Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Holiday pie crust rated G (for good!)

A few months ago, a friend and I had dinner at Duaneís Prime Steaks and Seafood, at the Mission Inn in Riverside, Calif.

Duaneís is a terrific old-school steakhouse, a place where you can get (and we did) Oysters Rockefeller, lobster mashed potatoes, and steak with bťarnaise and bordelaise sauces. If you want a special evening in Riverside, Duaneís is where itís at.

The reason I mention it, however, is because the maitre dí had, prior to my arrival, read last yearís Thanksgiving food column online.

Remember that one? The one about the mating habits of top-heavy turkeys?

The thing about the Internet is this: You canít control what youíre known for.

Well. This year weíre talking about pie crust, and weíre going to strive to maintain a G rating.

Pies have remained a Thanksgiving staple--a fixture on the American landscape generally--despite the fact that no one really makes them anymore.

At least, we donít make them like we used to.

Back in those days when ďlunchĒ was called ďdinner,Ē industrious homemakers churned out pies for breakfast, dinner and supper. But the only person getting in serious pie time now is Mrs. Smith.

For that, I blame the crust. In the modern world, the humble pie crust has two strikes against it.

First, itís perceived to be high in empty calories. No argument there.

But pie crusts are also thought to be difficult, and thatís not necessarily true.

I grew up in a household that relied exclusively on refrigerated Pillsbury pie crusts (a product toward which Iím still quite nostalgic). The first time I was confronted with making a crust from scratch was in college, when I tackled a recipe for mocha-pecan pie.

Directions for the crust went something like this: With your fingers, cut six tablespoons of cold butter into one cup of flour until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Stir in ice water (about 3 tablespoons) until the dough hangs together. Pat into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll into a 10-inch circle. Transfer to your pie pan.

Thatís it. I didnít know enough to be scared, and the crust turned out fine.

To be sure, pie crusts can be as complicated as youíd like. The recipe I now favor for my Thanksgiving pies calls for salted butter, unsalted butter and shortening in exacting proportions, plus small amounts of salt and sugar. Itís two pages long and takes six hours from start to finish.

(And I like it. Why? Because Iím insane.)

There are also tricks for making any pie crust better. To minimize shrinkage and maximize flakiness, for example, use a two-step process before baking the pie shell: After the dough has been rolled out and laid in the pan, let it relax in the refrigerator for 20 minutes, then freeze briefly before baking.

But the fact is, even a basic butter pie crust, simply made, is pretty good. If you use the recipe above, your pie may not win a prize at the county fair, but you probably wonít be disappointed with it.

A few things to keep in mind: the butter should be cold when you cut it into the flour. (You can also combine the butter and flour in a food processor.) Mix in as little water as possible, and donít knead the dough, or youíll make it tough.

Chilling the dough makes it easier to roll out. When you roll your dough into a circle (with a rolling pin, naturally, though Iíve used clean wine bottles in a pinch), use a minimum of flour; just enough to keep it from sticking.

Follow your recipeís instructions for pre-baking the shell, if necessary. A Pyrex pie plate makes it easy to see when the bottom is nice and brown.

Finally, if you want to get fancy, glaze the crust: beat together one egg yolk and a tablespoon of heavy cream, then brush this mixture on the crust before baking. It will give it a beautiful golden finish thatís every bit Blue Ribbon worthy.