Perfect Pie from Lord of the Pies

I have known Chris Robbins for as long as I can remember. We go way back to when we lived on the same block as pre-schoolers. We grew up in the same little city of Ada, Oklahoma. We have both left our little home town but, I enjoy keeping up with what is going on with him and his family on Facebook. Chris is famous for his amazing pies. He is known, by many, as the Lord of the Pies.

Lord of the Pies - Chris Robbins

When asked how he got this title, he responds,

I’m not sure why, but years ago I started making pies to give to friends as a random surprise.  It seems to brighten people’s day because – who doesn’t like pie?  Some time ago, I found out that a high school friend, Mike Newcombe, was fond of banana cream pie.  Even though he lived in a city about an hour away, I decided I would surprise him the next time I visited there. I delivered the pie to his office, which was locked down about as tightly as Fort Knox. Wanting it to be a surprise, I left it at the front desk with instructions to make sure someone got it in his hands.  Apparently, he got it, but didn’t make it out with any leftovers. He later posted pictures and commentary on Facebook and said, “I’m going to start calling you ‘Lord of the Pies’ .”  Somehow, the name stuck, and now I have a brand.

Chris displays his dry wit and humor, as well as his expertise when he gives his fun presentations and classes on pie making. I asked Chris about how he learned to make pies and to share some of his expertise on one of the most daunting parts of pie making – the crust. Here is what he had to say:

apronI love pie!  I have loved pie from as far back as my memory stretches.  Fruit pies, cream pies, custard pies, and even chess pies (although these are probably my least favorite).  I suppose I have a genetic predisposition for my pie addiction.  My paternal grandfather used to say that he only liked two kinds of pies – hot and cold. There really isn’t a pie flavor I don’t love except for mincemeat and pumpkin; and, even though I don’t love them, I do LIKE them. I love making pie as much as I love eating them.

A Family Tradition

My maternal grandmother was a pie maker and most of my own recipes are based on ones that she originally supplied. My grandmother passed her skills and recipes down to my mother who fine tuned and surpassed her teacher’s pie making prowess. She had quite a reputation as a pie maker in the small town where I was raised in southern Oklahoma.

Chris with his mom, Anita Robbins
Chris with his mom, Anita Robbins

I learned most of my pie making skills from my mom.  As a young child I would watch with wonder as she cut shortening into her flour mixture, and sprinkled flour all over her kitchen countertop before rolling out the crust.  She had a set of different colored glass bowls that she used for all types of cooking and I always knew when I saw her pull out the blue one that she was about to make pie.

By the time I was four she would give me a small ball of leftover dough to roll out my own crust to line the bottom of a small tart size. Anytime she was making a cream based filling it was my job to stir the yummy concoction. Over the years I have tweaked many of her recipes to make them even tastier or more consistent.  However, I’ve kept her recipe for chocolate and cherry pie intact, because you can’t improve on perfection.

Chris and his class of pie makers.
Chris and his class of pie makers.

Oddly, I never made a complete pie on my own until I was in my early twenties. My mother used to say that the basis of a good pie is the crust. As my older brothers and my sister were married, she taught the wives how to make a good crust. When my turn came, I complained that it wasn’t fair that men were excluded. In my case, I joined my new bride in the pie crust lesson. To this day, we often tag team our pie making efforts. When I conduct pie making seminars, she is my trusted assistant.

Why Homemade?

My mother taught me that pie crust should be tender and flaky, not too dense or tough, but sturdy enough to hold the filling without getting soggy.  Many people seem to be afraid of making a crust from scratch simply because they think it’s too difficult or too messy, yet neither are really true. As a result, it seems much easier to run to the grocery store and buy a frozen or refrigerated crust that you unfold into a pie pan.  Stay away from the red box!  Commercially prepared crusts are made with added preservatives and binders so that they hold together during shipping.  With a homemade crust, you can control the quality of the ingredients. Plus, using a commercially prepared crust robs a pie maker from the pride and sense of accomplishment of making the whole thing from scratch.

A little bit of practice making a crust by hand takes away the difficulty and some simple organization in the kitchen can keep the messiness to a minimum. Making a good pie crust from scratch is not rocket science. It just requires a few simple tools, good quality ingredients, and a little bit of technique. Here is my tried and true recipe and method for the perfect 9” pie crust:

Getting Organized

Find a suitable work area and have all necessary tools and ingredients together in the work area before you start.  The tools are basic:

  • A mixing bowl large enough to keep the ingredients from spilling out when the cutting and mixing begins
  • 1/3 and 1 cup measuring cups
  • 1 tablespoon measuring spoon
  • Any type of small cup for ice water
  • A sifter
  • A 5 inch sharp kitchen knife
  • A standard table fork A rolling pin – I prefer a marble rolling pin, although some cooks may find this too heavy
  • 9 inch glass baking dish or metal pie pan (glass provides more even conduction of heat)
  • kitchen shears to cut off the excess dough once the crust is in the pan

I do use a hand pastry blender at times, but only the type with blades and not wires, and if I am mixing ingredients for more than one crust at a time I use a metal pastry scraper for cutting ingredients into the mixture.  I also use a canvas pastry cloth that is large enough for my tools and ingredients with enough room left to roll out the dough.  This cuts down on the mess as the cloth can go straight from the work surface to the sink to shake off any excess flour or bits of dough.

