Perfect Pie Crust


Anyone who knows me knows that I am not much for the pursuit of perfection. “Good enough” is closer to my style. When it came to pie crust, however, good enough all too often devolved into cuss words not fit for a family blog.
My stepmother is a champion pie baker. Born in 1927, she is pretty much of the cooking by eye school. My mother-in-law was of the same stripe. When you’re trying to learn to make pie crust, cooks like that are not much help. My own mother, who was an excellent cook, was not what I would call a premier pie crust maker. After many years of not exactly failures but results that were – ah, let’s just say not what I was striving for – I decided that pie crust just wasn’t my thing. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I made excellent cakes.
The thing about pie dough is that you are combining ingredients that play well together only in certain circumstances. The three major ingredients – flour, fat and water – must be mixed in Goldilocks fashion with lots of factors just right. The fat must be properly coated with flour. Rather than clumps of fat, you actually need a paste of flour and fat. Too much water makes pie crust tough because it activates the gluten. Like biscuits, pies need a light touch. Finally, practice makes better pies. Since I only made about four pies a year, I obviously didn’t get much practice.
Then I ran across the Cook’s Illustrated folks. They had taken pity on cooks like me and come up with what they called foolproof pie dough. Turns out the real key to perfect piecrust for occasional bakers like me can be summed up in two words: booze and temperature. Vodka is about 60% water and 40% ethanol. Replacing half the water in a pie crust recipe with vodka changes the amount of total water (not liquid, just water). That means a moist dough but less gluten activation. Keeping everything cold makes the flour and fat mix better and increases flakiness.

The recipe below is the basic one from Cook’s Illustrated; the keep-it-cold techniques are mine.
Perfect Pie Dough
2 ? cups flour
1 tsp salt
2 Tbs sugar
12 Tbs cold unsalted butter, cut in ? inch slices
? cup cold lard, cut into 4 pieces
? cup cold vodka
? cup ice water (meaning put lots of ice cubes in your water and let it sit at least 10 minutes)
All of your ingredients should be as cold as possible. I normally keep my flour in the refrigerator. If I’m making pie in the summer or any time the weather is hot, I mix 1 ? cups flour, the salt and sugar and put them in the freezer overnight. I freeze the additional 1 cup or flour in a zip-lock bag. I pour the vodka into a cup or glass and put it in the freezer the night before. I measure the lard and put it on a plate in four roughly equal dollops; the plate also goes in the freezer. Leave ingredients in the freezer until literally just before you’re ready to add them.
To make the dough, process the flour/salt/sugar mix until combined (two or three pulses). Cut the butter as quickly as possible so it stays cold. Add butter and shortening to the flour, process until it looks like cottage cheese. Scrape bowl and redistribute dough evenly. Add remaining flour, process until evenly distributed (4-6 quick pulses). Empty into medium bowl, sprinkle with vodka and water. Mix with rubber spatula until dough is lightly tacky and sticks together. Divide evenly, flatten into two 4 inch disks, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days. The dough can also be frozen for at least 6 months.
To use the dough:
If frozen, thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Otherwise, take it out of the refrigerator and gently roll out into a 12- to 13-inch circle between two pieces of wax paper. You should not need to add any flour, but if you do, make it the merest dusting. Try to roll it about 1/8-inch thick and as evenly as possible. Better too thick than uneven. Remove one piece of wax paper and place the pie pan on top of the dough. Gently lift and flip the dough. Remove the wax paper. If you’re making a two-crust pie, now’s the time to add the filling, roll the edges under and crimp or flute.
The sides of a one-crust pie tend to collapse in the hot oven. You can solve that problem by making the edge thicker and taller. A braided edge works and is fancy, but this method is faster and attractive as well. Don’t trim the crust edges. Roll out the equivalent of ? of the above pie crust recipe and cut it into curved strips about two or three inches long. Dampen the edge of the pie crust and lay the strips on top. Meld them together with the untrimmed crust by squeezing between fingers and thumb; crimp the edges. Now your pie crust sticks up about an inch above the pan. When it shrinks, it will be just a little bit higher than the pie edge. Put the pie crust back in the refrigerator for at least an hour or in the freezer for 20 minutes (no more!)
To bake blind, line the crust with heavy duty foil and dump in dry beans, pie weights or pennies (my preference). Bake at 375° until the crust is firm and just starting to color – about 25 minutes; add filling and continue according to the recipe. To fully bake the pie shell, remove the foil and weights at the 25-minute mark. Prick the crust all over and bake until it’s golden brown.

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Good Fences


“Horse high” means the top wire of the fence is just about nose -level to make it easier for the animals to see it.

“Good fences make good neighbors.” From Mending Wall by Robert Frost
If you were to ask my husband, he would tell you that the ONLY kind of fence is a good fence. That means it should be:

  • High enough for horses
  • Strong enough for bulls
  • Tight enough to stop pigs from rooting under it.
  • In other words, “horse high, bull strong, pig tight.”
    Building such fences is no easy task, especially in any area that is not completely level. With wire fences in particular, getting them tight enough means the wire must be under tension. On an incline, the wire has a tendency to lift the fence posts out of the ground. Corners suffer from the same problem. The tension in both lines meets at a right angle in a single corner post, which makes the corner post want to fall over toward the center. Thus the need to make corners with H-braces and brace wires. Sometimes you also need an anchor to offset the pull.

    Note the corner posts with cross-braces and wires – the wire keeps brace and post tight.

    Well-spaced posts.

    Spacing is another key element in building good fences. If your posts are too close together, extra materials and labor are required. Too far apart and the fence is not as strong. The general rule of thumb is one post every six to eight feet. Closer spacing is used in soft soils. You may also want closer spacing in soils that get or stay wet. If you’re fencing in a bunch of rambunctious young bulls, go with six feet. Young bulls – well, bulls in general – are very hard on fences. All those pushy-shovey fights for dominance… Old railroad ties or telephone poles make really good posts for corrals and corner posts for bull pens.

