Of all the types of recipes out there, baking recipes can be the most cryptic.
After all, how often do you see phrases like, "Have ready 1/4 cup mirepoix in brunoise" in your standard...
There are approximately 53 pie recipes in the Joy of Cooking, the vast majority of which call for flaky pastry dough. You could go through life only making pies with crumb crusts, and that would be a tasty existence indeed, but there are some pies where a crumb crust simply will not do. And pie dough is easy to make. Really. If our forebears could turn out legendary pies without refrigeration, without air conditioning, and with temperamental wood stoves and hearths, we can easily do the same. The only thing we are lacking today that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers possessed is confidence and the heirloom know-how that used to be passed down from mother to daughter. Confidence is gained through making pie dough over and over and over, making mistakes, fixing those mistakes, and remembering not to make the same mistakes the next time around. The know-how is what we're here for.
The trickiest, most accident-prone aspect of making a pie crust is the rolling process. This is my opinion, of course. There are lots of other places where pie dough can go from lovely to lamentable, but the rolling seems to be the point where a lot of would-be pie bakers go wrong.
I have discovered why unsuccessful or inferior crusts are so common--pie dough can sense fear. Of course there is more to it than that. It does matter what kind of flour you use, if you overwork the dough, what kind of fat and how much you use...but the clincher, and perhaps what is hardest to understand, even more difficult to explain, is that it matters how you approach your dough.
After giving the dough a long rest in the refrigerator, it may be tough and unyielding. Let the dough rest for several minutes at room temperature. If you try to roll out a very cold, very hard piece of dough, it will crack. This is not the end of all things, but you can save yourself the frustration.
Lightly but evenly flour your work surface. Roll out the dough with intent, pausing to rotate the dough to prevent sticking. This is crucial. One of the more common mistakes I see in this regard is the cook moving around the dough, approaching it warily from every direction. You must move the dough rather than letting the dough move you. Move it constantly. After every stroke of the pin, rotate the dough. At any sign of sticking, throw a little flour underneath and keep going. At first, this will feel awkward, but you will come into your own soon enough.
Once rolled, the dough should be approximately 1/8-inch thick. A common pastry mistake is to roll the dough so that it is thicker in the center than at the edges. This is to be avoided because thinner places in the dough will brown (read: burn) more quickly than thicker areas. To prevent this, try using a French rolling pin (a wooden pin that is thick in the middle and tapered at the ends) and refrain from rolling the dough to the very edges. Roll from the center of the dough to within 1 inch of the edge, rotate, and repeat.
Once you've rolled your dough, transfer it to the dish you intend to use. Wind the dough around your rolling pin, making sure it is floured and will not stick to itself. Unroll the dough over the dish, and gently press it into the corners of the pan. Trim any excess dough, leaving an overhang of about 1/2 to 1 inch. Chill the dough immediately for about 30 minutes.
If you should be so lucky as to have a marble rolling pin (and if you do a lot of pie baking or have any interest in flaky pastry doughs, such as croissant, I recommend getting one), use it for this application. You should not need to bear down on the pin at all, as it is significantly heavier than a wooden pin. Marble pins are marvelous to work with, as marble stays about 10 degrees cooler than the ambient temperature of your kitchen. Should you own a marble slab and a marble rolling pin...well...you've got it made. Just remember to turn the dough as you roll and you're set.
Don't miss the next installment of this series, where I will discuss blind baking a pie crust.