Free-form pastries like this may not look quite as nice as an egg-washed lattice topped pie, but they involve far less effort, require no pie plate, and taste better. The first two benefits are pretty obvious, but the third is a little less intuitive, so let me explain. While a traditional pie is constrained to the volume of the plate you’re using, a free-form pie is limited only by how high you can stack the fruit. Personally, I like to create a small mountain of fruit in the middle of the dough, leaving just enough crust around the edges to tuck some back over the edges. The second thing is that there’s a trick to improving the texture of the bottom crust, while simultaneously making the crust easier to roll out and bake.
I roll the dough out on a layer of parchment paper on top of a layer of heavy duty aluminum foil. Since the dough won’t stick to the parchment paper, you can get away with just a sprinkle of flour on top to keep the crust from sticking to the rolling pin. This not only means you can avoid incorporating too much flour, but that you can then bunch up the aluminum to create a “dish” that can go straight onto the oven rack. This ensures you get good heat transmission to the bottom of the pie, so that you get a crisp caramelized bottom crust instead of the sodden doughy mess that lies under most pies.
While we’re on topic of crusts, I’m no expert, but here’s what I’ve learned over the years about making a tender flaky crust. The most important thing is to avoid the formation of gluten chains in your dough. When mixed with water, the gluten in wheat flour forms long chains which is what gives some foods their chewy texture. While this great for breads and pastas, chewy is not an adjective I like to hear when it comes to pie crusts. To limit the development of gluten, there are couple things you can do. The first is to use very cold ingredients, which inhibits the development of gluten. That’s why I usually keep a bag of flour and a stick of butter in the freezer. The second thing is to avoid over mixing as the more you mix a dough the more the gluten will develop.
This actually goes hand-in-hand with the technique for getting a flakey dough, which is to create layers of dough and uncombined butter. By using cold butter and not over mixing it, you’ll end up with little specs of unmixed butter interspersed throughout your dough. When the crust is rolled out, these specs of butter flatten out, creating layers (i.e. flakes) of dough separated by layers of butter.
Lastly I like putting quite a bit of sugar into my crust. The main reason for this is that the crust (which is directly exposed to the heat of the oven), will reach temperatures high enough to caramelize the sugar. This not only creates it’s own textural element, it also makes the crust taste amazing (think buttery caramel). The other reason is that I don’t like adding a ton of sugar into the filling because it can overwhelm the flavor of the fruit. Most pies over-sweeten the filling, since it needs to sweeten the crust as well, but by adding sugar to the crust, you only have to add just enough sugar to the fruit to balance out its natural acidity.
Another great thing about these free-form pies is that they’re perfect for when you have last minute brunch or dinner guests come over. The dough keeps in the freezer for weeks, so you can do a double batch of crust and keep the little pucks of dough handy. Even if you didn’t have the foresight to prepare the dough (a predicament I often find myself in), it only takes about 10 minutes to make and another 10 minutes in the freezer to chill. Filled with some fruit you probably already have laying around, this makes for a fantastic last-minute dessert that you can start just before guests arrive and finish as they’re eating their main course.
I really love the flavor that sits at the intersection of sweet aromatic white peaches, the bracing tartness of rhubarb, and the floral fragrance of vanilla, but you can really have a lot of fun with different combinations of fruit, cheese, herbs and spices. As we head into fall, how about an apple, grains of paradise and maple cream cheese pie; or a pear, cranberry and allspice pie? The only things you’ll need to adjust are the amount of sugar and the amount of starch depending on the sweetness, acidity and water content of the fruit you use.
Equipment you'll need:
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