Baking Homemade Pies

Baking homemade pies takes a bit of skill and little finesse, but once you've learned the essentials, especially turning out pie crust, you'll soon commit the rest to memory. Whether you're making pies with fruit, custard or cream the rules for baking pies are basically the same.

The Crust
Making the crust is hands-down the most difficult part of making a pie. The key to a good, flaky pie crust can be boiled down to one word: cold. All of your ingredients, including the flour, should be cold. The water that you use should be ice water. If you are serious about making pies, you might consider buying a marble slab and refrigerating it before you make your crust. You can then roll your dough out on a cold surface.

Another thing to know is that flours are not created equal. All flours contain gluten, a protein that helps dough have strength and structure. The normal, all-purpose flour that you use day in and day out is relatively high in gluten and can lead to a brittle crust. Look for recipes that call for at least some pastry or cake flour.

The final trick to making pie crust dough is to handle the dough as little as possible. The object is to prevent the fats that you are using, whether in the form of butter, margarine or shortening, from completely blending into the flour. It is the fat between layers of flour that makes a piecrust flaky. Your dough should consist of lumps of flour, water and fat about the size of peas after cutting together the ingredients.

What would lemon meringue pie be without a good meringue? Meringue is a concoction made from whipped egg whites and sugar. Whipping egg whites adds air to the whites, making the whites puffy and billowy. The sugar in meringue keeps the egg whites from collapsing while making the meringue sweet.

Meringue has several enemies. The most important enemy of meringue is fat. Any fat at all in meringue is a disaster that might result in a flat meringue. What does this mean? Your mixing bowls and utensils must be crystal clean and free of even a little amount of fat. It is wise to avoid plastic mixing bowls just in case some fat residue is still clinging somewhere in the bowl. This also means that if you get any egg yolks in your egg whites when you separate the yolks from the whites, you will have to start all over.

The best eggs to use for meringue are several days old and cold. Older egg whites will reach higher peaks, literally, than newer ones. Having the eggs cold makes it easier to separate the yolks from the whites. Let the whites come up to room temperature before you start to beat them.

Once you start beating the eggs, don't stop. Keep on going until the whites are whipped to your desired stiffness.

Whipped Cream
Whipped cream is another art. If you whip too little, your whipped cream will not hold. If you whip too much, you have the chance of the cream turning into butter.

The more butterfat that a whipped cream has, the better the end result will taste. Therefore, rather than using cream designated for whipping, use heavy cream.

Like making crusts, the key to outstanding whipped cream is cold. Chill the bowl, the cream and the beaters, whisks or utensils that you are going to use before you start to whip the cream. You might even consider putting a smaller bowl, taking into consideration how much the cream will fluff as you beat it, into a larger bowl containing ice.

Don't be concerned if super-cold cream takes a few minutes before it starts to stiffen. Your whipped cream will be done when it forms soft peaks or the beater leaves its imprint on the whipped cream.

You may be wondering about sugar. Add sugar and any other flavoring, such as vanilla, after your cream is whipped to perfection. Use confectioners' sugar instead of conventional sugar. The cornstarch in powdered sugar will help keep the whipped cream stable. Gently fold the powdered sugar and flavorings after your cream is done.

The Essentials of Making Pies

  • Using a fork, prick the dough in the pie pan before baking.
  • You can make the rim of your piecrust look pretty by pressing the tines of your fork in it, by using your thumb to press a pattern in it at regular intervals or by gently crimping the dough between your thumb and index finger.
  • Don't forget to slit vents into your upper pie crust before baking.
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