Sunday, November 28, 2004

Pear pie with a flaky walnut pastry crust

Our Thanksgiving was a ton of fun – it's been a long time since we spent a day focusing on cooking and eating. One of our Thanksgiving Day recipes that seems to have generated the most interest in people I've talked with is our pear pie (a break from the traditional pumpkin or apple pie), and thus I thought I'd make it this week's end-of-the-week recipe blogging post. I used to think homemade peach pies were the ultimate pie, but then this pie came along and now I'm torn between the two.

I've included the recipe for both the crust and the filling below. I never use store-bought pie crusts, so I have no idea how it would taste with one of those; I find the flavor and texture of homemade pie crusts well worth the little bit of extra time needed to make them. We make this pie in a 9-inch pie pan (9-inch diameter at the top, 7-inch diameter at the bottom).

Flaky pastry crust with walnuts:
1/2 cup walnuts, shelled & whole or in pieces
2 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, frozen, unsalted (reduce the salt added above if using salted butter)
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon ice-cold water (plus a bit extra)

Pear filling:
5 cups peeled, cored, and sliced pears (~2 1/2 pounds whole pears)
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon salt

Assembly ingredients:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Cool water (enough to moisten the edge of the crust)
Milk (enough to moisten the top of the crust)
Granulated sugar (~2 teaspoons)

To make the crust:
1) Process the walnuts in a food processor until finely ground (walnut butter will likely start appearing on the side of the processor).
2) Add the flour, sugar, and salt, and process until mixed; you may have to scrape down the sides once.
3) Cut the frozen butter into approximately tablespoon-sized pieces, add to the flour mixture, and process in short spurts until largest pieces of butter are pea-sized.
4) Add the ice water and process in short spurts until the dough starts to come together (but it shouldn't form a ball). If the dough doesn't start coming together, add another tablespoon or two of extra water (I usually end up adding about an extra tablespoon).
5) Remove the dough from the processor (it should still be in many small pieces) and compress it together with your hands.
6) Divide the dough in half. If the dough is relatively warm and sticky, put it in the fridge for a short period (~15 minutes) until it is firmer, though I find the dough is usually cool enough to roll right away.
7) On a well-floured work surface use a floured rolling pin to roll half the dough into a circle approximately 3-4 inches wider than your pie pan. Rolling the dough takes practice to do well, though I've found that even when I have apparently fatal flaws they're rarely apparent in the final pie. If the dough develops holes or cracks, you can usually moisten (with water) another piece of dough and press it on top of the crack, then continue rolling the crust as normal. I'll slip a rimless baking sheet underneath the dough every now and then, adding some flour underneath the crust, to prevent it sticking to the countertop. Joy of Cooking has a tremendously useful section on rolling pie crust if you've never done it before.
8) Transfer the rolled-out pie crust into your pie pan (I use my rimless baking sheet to do this; you can also roll the dough around the rolling pin and then roll the dough out into the pan), cover with plastic wrap, and put into the fridge.
9) Roll out the second half of your pie crust (again to ~3-4 inches wider than your pan), cover with plastic wrap, and place on a cookie sheet or other large, flat surface in the fridge.

Pear pie filling:
1) Mix the pears, sugar, cornstarch, lemon juice, and salt in a large bowl. Let stand at room temperature for approximately 15 minutes. Stir occasionally.
2) That's it.

Assembling and baking the pie:
0) Preheat the oven to 425F.
1) If the pie crust has been in the fridge for a while, I like to take it out a few minutes before assembly to allow the dough to soften a bit.
2) Pour the pie filling into the pie pan that's been lined with pie crust.
3) Cut the 2 tablespoons of butter into small pieces and sprinkle them over the pie filling.
4) Moisten the edges of the pie crust in the pan with cool water (I use a 1-inch brush to do this), and then slide the top crust onto the pie pan.
5) My pie crusts are usually rolled out far too wide for the pan, so at this point I take a pair of scissors and trim both the top and bottom crusts so they overhang the edge of the pan by approximately 1/2 to 3/4 inch.
6) Seal the pie crust. There are many ways to do this, so use whatever technique you know. Personally, I take the overhanging pie crust, press the top and bottom pieces together, and then fold them under the pie crust that is resting on the edge of the pan. I then use a fork to crimp the edge, and use scissors to trim off any bulging pieces of dough.
7) Cut vent holes in the top of the pie, brush the top of the crust with milk, and then sprinkle with some granulated sugar (~2 teaspoons).
8) Put the pie into the preheated oven. Bake at 425F for 30 minutes, then slide a baking sheet underneath the pie (to catch drips), reduce the heat to 350F, and cook for another 30 minutes. The pie is done when the crust is nicely browned and thick juices are bubbling out of the top. If the crust is getting overly browned before the pie is done, cover it loosely with a piece of foil.
9) Let the pie cool on a cooling rack until it is close to room temperature. This is the most difficult part of the whole process, because the pie will be tempting you with its delicious smell.

While this recipe looks long and complicated typed out, it can be done relatively quickly with practice (having a cooking partner can also help). The dough can also be made ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen. I regularly make my pie crusts by hand (mixing with either a pastry blender or my fingers), and the steps are exactly the same as described above (except use cold, not frozen, butter).

The ingredient amounts in the pie filling are relatively flexible – increase or decrease them to suit your tastes. The runniness of the filling will, at least partially, depend on the amount of cornstarch you add, so if you want a super-solid filling add more.

Brushing the top of the pie with milk makes the crust brown more. You can use this to create painted effects by brushing only a portion of the top crust with milk; coordinating the milk-brushed patterns and vent holes so they make a single image can be fun.

Rombauer, I. S., M. R. Becker, and E. Becker. 1997. Joy of Cooking. Scribner, NY.

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