People ask me about using a food processor to mix the ingredients and although I have used one several times for the process, I find that hand mixing is best.  Part of the technique of making a pie crust really depends on the feel of the mixture in your hands and using a food processor eliminates the ability to do this.

The Ingredients

As far as ingredients are concerned they are pretty simple:

  • 1 cup good quality unbleached flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (I prefer kosher salt in all cooking)
  • 1/3 cup Crisco shortening  (I prefer regular Crisco, although Butter Flavored Crisco can be an interesting twist depending on the filling that’s being made)
  • 5 to 6 teaspoons ice water
  • Plastic wrap

The Crisco Sticks are great to use because they can be a little less messy and more precise for measurement purposes.  I have made crusts using real butter in place of shortening, but I find the butter changes the texture and makes the crust more doughy and less flaky, so I always go back to shortening.

The Technique

Mixing and assembling the ingredients is where a little easily mastered technique becomes important.

I actually keep a can of Crisco or Crisco Sticks in my refrigerator, and before I start organizing my ingredients and tools, I measure out the shortening and place it into the freezer for 15 minutes or longer.

Next, I measure out the flour and salt and sift them together into the mixing bowl.  I use my knife to cut small chunks of the shortening (this is where Crisco Sticks are easier to use) and drop them into the flour mixture.

Once the shortening is coated in flour, I use the knife and fork or knife and pastry blender to literally cut the shortening into the flour giving it a pea or gravel like texture.  I usually rub the mix between my thumbs and fingers to test the feel of the dough.

At this point, I add 2 tablespoons of the ice water (make sure no ice is in the spoon) and stir it with the fork and repeat the process until all the ice water is added.

Next, I place the mixed dough onto a piece of plastic wrap and press it down by hand into a round disk about 3/4 of an inch thick and 6 inches in diameter. Finish wrapping it in the plastic wrap, and place it into the refrigerator to let it chill. This is something I do differently from my mother. This makes the dough hold together better while rolling and placing it into the pie pan.

Once the dough has rested, I place it on a floured pastry cloth and press it down more by hand from the middle and around the edges making sure to keep the shape round and to press the dough back together should any cracks form near the edge.

I place a little extra flour on the rolling pin and begin rolling from the middle to the edge working in a circle to preserve the round shape, and to make the thickness of the dough as uniform as possible until it’s about 3/16 of an inch thick.

Next, I fold the crust in half and place a greased pie plate on the pastry cloth before lifting the crust by the corners to center into the pan, pushing out any air pockets.

Occasionally cracks or tears occur in the crust, especially around the edges, but the dough is forgiving and it is easy to push the dough back together to seal the crack.  I trim the edges with kitchen shears leaving an overhang of about 3/4 of an inch.

If the pie I’m making requires only one crust, I fold the edges under the crust on the rim before crimping the edges. If the pie is going to have a second top crust or lattice crust, I place the additional dough on the pie and fold the edges of the bottom crust over the rim tucking the top crust in before crimping.  The crimping stage allows a great deal of creativity and personal style, although typically I use a traditional type scalloped crimp by forming a “V” with my thumb and forefinger and pushing the dough into the “V” with my free thumb.

Baking the Crust

Some pies require baking the crust before adding the filling.  This is known as a blind bake.  For a blind bake, I prick the dough with a fork around the bottom and sides of the crust to allow steam to escape to keep air bubbles from forming on the bottom.  I do frequently use pie weights spread evenly on the bottom, but even then I still add a few fork pricks just in case.  I bake the crust for 8 to 10 minutes at 425 degrees and then remove from the oven and allow to cool before filling.  For a pie that requires baking a filled crust no pricking is necessary.

You can mix the dough in advance and keep it in the refrigerator for several days before rolling it out as long as it is tightly wrapped so that no air gets to it to dry it out.

Good Advice

For novice pie makers the very best advice I can give is to avoid overworking the crust when rolling it out.  Sometimes the crust just fails at this point and people have a tendency turn the dough over several times or to knead the dough into a ball and start over.  Re-rolling the dough once is usually okay, but if it is done more than once the finished crust will be tough. It’s much easier to either start over with fresh ingredients or to repair the dough once it is in the pan and even though it may not look as pretty the taste of the crust will still be great.

The other advice I have is that practice makes perfect.  Crust ingredients are inexpensive.  Make five separate crusts in one day even if you end up throwing them away.  You will notice that each one gets a little easier and a little better than the one before.

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