It’s 14 March today, and to all the geeks (and math-tormented souls out there), Happy π Day :]
For those who have no idea what this sign π means, either you didn’t get an education which revolved around learning about areas of circles or you forgot! It’s the Greek letter for “pi” or typically pronounced as “pie”, which is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Why is today π day? Well, because π is 3.14159 (and it goes on and on and on since it’s an irrational number – anyone remember the tune that goes: sine sine cosine sine 3.14159?) and today’s 3.14 :]
I tend to think that sometimes, names and terminology just gets confusing because people don’t really use appropriate names to name their foods – think of galettes and tortes and linzertortes and tarte tatins and cobblers – there are so many variants of pastries using basically the same two things – filling and crust! Think of misnomers like boston cream pie which is technically a cake and not a pie at all! I proffer another reason as to why pies and tarts appear so different – I think it’s basically a matter of where they originated from – pies originated in Medieval England, popularized in American culture today (considering early American settlers were English), whereas tarts probably originated in Medieval Europe. Of course, I have to put in a disclaimer here that this is mere speculation on my part since I really have not checked if tarts really did originate from Medieval Europe or elsewhere.
PS: anyone remember the nursery rhyme Sing a song of sixpence which has the line “Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”?
Anyway, geeky me wanted to make a pie with a π cut-out on top, but lazy me decided not to since it was too troublesome and I wanted to make use of my strawberries instead of making an apple pie or other fruit pie. I previously tried out a few pie crusts, which I didn’t like because they were pretty difficult to handle, so this time round, I turned to a source which has yet to fail me for a number of recipes that I’ve tried – Cook’s Illustrated :] I’m not sure if I’ve said this before, but I really do like the concept of America’s Test Kitchen and if I had the opportunity to work there, I most definitely would. I cannot imagine anything better than testing out a number of recipes over and over again, just to find out what works the best and for what reason. The ultimate marriage of baking and food science!
I’ve to admit that the recipes do get troublesome sometimes – for instance, the chocolate chip cookie recipe requires uneven numbers of egg whites and yolks, and some require a mix of flours, which some people might find a chore. But think of it this way – if it yields the best (insert whatever item you are baking here), then it should be worth the try! At least it’ll be better than trying another mediocre recipe and failing, no? The Cook’s Illustrated pie dough recipe is no different, it requires the use of vodka, which not many people have at home, and requires the use of shortening as well, which again, not many people have ready at home. The recipe also uses a food processor, which I believe most locals do not have. In any case, I too don’t have a food processor (although I’d love to have one) and I didn’t use shortening in the recipe, but I believe the use of vodka did help in making a flaky crust :] If the technique I use for the pie crust looks familiar, it’s because it’s largely adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s technique of cutting the butter into flour for pies.
1 tsp sea salt
2 tbl sugar
280 g cold unsalted butter, cut into 3-cm cubes
70 ml cold vodka
80 ml cold water
- Divide the butter roughly into thirds, keeping one-third in the freezer (about 100g).
- Weigh and sieve flour, salt and sugar together, placing them in a clean mixing bowl. Add the remaining unfrozen butter into the flour mixture. Either use a fork, pastry cutter or your clean fingertips, begin cutting the butter into the flour, until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs.
- Spoon the mixture into a large ziplock bag and add the frozen butter into the bag. Expel any air from the bag and close it. Use a rolling pin to flatten the butter into flakes. You should get flattened “breadcrumb” bits and butter flakes. Place the ziplock bag into the freezer for about 10 minutes to make sure that all the butter is firm.
- Transfer the mixture to a chilled bowl. Slowly add 50ml of the cold vodka and 50ml of the cold water and incorporate them into the dough. At this point, I like to use a spatula to gather the dough together instead of using my fingertips. Add the remaining vodka and water, until you get a shaggy dough.
- Put the mixture back into the ziplock bag and use the heel of your hand to knead the mixture until it comes together and feels stretchy.
- At this point, divide the dough into 2 or more discs (depending on whether you are making tarts or tartlets), and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, preferably overnight before using.
240 ml milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 egg yolks
30 g castor sugar
25 g cornstarch (or cornflour)
- Place the milk and vanilla extract in a saucepan over medium high heat and bring to a boil before setting aside.
- Whisk together egg yolks and caster sugar in a bowl until the sugar dissolves and it becomes a pale yellow color. Add in the cornstarch and whisk until combined.
- Slowly pour in the milk, making sure to whisk continuously. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and heat over medium high heat. Continue whisking constantly until the mixture thickens. Once thickened, remove from heat and set aside to cool.
- Once cooled, spoon into cooled tart shells and serve with fresh fruits of your choice.
- Taste: The crust itself is very flakey and buttery because it is an all-butter crust. Therefore, be sure to use good quality butter.
- Serving size: I managed to make about 25 mini tartlets (1.5 inch diameter) with one disc of dough.
- Modifications: If you don’t have vodka, you can use vinegar to the same effect as well. Rice vinegar is fine too as the smell disappears after baking. Basically vodka or vinegar evaporate when baking, and they do not add to gluten formation since it does not react with the flour, thus giving you a flaky crust! Also, you might not have to use all the water and vodka, so sprinkle them in slowly after the first addition.
- Storage: I’ve kept the pie discs in the freezer, in a ziplock bag and each separately packaged for over a month and I take one disc out whenever I feel like using it. It takes less than half an hour to be malleable enough to roll and the tart crust tastes as good as before. The dough keeps really well! I’ve still got a disc left, and I’ll be doing a comparison by baking it after having storing it for 3 months vs another newly made pie dough (same recipe) to see if there’s any difference.
- Would I make this again? Most definitely!
- Other comments: Make sure that all your equipment used is cold, so that the butter does not melt excessively. I have warm palms, so having cold water and vodka helps to neutralize the effect my fingers have on melting the butter.
This post is getting rather long and convoluted, because this is perhaps the first time I’m doing a recipe with multiple components and my verbosity is getting the better of me :/ Anyhow, here are some more pictures of the completed product. I’m glad I finally did try out the pie dough recipe, because I do think that it’s a keeper (although I changed a lot of the steps – thus making it mine hehe) and it’s really versatile! I even made egg tarts with them which my mother proclaimed the best thing I’ve ever made!