If you are any kind of cook, chances are that in the weeks ahead you are going to be called on to make at least one pie. Showing up with two is never a bad idea.
The only problem is that would mean making four crusts. Which you probably don’t want to do.
Pie crust has a reputation as a sneaky adversary. Maybe your pies come out just fine. Even so, you probably wonder if you are the only person left not using vodka instead of water in your crust.
J. Kenji López-Alt, the MIT-educated food-science mastermind, explains how that works, in Serious Eats: “Vodka is about 60% water and 40% ethanol, which means that only 60% of it is actually active in aiding gluten development. Meanwhile, 100% of it is active in moistening the dough.”
What he means is that using vodka instead of water should make for easier rolling and at the same time reduce the chances your crust will be tough.
This trick works, he writes. “But to be completely honest, it’s one that I don’t really use at home that often. With the fat and flour all-butter technique, it’s really not necessary.”
In other words, it works almost as well to drink the vodka and make the dough the way your grandma did. Mine used 1¼ cups of flour to ½ cup of fat, then 3 to 5 tablespoons of ice water, depending on the weather. Fats-wise, she lived during the Crisco era, but I’ve gone over to butter.
Grandma mixed her pie dough with a fork, using a worrisomely vigorous stabbing action. It took about a minute longer than my Cuisinart does, and it guaranteed her some good shards of unincorporated fat, which made for flakiness.
She would have given the Cuisinart the side-eye. Overworking the dough is too easy in that thing. She might not approve of my other big shortcut, either. It makes it possible to show up for Thanksgiving with not one but two pies and still be in a good mood: single-crust tarts.
Both of these tarts use pears. Why should apples be the only fruit qualified to fill a Thanksgiving pie? Pears, being less usual, are an important part of my working person’s two-pie plan: they fool people into thinking your pies are somehow more special-occasion than they really are.
Do not mess with the black pepper, rosemary, and olive oil on Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s pear pizza from The Italian Country Table. Her crust calls for an egg, but it works fine to make it with the same plain butter crust you’re making for the pear mincemeat tart.
Wait a minute, did I say “mincemeat”? My grandmother surely appreciated its secret ingredient (and I don’t mean cloves). So does my longtime Thanksgiving cooking companion, Anne Marie Simmons, who gave me this recipe. She’s a Texan and a hunter and the real deal when it comes to being an omnivore. But it just so happens her pear mincemeat recipe is faux, as far as fats go. It’s made from chopped pears and raisins and butter and brandy — not a trace of suet.
Basic Butter Pie Crust
Makes one crust
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. sugar
½ tsp. salt
½ cup (one stick) butter
3 to 5 Tbsp. ice water
Stir together the flour, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl. Make sure your butter is cold. Cut it into thin slices and scatter it over the flour mixture. Cut it in with a fork or your fingers. Or do the whole thing in a Cuisinart. Just don’t overwork it — you want little shards of unmelted butter to remain.
Add the ice water, a tablespoon at a time, working it in quickly. Use just enough to get the dough to hold together.
Dump out the dough. Shape it into a disk, wrap it in plastic, and chill it for a half hour if you have time. Otherwise, roll it out.
For the pear tart, you’ll roll the dough into a big freeform circle. For the mincemeat tart, you’ll drape it into a 10-inch tart pan and run the rolling pin over it to trim the edge.
Pear Mincemeat Tart
For a 10-inch tart
2 ripe bosc pears
1/3 cup dark raisins
1/3 cup brown sugar
½ cup white wine
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
¼ tsp. nutmeg
¼ tsp. ginger
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. brandy
Optional: an additional pear, cored and sliced thin, plus a squeeze of lemon and a tablespoon of sugar, to decorate the top of the tart.
Line a 10-inch tart pan with one butter crust. Set it in the freezer while you prepare the filling.
Chop the pears — you should have about 2 cups — and put them in a heavy saucepan.
Add the raisins, brown sugar, and white wine, and simmer, partly covered, until pears are tender, allowing juices to reduce to about half.
Take off the fire, add the butter, and stir in spices and brandy. Pour chopped pear filling into butter-crust-lined tart pan and bake at 375 degrees F for about 40 minutes, until the crust is golden and filling is bubbly.
If you have time, before you bake the tart: slice an additional pear into thin wedges and fan them into a circle on top of the mincemeat. Sprinkle on the white sugar and bake, same as above.
Rustic Pear and Rosemary Tart
A freeform tart
3 ripe bosc pears
½ lemon, for juice
1/3 cup sugar
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. minced rosemary leaves
Zest of about half an orange
Drizzle of olive oil, about a tablespoon
Roll out one butter crust and set it on parchment paper on a flat baking sheet.
Peel, core, and slice pears thinly and toss with lemon juice. Fan pears into a circle on the crust, leaving a couple of inches of dough around the outer edge.
Mix sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over the pears. Grind on the pepper, mince the rosemary, and sprinkle it on. Zest the orange over the top. Drizzle with olive oil.
Flop the edges in and pinch them up a little to hold the juices in as the tart bakes. Bake about 30 minutes at 375 F.