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This is the season for fruit pies—gooey, bubbling-over, sweet-tart summer fruit pies. My favorites right now are peach and blueberry because aside from being so thoroughly delicious, the fruit is abundant and cheap. For August's Tasting & Testing, my task was to create a perfect piecrust and fill it with yummy, seasonal fruit. We had just had a last-of-winter snowstorm the week before I started testing, so the fruit was not at its best.
The first priority was the pastry. A short while ago, I mentioned having to render my own pork fat to get the best-quality lard. (Would I do this at home, in 96° weather, on a much-too-busy weekend? Probably not, but you definitely should.) I substituted 1/4 cup of the butter with lard and absolutely loved the result—a pastry that was rich, flaky, crumbly and just gorgeous to work with. All-butter piecrust is still my favorite for its delicate sweetness and flaky texture but either version will do the trick.
Here are a few simple tricks to getting that perfect flaky piecrust that will have your guests licking their plates.
First: When making the dough, use a food processor—plain and simple, the best method. Pulse the flour and salt to combine. Add the butter-ice cold and cut into 1/2-inch cubes-and pulse until it is the size of peas. Lift the lid, drizzle the ice water all over the dry ingredients. Pulse 5 or 6 times, just until everything is moistened, but the butter is still visible in lumps and the dough forms moistened crumbs. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board, gather it with your hands and knead it once or twice, just until it comes together. Pat to flatten into a disc, wrap and chill for 30 minutes.
Second: When you roll out the dough, lightly flour the board. I like to use a baton-style rolling pin—a two-inch-wide dowel with tapered ends. Using the rolling pin, pound the pastry firmly to flatten it to about 1/2-inch and soften it just enough to start rolling. The dough should still be very chilled but pliable. Once it gets too soft and flimsy to roll, slip it back in the fridge to firm up.
Third: ALWAYS use a glass pie plate so you can make absolutely sure the bottom is browned and fully cooked. My biggest pet peeve with piecrusts is when the bottom crust is pale and undercooked.
On to the next order of business—the fruit, thickener and sugar. The best summer fruits—strawberry, rhubarb, blueberry, sour cherry, nectarine, peach—just happen to make the best fruit pies.
For the thickener, I prefer cornstarch because as the cooked fruit and juices gel, it becomes completely clear, as opposed to flour, which thickens a bit and becomes cloudy. This way, the fruit looks like little gems. The amount varied with each fruit due to the varying juiciness of each.
And the sugar was wholly dependant upon the fruit's sweetness. The amounts of sugar in the recipes are the upper guide (think March peaches). Taste your fruit—if it's tart, follow the recipes carefully. If it's supersweet, omit a few tablespoons. But whatever you do, turn your ovens on and bake a pie!