Like I said before, I'm a fruit pie fiend. After two creamy, custardy pies, I was excited to get to work on a fruit pie. But first I needed a good crust.
For cream pies, you want to make a mealy dough with a fine texture that holds up well to blind baking (baking without the filling). For fruit pies, though, you want a shatteringly crisp and flaky crust, rich with butter—and best of all, a hint of lard. Lard, like butter, has a lower melting point than solid vegetable shortening, so it literally melts in your mouth. And lard, like butter, has survived the decades-long impugning of its saturated fat reputation (well, it is a saturated fat...but we're learning that those aren't so bad for you—in moderation—compared to partially hydrogenated oils).
At the farmers' market last weekend, I happened upon a heritage pork breeder who was selling lard. If you're lucky, a farmers' market near you will carry already rendered lard. If you're less lucky, but plenty ambitious, you can render it yourself. I brought home a pound of lard—a big block of fat that needed processing before it could be used in a recipe.
"Are you making pie crusts?" asked the farmer. "Yeah!" "You're using half lard, half butter?" "Yeah!" "Make sure you don't heat the lard more than 225 degrees, or it'll start to taste meaty. Some people render it in the oven overnight, but I think that's the same as getting it too hot. You just want to heat it for an hour or so, not much longer."
Warning: if you're the kind of person who gets squeamish handling raw chicken, this is not the project for you. However, if you can deal with meat and hot fat, and want to make some of the best pie crust the world has ever seen, it's worth an afternoon of work.
Since this is a family website, I didn't take photos of the lard during the rendering process (if you've seen the movie "Fight Club" and remember the scene with the fat, well…enough said). I snipped it in big chunks (using kitchen shears meant I didn't have to grease up a cutting board and could drop the shears straight into the dishwasher) and then pulsed the lard in my food processor to make smaller easier-to-melt pieces. I put that mess into a heavy Dutch oven, and put that in a low oven (I started out at 275 degrees, and then lowered the temp to 225°). Once it was mostly melted, I strained it through a fine mesh sieve and then through a coffee filter nestled in a funnel (although that step might not have been necessary—the sieve worked very well).
I poured the cooled but still fluid lard into a Ziploc bag nestled inside another bag, and put it in the freezer to chill. I filled the bags in 8 oz. and 4 oz. portions. For those of you who are novice pastry-makers, you want your fat and water very cold so that the fat stays in discrete pieces when you mix the dough: that's what gives the crust its flaky texture. I keep lard or Crisco in the freezer, and butter in the fridge until I'm ready to mix my dough. You also want to handle the dough as little as possible so that you don't form gluten, which will make it tough.
I made a big batch of dough so that I'd have enough left over for next month's pies. I pulsed the flour, butter, my beautiful snowy white lard, and salt in the food processor until the fat was the size of small peas. Oh, and I added about a tablespoon of powdered sugar per crust for just a hint of sweetness (powdered sugar doesn't make the dough sticky and hard to handle like granulated sugar can). I turned out the dry ingredients into a bowl and added the ice water bit by bit, tossing the mixture by hand. As soon as it was moistened (it looked crumbly, but held together when I squeezed a handful), I portioned it into gallon-sized bags and put it in the fridge to chill.
- Even if the dough seems dry, don't add more water: as it rests, the flour absorbs more of the moisture. If it's still too dry when you take it out of the fridge, just wet your hands—oftentimes that's enough to help the dough stick together. If you add too much water, the dough will be too sticky to roll, and you'll use more flour and end up with a tough crust.
- The dough should rest again after you roll it out and line the pie plate. This helps the gluten relax and prevents the crust from shrinking in the oven. (Yes, I know I said you don't want to form gluten, but that's not totally true: you need enough protein to give the dough structure, but not so much that it's tough and chewy. That's why you use all-purpose or pastry flour to make pie crusts: cake flour is too weak, and bread flour too strong). Lightly cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for twenty minutes to half an hour.
- For double-crust and lattice-topped pies, I roll out the top crust after I've lined the pie pan. I transfer it to a parchment- or wax paper-lined sheet pan (a large flat plate, or the removable base from a tart pan work well, too), cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate the top crust until I'm ready to assemble the pie.
For the filling, I used a technique I got from Cook's Illustrated: I sautéed the rhubarb before adding it to the strawberries. When making fruit pies I generally cook a third of the filling in order to cook off some of the moisture and activate the starch, but rhubarb tends to cook down to mush. Sautéing the chopped rhubarb in a hot skillet with a little oil cooks off moisture while allowing the rhubarb to retain its shape. I heated a tablespoon or so of canola oil in the skillet, added the rhubarb and about a quarter cup of sugar, and cooked it, stirring frequently, for about five minutes.
I used the Rhubarb and Strawberry Pie recipe as a base, but somehow that name doesn't roll off my tongue very easily, so I'm going to have to call it Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie out of habit. Like for my last pie, I made extra filling to get a big fat pie: about a pound and a half of rhubarb and five cups of strawberries. I still kept the sugar at a cup, though, because I like rhubarb pies to be fairly tart. I also used three tablespoons of cornstarch instead of the flour—since I had cooked off some of the filling's liquid, I didn't need as much thickener. I also added a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of orange zest, which I saw in the Strawberry Rhubarb Pie III recipe and thought sounded good.
I preheated the sheet pans (essential to keep the bubbling juices from spilling onto the floor of your oven) and put the filled pies on the hot pans to help set the bottom crust. I baked the pies for about 25 minutes at 400 degrees, and then lowered the oven temp to 375° for the last 30 minutes of baking. Lastly, to get a nice shine on the crust, I made a glaze by combining equal parts of water and golden syrup (corn syrup would work too) and heating it on the stove. I pulled the pie out of the oven when the crust was golden brown, brushed on the hot glaze, and returned the pie to the oven for about three minutes to dry the glaze.
Lastly, I let the pie cool fully—about five hours—before cutting into it, allowing the filling time to set. The verdict? Pie perfection.