Pie and Tart Crusts
The key to a great pie or tart is the crust. Whether it is light, flaky, crisp, tender, crumbly, or somewhere in between, dough for crusts must be made by using the freshest ingredients and by following the proper technique for the type of crust you are making. Most doughs are a combination of fat (butter, shortening, lard), flour, and water. Depending on the recipe, other ingredients such as cream cheese, sugar, eggs, ground nuts, cream, citrus zest, and cocoa powder are added to make a specific type of dough.
Puff pastry, phyllo dough, graham cracker crusts, and sablee, which is what short bread is made from, are all commonly used for pies and tarts. The most popular types of pastry doughs, however, are flaky and sweet. Pie crust is an example of a flaky pastry, while sweet dough, which is tender and crisp, is often seen in tarts. Both of these doughs are made using a method known as the 3-2-1 method. In this, the ingredients are combined in a ratio by weight of three parts flour, two parts fat, and one part liquid. What distinguishes the two is what form the liquid comes in and how the butter is mixed into the dough.
With flaky dough, the butter pieces must be cold and large and surrounded by the flour, but not blended into it. This dough must be worked with quickly and kept as cold as possible. When cut properly, the butter in this dough is broken into flat, large pieces so that when the dough is baked, the solid butter pieces melt and the water in the butter evaporates. This puffs up the dough and leaves an air pocket where the piece of butter once was. It is these air pockets that are responsible for the crust being flaky. The flour and butter in this dough are bound with ice water and once it is formed, the dough must rest for at least an hour so that the butter has time to solidify again.
Sweet dough is a little bit more forgiving than flaky dough because the butter is incorporated into the flour and therefore does not need to remain cold. The liquid in sweet dough comes from a combination of sugar (which turns to liquid when it heats) and egg, which adds moisture, color, flavor, and structure. Little or no water is added to this dough. Instead, it begins with soft butter that is first creamed by itself, the sugar is then added, then the yolks, and finally a small amount of cream or water. The flour is typically added last and is only mixed briefly so that the dough doesn't become tough. Because it has a higher moisture content, sweet dough should rest longer than flaky dough so that the butter has time to harden again, the moisture can be absorbed by the flour, and the dough is easier to work with.
Depending on their ultimate use, doughs are rolled out and formed to make crusts and then either filled and baked or blind baked. Blind baking is a technique in which the crust is baked before it is filled. This technique is often used when wet ingredients are being put into a crust, such as fruit pies or tarts, so that the dough doesn't become soggy when the other ingredients are added.
Pie and tart fillings range from creams, custards, nuts, fruit, chocolate, caramel, and even ice cream. Sometimes the crust and filling are not combined until each is cooked separately. Depending on the type, pies and tarts are either baked, refrigerated, or frozen and are often served with ice cream, whipped cream, and sweet or fruity sauces.