How To

Easy as Pie

Crave asks the upper crust of Hong Kong bakers for the low down on dough.

Text by Yoon-Ji Han, photos by Mike Ho

Few things are as satisfying or decadent as a slice of pie. With more than 12,000 varieties worldwide (and counting), from Britain’s sweet banoffee pie to Greece’s spinach and feta spanakopita, they never fail to hit the spot.

The pie has humble beginnings. The ancient Romans used pastry cases to keep meat and other fillings moist during cooking, possibly stealing the idea from the ancient Greeks. Made from flour, suet (beef or mutton fat) and eggs, the pastry was dense and hard and usually discarded after the filling was eaten. In the 12th century, meat, vegetable and potato “pyes” served in inedible pastry “coffins” hit the stalls in Britain. Pies emigrated to the United States with the early colonists and, in the late 1800s, sweet pies made from pumpkin, custard and, of course, apples, became popular.

They have been embraced the world over and come in many forms, but the typical pie is a baked, pastry-lined dish with either sweet or savoury fillings, such as fruit, vegetables or meat. A pot pie is stewed in a pot on top of a stove and has only a top crust; a cobbler has a crumble top instead of a crust; a single-crust pie has only a bottom crust; and a double-crust has both top and bottom crusts.

Making pies can be a family affair. Tai Tai Pie Pies’ chef owner, R.J. Asher, says, “I was taught by my grandmother and mother, and still make pies the way they did [and still do].”

And Rebecca Wong from boutique bakery Baked Hong Kong says, “Kids will have a ball choosing their favourite foods to go into a pie and cutting out shapes for the pie toppers.”

But many home cooks are daunted by the prospect of baking their own pies, citing the difficulty of making the crust (typically a mixture of flour, butter and lard). 

“The texture of your crust has everything to do with the type of fat you use,” Wong says. “Lard or shortening [vegetable oil in a solid form] have higher melting points, so as it bakes, the fat stays solid for longer, creating flakier crusts. Butter has about 15 per cent water, which helps to puff up the pastry as it steams, creating a lighter, puffier crust. A lot of people use a combination for their crusts to get the flavour from butter, but the flakiness from shortening.

“For sweet pies, I prefer an all-butter crust as I really love the intensity of the flavour. For savoury pies, I like to mix a little bit of shortening [with butter], so the sauce and juice can fill in the spaces in the flaky layers.”

It’s worth experimenting to find the combination you like best, says Meg Teckmen-Fullard of Pretty Please Pies, an online business dedicated to homemade American pies.

“Once you get used to a crust recipe you like, stick to it,” she advises. “Being afraid of crusts shouldn’t stop you from making pies.”

The most common mistake is over-kneading the dough. Wong recommends avoiding mixers and using your hands to feel the texture of the dough; Asher’s tip is to be patient.

“Make sure to chill your dough before rolling it,” he says. “Glutens are the glue keeping the dough together, but they are also the enemy if verworked. You need to put [the dough] in the fridge for a while to mellow out.”

Teckmen-Fullard agrees that keeping your dough cool is key. “Always use cold fats and don’t add too much liquid. Take it a teaspoon at a time if you must, but you only want just enough gluten to form to hold [the dough] together.”

When it comes to baking the crust, different recipes call for different methods. Blind baking means fully cooking the crust before adding the filling; partial baking gives a crisper crust; or simply cook the filling and the raw crust together.

And so to the filling. Tai Tai Pie Pies’ signature is its all-American apple pie, while Pretty Please Pies is known for its blue ribbon blueberry pie.

“You have to have a delicious filling – one that is not too runny and just thick, gooey and flavourful enough to complement, and not overpower the buttery flavours of the crust,” says Wong (favourite filling: steak and Guinness).

Fresh, quality ingredients are essential, but they don’t have to make a dent in your wallet.

“For most pies, you get what you put in, “Teckmen-Fullard says. “However, you don’t need to get fancy Japanese apples when good old Granny Smiths are some of the best apples to put in a pie. I will say, though, don’t be afraid of sugar and butter and gluten. Trying alternative sweeteners and flours can make for disappointing pie results.”

For fresh ingredients, look no further than the marketplace. “Get produce that is in season to take advantage of their flavours during their prime,” Wong advises. “And don’t forget the ice cream or custard.”

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