by Tassie Mardikes. . . write her
What’s the deal with pork fat? I hear it makes fantastic pastry crusts. Is this true? What about other “fats” like butter or Crisco. Are they better?
If you are bothering to make a pie, you should try and make it more delicious than any pie you have made before. If you are watching your cholesterol, eat a small portion and don’t bake it very often. But when you do eat pie, make sure it is a terrific one, and worthy of your indulgence.
That having been said, I must admit that my favorite crust incorporates a whole stick of butter and a couple tablespoons of lard. Butter cannot be beat for flavor and tenderness, while lard provides flakiness and a crispy exterior. A crust like that has a great crunch when you bite it, and melts in your mouth. Crisco, on the other hand, does not melt in your mouth.
Have you ever tried to wash your hands after they have been covered in Crisco? What about the measuring cup? Even under warm running water, that stuff doesn’t want to come off! When I eat a crust made with Crisco I notice that same oily residue coats my tongue and the roof of my mouth, long after the delicious sugar has disappeared down my gullet. And while the Crisco crust is tender, it is also pallid and lacking in flakiness.
A pie made with Crisco must be heated (so that the oil is not so clingy) and smothered in ice cream (so it tastes better.) A crust comprised of butter and lard can stand on its own, at room temperature, as a good pie should be able to do. The crust can even be enjoyed plain, without filling.
Crisco seems to owe its popularity to a reputation for low cholesterol and long shelf life. But this vegetable shortening is made primarily with cottonseed and soybean oils–two very chemical and pesticide-intensive crops. Focusing only on your cholesterol may actually blind you to other possible health threats.
Industrial lard, the stuff available at most grocery stores, is fully hydrogenated and nearly free of trans fats, similar to the contemporary version of Crisco (Crisco used to be partially hydrogenated which is nasty for you.) Industrial lard is made from a mix of both high and low quality pork fats, and treated with bleaching and deodorizing agents, emulsifiers, and antioxidants. While I prefer it to Crisco because it’s still more delicious, it is not my ideal fat.
What I really like to get my hands on is the leaf lard of the pig, which is the highest quality lard for baking. It has large fat crystals with the least pork flavor, and comes from the inner cavity of the loin, where it protects the pig’s kidneys. This is what our great grandparents and their grandparents would have used for baking. It can be simply rendered at home by slowly heating the fat until all the impurities (cracklings yum!) float to the surface where they can be skimmed off. Once cooled and frozen, it keeps for a long time. You can watch video tutorials about how to do this on YouTube.
Luckily, as skepticism about the merits of Crisco increases, so does demand for leaf lard. Even if you and your friends don’t have your own pig to harvest lard from, it is worthwhile to check with your local farms. Many small farms are beginning to raise fat breeds of hog such as the Hungarian Mangalitsa and the Large Black of Britain which accommodate demand for pure, high-quality baking lard. If you can’t find any locally, there are many farms across the US from which you can order online.
So what about vegetarians? Are they confined to vegetable shortening? I say no. Whenever I bake pie for vegetarians, I use the Chez Panisse recipe for cream biscuits. Instead of forming biscuits, I roll it out to the thickness of pie dough and brush the top with butter. This does not produce as firm a pie crust, so it would not be ideal for commercial baking. For home consumption, it is flaky, golden and delectable. This is my favorite crust to use when I am making savory pies as a main course. You can use all your leftover scraps of dough to make biscuits!
The recipes that follow are my personal favorites, but they might not be right for everybody, so I recommend experimentation. My crusts are loaded with butter and it should be noted that butter is higher in saturated fat and cholesterol than lard is. You may want to find a crust that uses more lard and water with less butter if this is really a major concern to you. I’m sorry I cannot provide you with a butter-free recipe, for I have sworn my allegiance to that marvelous substance.
Go hog wild,
Tassie’s Butter & Lard CLASSIC PIE CRUST For one 9″ pie shell. Double the recipe if you want a top.
Working on a cool, flat surface, lightly mix together the dry ingredients. Form a mound. Throw on the butter and lard. Using a sharp knife or pastry cutter, cut it quickly into the flour. Stop when most of the fat chunks are pea-sized. Pile up the flour mixture and with your finger, create a furrow-shaped bowl in the center. Sprinkle a tablespoon of water into the furrow. Toss in flour from the edges with the tips of your fingers. Repeat this process until the water is used up. Ever so briefly, knead the dough into a ball. Pat it into a disc. If you are in a cool climate, it is ready to use. If you are in a hot climate, you need to refrigerate it before you can roll it out. Bake according to pie recipe’s instructions.
VEGETARIAN PIE CRUST Adapted from a Chez Panisse biscuit recipe, this provides dough for a top and bottom.
In a large bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. Cut the butter into small cubes and put it on the flour. Cut the cubes into the flour until they are pea-sized. Stir in the heavy cream just until a dough forms. Briefly knead it into a ball and divide the ball into two discs. Refrigerate 30 minutes before rolling out. Once the pie is assembled, brush the crust with melted butter before baking. Bake according to the pie recipe you choose.