Just remember to listen to your dough, and everything should turn out fine.


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