    Fencing rules apply to poultry, too. Heavy-duty welded wire keeps out predators (including bears) while the small-hole chicken wire keeps baby chicks in.

    If there is a single aspect that is overlooked by novice fence builders, it’s post depth. Rule of thumb: longer posts need deeper holes. In most cases, that means a hole one-third to one-half of the post height above ground. If you want six-foot posts above ground, your posts should be eight feet overall. A few years back, some folks down the road put up a solid vertical board fence eight feet tall. They put the posts in about a foot deep. Every time we have a high wind, big sections of the fence are flattened. These folks are slow learners – they’ve rebuilt that fence at least four times.
    In addition to depth, filling the post holes properly is critical. The goal is to pack the post hole so tightly with rocks and soil that you have no leftovers once the post is set. That means a lot of upper extremity work tamping in the stones and dirt. It’s hubby’s boast that when he builds a fence, he usually has to bring in extra dirt and rocks to fill the post holes.

    Corner gates help funnel stock. Those posts are set three feet deep.

    Gates are the frosting on the cake for a good fence. Properly placed gates make it much easier to move stock. A cow moving along a straight fence will walk right past an open gate in the middle. A corner gate, on the other hand, funnels the cows right through it. All you have to do is apply pressure from behind. Gates that swing either way give you more flexibility. Many ranchers like wire gates (colloquially known as Texas or Portagee gates). As I explained in this post, they have many advantages. In corrals, metal or wood gates work better.

    A classic wire gate.

    The other point is that good fences mean less friction between neighbors. The lady next door is apt to be a mite touchy about your milk cow going over to eat her prized roses. Not to mention – especially if you live near a highway – that your stock won’t get hurt or cause accidents. Good fences do make good neighbors. Equally important, good neighbors build good fences.

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    Old-Fashioned Cooking: Beef Stew


    All that fat and connective tissue gives chuck roast great flavor and texture.

    In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.

    This post didn’t go up yesterday (and has no current pictures since the camera is on strike) because we were getting ready for our first storm of the winter. Not satisfied with a bit of precipitation, Ma Nature has apparently decided to kick things off with the white stuff plus high winds, all due on Tuesday. I was a little limited in my efforts due to having stepped wrong a few days ago and buggering up my bad knee. However, I did give encouragement (OK, and maybe a little nagging to the younger generation) as Papa and the girls got things ready. And I made beef stew for dinner.

    Aside from bread and maybe soup, stew is easily the most ubiquitous food on the planet. Good ol’ Wikipedia lists 110 different stews from all over the world. Many of these have variations as well. Like French toast, stew has gone well past the old-fashioned category into flat-out ancient. Both are mentioned in Apicius – a Roman cookbook circa 3rd or 4th century AD. But stew goes even further back. Herodotus reports the Scythians would kill an animal, cut up the meat, put it in the animal’s paunch (stomach) dump in some water and boil dinner over a fire made from the animal’s bones. Now that is what I call efficient – and no dishes!

    If you want to make really good stew, bypass what is known in grocery circles as stew meat. These packages come from the trimmings of the beef and contain a wide variety of cuts. Some may be tender and some whang-leather tough. Worse, they are different sizes, which means they don’t cook evenly. Beef chuck roast is a much better choice. Second, use real beef stock, not water or bouillon cubes. The original of this recipe includes wine and a bay leaf. Nobody in my family likes the flavor of bay leaf and I don’t think the wine adds anything. Whenever I cook meat, I save the drippings, or fond, in the refrigerator. This goes into the stew pot for extra depth and flavor. You can also decrease or even eliminate the herbs and spices if you want to. Small whole or large quartered button mushrooms are a good addition. If you’re out of tomato paste, use an equivalent amount of ketchup.

    Beef Stew
    1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
    1 teaspoon each dried crushed rosemary, dried thyme, dried marjoram, paprika
    1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
    2 tablespoons tallow or coconut oil, plus additional as needed
    2 pounds beef chuck roast, cut in one-inch cubes
    1 cup diced white or yellow onion
    2 stalks celery, chopped
    1 teaspoon minced garlic
    3 tablespoons tomato paste
    2 cups beef broth
    2 tsps Worcestershire sauce
    1 pound baby yellow or red potatoes, or a combination of both, halved or quartered
    3 or 4 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
    1 cup frozen peas, unthawed
    1/4 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
    1/4 cup water
    2 tablespoons cornstarch
    Optional Ingredients:
    1 bay leaf
    1 cup medium to full-bodied red wine (like Cabernet, Zinfandel, or Merlot)

    Combine the first six ingredients in a small bowl. Heat the fat in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add about half of the meat to the pan, or as much as you can without overcrowding the pan. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of the spice mixture over the meat and sauté the beef until nicely browned. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the beef to a dish and set aside. Repeat with the remaining beef, adding additional fat if needed, and seasoning with 2 more teaspoons of the spice mixture. Reserve remaining spice mixture for later.

    Add additional fat to pan if needed and add onion, celery, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add the tomato paste and stir until well combined. Pour in the beef broth (plus bay leaf and the wine if you’re using it), Worcestershire sauce and remaining spice mix. Put the beef and all the juices that have accumulated back to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 1-1/2 hours, or until the beef is fork tender.

    Add the potatoes and carrots and raise the heat under the pot to bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for another 30 to 40 minutes until the veggies are fork tender. Stir in the frozen peas and parsley. Combine the water and cornstarch in a measuring cup or small bowl and stir it into the beef stew. Continue cooking, uncovered, until thickened.

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