I’ve long been avoiding making my own pie crusts. I’ve dreaded it even. Seasoned cooks out there swear they’re easy to make and keep on hammering on how important it is to have a good pie crust in your repertoire, one you can preferably do by heart without needing a recipe. Somehow the art of the flaky crust has always eluded me. I’ve tried different varieties of butter as well as shortening and I’ve made sweet as well as savory versions. Something always went wrong. It felt like the pie gods had decided that I wouldn’t ever enjoy the pleasures of a good, flaky, perfectly golden homemade pie crust.
Through my many unsuccessful attempts, I’ve used store-bought crusts once in a while. I was happiest when we lived in Paris and I could buy the “Marie” brand: made with real butter, sold already rolled out, and large enough to fit fluted tart pans; what’s not to like? I even felt a ridiculous affection for the brand that wore my name. Back then, I made at least a quiche per week and I think I may have even ventured into sweet pie territory.
Back to shortening-based store-bought pie dough at home, I lost interest again, making frittatas instead of quiches or opting for this easy whole wheat olive oil crust, which is delicious, but doesn’t fulfill the buttery flaky craving at all.
Then I finally got around to reading Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio. If you read it as well, you know how Ruhlman emphasizes the importance of learning ratios as a means to liberate your creativity in the kitchen. I thought the theory behind ratios was very wise and I swore to myself I’d try to learn them—until I read the pie dough chapter. I turned negative and grumpy. Oh great, I thought. Another cook evangelizing the merits of pâte brisée. Of course it’s awesome! Of course it’s easy to make! Of course you should master it! I couldn’t help but notice that it tainted my reading of the rest of the book. Suddenly, I doubted the ratios.
Toward the end of the book, the custard chapter reminded me of the dreamy French quiche lorraine. Not the thin, overcooked, and dense quiches we often have to suffer on this side of the ocean. I’m talking about the two-inch tall, silky smooth creation…and its quintessential buttery pie crust. Salivating over the thought of an authentic homemade quiche, I thought: that’s it. I need to master this. No homemade quiche lorraine worthy of its name could be made with store-bought pie dough.
And so Ruhlman worked his magic and broke the pie crust curse that had been cast upon me. Mind you, I didn’t go all creative. I followed his 3-2-1 Pie Crust recipe faithfully, reading the detailed instructions carefully, feeling like he was teaching me to do it himself: “See how easy it is?”
The crust turned out flakier and better than I ever hoped it could be. It truly honored the textbook-perfect quiche Lorraine it hosted. The best thing is that I know this is just the beginning: the next one I make will be even better and so on until I know how to make it by heart and it finally becomes part of my repertoire.
3-2-1 Pie Dough (Pâte brisée)
Recipe from the book Ratio by Michael Ruhlman with additional tips from James Peterson’s Glorious French Food: A Fresh Approach to the Classics
For a quiche baked in a 9-inch x 2-inch tall springform pan or
Two 9-inch pie crusts
The name of this dough comes from its ratio: 3 parts flour : 2 parts fat : 1 part water. Ruhlman strongly advises to weigh your ingredients instead of measuring them by volume for more precision and better results. You can use different fats to make this dough: butter results in a rich, most flavorful dough. Other choices include lard, which works great for savory pies, and vegetable shortening when you’re looking for a neutral taste (choose a shortening that doesn’t contain trans fat). Make sure to measure the quantity of shortening by weight because it doesn’t have the same volume/weight as butter.
The one key advice is to make sure the fat is very cold, frozen even. Also, the dough must be made quickly and worked as little as possible. Flour and fat are combined together, then enough water is added just to bring them together into a dough. When you combine the flour and fat you want to create small beads of fat and plenty of pea-sized chunks for a flaky crust (the fat separates the layers of flour and water); the colder the fat, the better. Overmixing or kneading it will result in the development of too much gluten (as will adding too much water) and thus a tough dough. Keep the fat cool by using ice cold water. When the dough just comes together, it must be wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for at least 30 minutes before being rolled out.
12 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour (about 2 ¼ cups)
9 ounces butter (2 sticks), cut into small pieces, frozen
2 to 4 ounces ice water
½ teaspoon sea or kosher salt
Method using food processor:
Pulse the flour and cubes of butter together until the butter chunks are the size of peas. Add salt and pulse once or twice. Add water 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing between each addition. Stop adding water as soon as the dough starts clumping together (it shouldn’t all hold together in a ball yet, if it does, chances are you added too much water). Take the dough out onto a floured work surface. Use your hands to bring the dough together into a ball. Don’t overknead or the dough could become tough or shrink once cooked. Flatten the ball of dough into a disk and refrigerate (wrapped) for at least 30 minutes before rolling out.
