As a kid, I was the worst kind of food snob. My palate was not exactly sophisticated – when my mom was cooking, I was always begging for buttered noodles and cereal – but my capacity for judging other people’s dining habits was limitless. Eating dinner at friends’ houses, I’d turn my nose up at TV dinners before greedily scarfing them down. I’d smile pityingly at moms who served store-bought birthday cakes at parties before, obviously, vying for the piece with the most icing. I was especially unforgiving on the subject of pre-made pie crusts. Boxed cakes and brownies, at least, usually tasted pretty good. But store-bought pie crusts never came close to the real thing. At best, they were stale and chalky. At worst, they were cookies or graham crackers masquerading as crusts, dressed up all pie-ish in a circular little tin in the cookie section of the grocery store.
Part of the reason for my precociously unforgiving palate, obviously, is that I was an enormous brat with no concept of the difficulties of being a working parent. The other part probably has to do with the fact that I come from a long line of excellent bakers, and thus was also tremendously spoiled in this department. My mother is basically a non-practicing professional cake-maker at this point, having made not one wedding cake but two – including her own – along with innumerable birthday cakes, thousands of celebratory cupcakes, the occasional experimental fondant creation, and pies for every season. My grandmother, great-grandmother, aunts, and great-aunts, all prolific bakers and cooks, have cumulatively passed along hundreds of tips and recipes; even my grandfather made two wedding cakes.
Until recently, I had limited my baking activities pretty strictly to cake. I’ve worked at a few bakeries over the years, so I (sort of) know the drill, and the kind of pie I was most interested in making – lemon meringue, a childhood favorite – also appeared rather complicated. And let’s be real. I was a little bit nervous. Making pie crust seemed kind of hard? And I had spent my entire life smirking gleefully at people so inferior they dared buy their crusts from the grocery store shelves. It would be pretty embarrassing to have to admit myself, at long last, to the ranks of America’s low-class pastry frauds.
Anyway, this is where my great-aunt Marigene’s Never-Fail Pie Crust comes in. It is takes about 10 minutes and requires almost no skill. I think I might be blowing the lid off my family’s legendary pie crust-baking reputation, in fact, because it seems like they have been getting a lot of credit for doing something that is really not very hard. The recipe uses Crisco instead of butter (JUDGE ME), which is a little less classy and probably 2-5% less tasty than your perfect butter creation. But it’s infinitely easier to work with, and there is a sifting trick that’s imperative, too. The result truly is, in my experience, never-fail. So here we go.*
GREAT AUNT MARIGENE’S NEVER-FAIL PIE CRUST
Yield: 3-4 crusts
4 cups of flour, measured AFTER sifting, which is critical
1 ¾ cups Crisco shortening
1 tbs sugar
1 ¼ tsp salt
1 tbs vinegar
½ cup cold water
If you are blind-baking a pie crust before filling it, as one must do for a lemon meringue pie, for instance, you will also need a baggie of DRY kidney beans, rice, or pie weights.
In a big bowl, use two knives to cut the shortening into the flour. You want the crisco to break into increasingly small, crumbly pieces. If the two knives aren’t cutting it (ha ha), you can move to a knife and a fork, or, if you are the type of person who has a pastry blender, you can use a pastry blender. When the flour seems fairly crumbly, add the rest of the ingredients. Use your hands to mix everything together; when the dough feels and looks pretty mixed, round it into a big, soft ball. The dough might feel a little sticky, but that’s ok. Divide it into three or four balls – three if you’re new at this and want some extra dough to work with – and wrap them in saran wrap. Refrigerate the dough for at least half an hour before using, and store any dough you’re not immediately using in the freezer.
Once you’re ready to bake the dough, take it out of the fridge. If it’s been there for more than an hour, let it cool until it’s room temperature-ish.
When you’re ready to roll out the crust, clean off your counter and put a damp paper towel beneath a large sheet of wax paper. (According to my mom, from whom I stole this tip, the paper towel helps anchor the wax paper to the counter. Does everyone already do this?) Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Sprinkle some flour on the wax paper, and then onto the dough. Flatten the dough a little with your hand, sprinkle a bit more flour on the top, and start rolling it out in all directions. Add flour occasionally if the dough is sticking to the rolling pin, but be sparing: Too much flour will make your crust dry and tough, which is the opposite of what crust is supposed to taste like.
