I’ve been learning so much in my L’Academie class, and I’m a little at a loss to write about it all. There’s been so much – beautiful dark orange gougères (aka cheese puffs) that they served us at the end of the second class that I totally forgot to photograph. Silky pastry cream that we thickened over the stove until it was glossy and sleek. Springy brioche that we loaded with half a pound of butter.
But rather than try to give you a laundry list of everything I’ve learned, I think I’ll share the things you’ll find the most interesting or relevant. Like, say, our little primer on why it’s so difficult to make a good pie crust.
During our second class we made pâte brisée, which is also known as the “French pie dough.” It’s a buttery dough that you can roll out and use in pies, tarts, tartlettes, quiche, savory pastries, turnovers – pretty much anything you can imagine. The challenge with pie dough, as I’m sure you know, is that you want a product that’s both “tender” (delicate and melt in your mouth) and flaky (dough that falls apart in flaky sheets). But it never seems to turn out that way – either your dough dissolves in your mouth, or it flakes apart in crisp, buttery sheets – but never both at the same time. Well it turns out that, scientifically, these two goals are at odds with each other.
To make a delicate, tender crust, you want the butter to melt in the dough, so the fat will coat the flour particles. This helps keep the flour from absorbing water and activating the proteins that form gluten. Gluten – those wonderfully extensible proteins that give bread dough its spring – will make your pie dough tough and hard – never something desirable in a pie crust.
But to make a flaky dough, you want to keep your butter in pea-sized chunks, which you flatten into large sheets when you roll out the dough. When you bake the dough, the moisture from the butter sheets evaporates, creating the flaky texture that we come to expect in a good pie crust.
So, you both want your butter to melt and coat your flour particles, but you also want to keep it cold and in large sheets. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms . . . well, it is. The best you can do as a baker is try to balance the two – sacrifice some flakiness for a little bit of tenderness, or vice versa. But you’ll never be able to create a dough that’s the most flaky it can be and the most tender it can be. Scientifically, it’s not going to happen.