Method using your hands:
Combine the flour and butter in a mixing bowl and rub the butter between your fingers until you have small beads of fat and plenty or pea-sized chunks. Add the ice water gradually and a good pinch of salt and mix gently, just until combined. Don’t overknead or the dough could become tough or shrink once cooked. Shape the dough into a disk and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or until ready to roll.
Classic Quiche Lorraine
Recipe from Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman
There are various versions of Quiche Lorraine, the most basic of which is just eggs, bacon, milk and cream. The addition of caramelized onions and Comté cheese is one of the most frequent adaptations and the one I like most because the flavors complement each other so well.
This quiche must be baked into a shallow pan, ideally a 2- by 9-inch ring mold. You can also use a 2-inch cake pan, provided you line the bottom with parchment paper. If you cook a custard in a pie shell, even if you cook the custard perfectly and don’t overcook it (which is easy to do when it’s so thin), the custard is too shallow to offer its fundamental pleasure, which a luxurious texture.
One neat little trick I learned in Rulhman’s book is to let the dough overhang the sides of the pie pan when you blind bake it. This ensures the dough will cook straight up to the top of the edge of the pan, something that would otherwise be virtually impossible otherwise given the 2-inch height. My springform pan is 3-inch tall so I had to cut off quite a lot of excess dough after baking but I thought it was still very pretty.
Quiche Lorraine is an extraordinary dish. It can be made a day or more ahead and it’s just as delicious hot or cold. It can also be served for any meal of the day, breakfast, lunch, dinner or late-night supper.
Serves 8 to 12
2 large Spanish onions, thinly sliced
Canola oil as needed
3-2-1 Pie Dough
1 pound slab bacon, cut into ¼-inch lardons (cubes) or thick-cut bacon cut into strips
2 cups milk
1 cup cream
6 large eggs
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Nutmeg to taste (about 5 gratings)
½ cup grated Comté or Emmenthal cheese
Sauté the onions over medium heat in a film of canola oil. Cover them for the first 15 minutes to get them steaming and releasing their moisture, then uncover, reduce the heat to low, and continue cooking until they are cooked down but not overly brown, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Set aside and let cool when they’re finished.
Preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C). Roll out the dough to a thickness of about ¼ inch. Place a 2- by 9-inch ring mold or a 2- by 9-inch round cake pan on a baking sheet (line the baking sheet with parchment paper if you’re using a ring mold; if you’re using a cake pan, also line its bottom with parchment paper). Lightly oil the inside of your ring mold or pan. Lay the dough into the mold – there should be plenty of dough overhanging the edges to help it maintain its shape. Reserve a small piece of dough to fill any cracks that might open in the dough as it bakes.
Blind bake the dough until the crust is golden brown: line the dough with parchment and fill it with dried beans or pie weights so the crust bakes flat. After 30 minutes, remove the weights and parchment, gently patch with the reserved dough any cracks that may have formed, and continue baking until the bottom of the crust is golden and cooked, about 15 minutes more. Remove the crust from the oven and patch any cracks that may have opened; this is especially important if you’re using a ring mold, or the batter will leak out. The shell should be anywhere between cold and warm when you add the batter, not piping hot from the oven.
Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F (165°C).
Sauté the bacon gently until it’s cooked as you like it (crisp on the outside, tender on the inside is best!). Drain the bacon and combine it with the onions.
In a large 8-cup measuring cup, combine the milk, cream, eggs, salt, pepper and nutmeg and, using a hand blender, blend until frothy. This can be done in a standing blender as well or, for a bit of exercise, you could even mix the batter in a large bowl using a whisk (beat the eggs first, then add the rest of the ingredients). The idea will be to add the ingredients in two layers, using the froth to help keep the ingredients suspended.
Layer half of the onion-bacon mixture into the shell. Pour half the frothy custard over the mixture. Sprinkle with half the cheese. Layer with the remaining onion-bacon mixture. Refroth the batter and pour the rest into the shell. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top.
Bake in the 325°F (165°C) oven for about 1 ½ hours, or until the center is just set. It may take as long as 2 hours, but don’t overcook it – there should still be some jiggle in the center.
Allow the quiche to cool, then refrigerate until it’s completely chilled, 8 hours or up to 3 days.
Using a sharp knife or kitchen shears, cut the top of the crust off along the rim. Slide the knife along the edge of the ring mold or cake pan to remove the quiche.
Slice and serve cold, or, to serve hot, slice and reheat for 10 minutes in a 375°F (190°C) oven on a lightly oiled parchment or foil.
Note: I couldn’t wait until my quiche was completely chilled before cutting it off. If I had, my slices would have been a lot neater! But frankly, who can wait when such a dreamy pie comes out of the oven?