Once you’ve got the dough rolled out to a few inches longer than the diameter of your pie plate, pick up the wax paper and delicately – delicately! – flip it over and put it in the dish. Cut off any excess crust around the edges (scissors are easier, but a knife will do) and use a fork to put those pretty little indentations around the edge of your crust.
Now, if you are making a lemon meringue pie, which is the pie we are making here, you will bake your crust “blind.” (This is a term that is used for baking that frankly I think is a little imprecise, but whatever. It means the filling is not in the pie when you put the crust in the oven.) First, carefully remove the wax paper from your crust. Now cut a little round of aluminum foil to fit nicely inside your pie plate. (You want the piece of foil to have edges that go up the sides of the crust.) Fill it with dry kidney beans and pop it in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees. After 10 minutes, remove the crust, take the beans out, and bake the crust for an additional two minutes.
If you’ve done things right, you should have a beautiful, fragrant, and just-beginning-to-brown crust.
Lemon Meringue Pie
1 pie crust, blind-baked
For the filling:
1 ½ cups sugar
6 tablespoons cornstarch
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup cold water
½ cup fresh lemon juice (the equivalent of like 4 big lemons)
3 well-beaten egg yolks
2 tablespoons butter
1 ½ cups boiling water (ED NOTE: If you just dump it in all at once, which I have accidentally done in the past, you’ll also probably be fine)
1 tsp grated lemon zest
For the filling, I’m using a recipe from the 70s-era version of Joy of Cooking. I would recommend doing the prep work for both the filling and the meringue before starting on either, because you’ll want to do them in quick succession.
Sift into a 2- or 3-quart saucepan 1 1/2 cups sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Gradually fold in 1/2 cup cold water and lemon juice. When smooth, add egg yolks and 2 tablespoons of butter, blending thoroughly. Stirring constantly, fold in 1 1/2 cups boiling water.
[Another ed note – I got this recipe from a picture my mom took of the recipe in her cookbook, and some parts of it are cut off in the photo. So I’m guestimating some of the directions. Relax! It has worked fine for me.] Bring the mixture to a full boil, stirring constantly. When it begins to thicken, reduce the heat and simmer slowly for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in lemon zest
Pour into the baked pie shell. Cover the pie shell loosely with tin foil. Do not use saran wrap: It will stick to the lemon filling and cause your beautifully golden pie crust to crumble off as you are trying to remove it.
Once even a tiny bit of pie crust has fallen off, your significant other will feel he or she has cover to sneak a tiny piece of crust every time you turn your back, which means that by the time you put the pie back in the oven for the last time, your crust will have mysteriously diminished by like, a third. Only later, when consulting the photos you were taking throughout the process, will you realize exactly what was going on.
For the meringue:
3 egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
3 tablespoons of sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 330 degrees.
Separate your eggs and put them in a mixing bowl. Take out your hand mixer – I prefer this to an in-the-stand mixer because you have more mobility – and whip the egg whites until just frothy. Do not over-whip.
Add the cream of tartar. Now whip the egg whites until they are just stiff. This means that you should be able to create little peaks in the egg whites, which should remain when you take your beaters out, but still move slightly if you tip the bowl a little.
Beat in the sugar, one tablespoon at a time. Beat in the vanilla.
Try not to overbeat. If you mix the egg whites too much, they’ll get overly stiff and spongey.
Remove the pie’s foil covering and pour the egg whites on top of the lemon filling. Make sure the egg whites bind to the pie crust all along the circumference. Use a rubber spatula to shape the whites into pretty little peaks and swirls. Stick the pie back in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until the meringue is lightly brown on top. Let the pie cool for a few minutes, and then either serve it hot or put it in the fridge and serve it later. Luckily, lemon meringue pie tastes delicious served hot and cold.
*Thanks to Aunt Marigene, RIP, for this recipe, and also thanks to my mom for writing it out in a very comprehensive and cozy little cookbook.