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in which I find a strange obsession

March 25, 2010

Obsession, according to the indefatigable Merriam and Webster, is “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling”.

That really is a bit harsh, don’t you think? While I as an individual can be quite disturbing, unreasonable, preoccupied and as everyone who knows me at all can tell you, very persistent,  to apply these terms to just one area of my thought life seems like overkill. Especially when it refers to thoughts of pie crust. There are many words that come to mind with those words, but I think only the strictest anti-carbohydrator can label such an innocent form of pastry “disturbing”. However sinister Merriam and Webster might consider me and my thought life, I must attest that pie crust is a worthy form of obsession: one that provides the obsessed’s family with many glorious experiments to consume. And after many such experiments, most of which turned out to be edible, I believe I have found the perfect one. Julia Child, when she wasn’t saving the liver, came up with some of the most impossibly good food ever.

At least, I think she did. I got stuck on the pie crust page of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and haven’t come up for air yet. Like Merriam and Webster so succinctly point out, an obsession really does preoccupy one.


Anyway, back to the point, whether or not she came up with the most impossibly good food ever in general, she definitely came up with the butteriest (in my world, that is an immensely important criteria), most tender-yet-crispy, eye-pleasing, party-in-your-mouth pie crust in the history of cooking, French or otherwise. And here it is:

Pie Crust (Pate Brisee)

1 1/2 cups flour

6 Tbsp butter

2 Tbsp vegetable shortening

4-6 Tbsp cold water

a little under 1/2 tsp salt

pinch or two of sugar

Place flour, salt, sugar, butter and shortening in a big mixing bowl. Rub the flour and fat together rapidly between the tips of your fingers until the fat is broken into pieces the size of oatmeal flakes. Do not overdo this step as the fat will be blended more thoroughly later.

Add the water and blend quickly with one hand, bringing the dough together in a mass. If there is any unmassed, floury remains, sprinkle with more water and add to the main body of dough. Then press the dough firmly into a roughly shaped ball. It should just hold together and be pliable, but not damp and sticky.

Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. With the heel of one hand, not the palm which is too warm, rapidly press the pastry by acorn-sized bits down the board and away from you in a firm, quick smear of about 6 inches. This constitutes the final blending of fat and flour, or fraisage.

With a scraper or spatula, gather the dough again into a mass, knead it briefly into a fairly smooth round ball. Sprinkle it lightly with flour and wrap in plastic wrap. Place in freezer for one hour until the dough is firm. (You may freeze at this point for several weeks.)

Because of its high butter content, roll out the dough as quickly as possible, so that it will not soften and become difficult to handle. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface. If the dough is hard, decompress by beating it with a rolling pin to soften it (by far the most fun part of the recipe). Then knead it briefly into a fairly flat circle. It should be just malleable enough so that it can be rolled out without cracking.

Lightly flour the top of the dough. With a firm, even stroke, and always rolling away from you, roll out the dough until it is 1/8 inch thick and about 2 inches larger all around than your pie pan. Bon appetite!


The best way to use this recipe, in my humble opinion, is in Rum Raisin Pie and Caramelized Onion Tart, the recipes for which I will post later. Until then, I will have to set aside some time to meander my way through the rest of Julia’s mouth-watering book, one of my mother’s prized possessions.

Of course, “prized possession” is a rather broad term with my mom, as she suffers from a rather odd obsession of her own. Every book that comes into the family, from The Velveteen Rabbit and The Hobbit to Fanny at Chez Panisse and The Lee Brother’s Cookbook is to her a treasure beyond compare. I suppose that is where I got  my intense love and devotion to all things literary. But that is also why if you ever come to our house or borrow one of our books you should be warned: do not abuse, wet, or (horror of horrors) dog-ear any of them. For while my mother is one of the sweetest-tempered women I have ever known (unfortunately, not all of her charm passed to me), if you should in any way harm one of her books, she will hang, drawn and quarter you. Your innards will most likely be served at dinner with Hollandaise Sauce (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, page 79-85 if you want to know). You have been warned. We are a family of strange and sinister obsessions. Don’t even get me started on my dad.

Anyway, I’m sure that Julia has much to offer beyond her brilliant pastry. So, until next time, as long as I manage not to dog-ear any books, I take my leave. Cheers, to you and pie crusts and licorice and Chinese Checkers and family and everything that makes life memorable.

Live long and prosper,


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