L’Academie Weeks Two and Three – Why Pie Crust Doesn’t Want To Be Flaky And Tender

by moderndomestic on August 8, 2010

Mini quiche

We made mini quiche with the pâte brisée. And yes, this is my quiche a day later - so it's a bit sunken in the middle. Still delicious, though.

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.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Becca August 9, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Blinded… BY SCIENCE!

Can’t wait to see what else you learn. I’m loving this series.

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Tammy Gordon August 9, 2010 at 7:05 pm

I’m leaving the pie crusts to you. #Intimidated

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probonogeek August 9, 2010 at 8:35 pm

I agree with Tammy… as I recall, I’m owed some cookies for a certain IT activity. But, I think, instead of cookies, I will take several sheets of pre-made pie crust dough that I can just use in the future as required.

kthxbye :)

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moderndomestic August 9, 2010 at 9:12 pm

So, Sean and Tammy – yes, baking has all this scientific crap that makes it really intimidating. But, like, pie crust is one of those things that you just have to try a couple of times and see how it works for you. Don’t let science get you down!

Also, Tammy, I could TOTALLY come over and do a pie crust class. I love a good pie crust.

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David August 9, 2010 at 11:27 pm

I realize that it’d be exceeding difficult, but I think only the outer layers of the pie crust need to be flaky; the insides could be tender. My chemistry is weak sauce, but I would investigate ways to coat the rolled out pie dough such that the outside becomes flaky. If my research turns up anything, I’ll let you know.

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David August 26, 2010 at 2:38 pm

I asked a chemist friend about freezing the flaky layer and grating it onto the tender layer, and was told it would “probably work.”

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