I’m always on the hunt for a good pie crust recipe — and nothing but homemade will do. If you’ve ever read the label on those ready-made, refrigerated crusts at the grocery, you’d probably join me in that. Handmade pie crust does require more labor and time, but not as much as you think. Plus, the finished product isn’t even comparable to crust in a box, and making it by hand lets you work out some aggression and build some arm strength. Always a positive.
I confess that pie isn’t really my go-to dessert — I’m much more of a cake (and frosting!) girl — but I bake a few at Thanksgiving and call on the same pie crust recipes when I make quiche to use up fresh vegetables. I’ve encountered a lot of different pie crust recipes in my time, with all manner of butter-shortening combinations. I find vegetable shortening to be kind of icky in its slick, opaque greasiness, and I just don’t feel right about using it in my food. But pie crust experts will tell you it’s a necessity for proper crust flakiness. Okay, okay. In my last few pie bakings, I’ve used shortening but always very sparingly. I reduce it to a tablespoon or two and make up the rest with butter. I know, I’m so rebellious.
The recipe I used last Thanksgiving was the best yet, and I was prepared to let that be the end all, be all. Until I read about the vodka pie crust.
In pie crust, you use only the smallest amount of ice-cold water to make the fat (butter/shortening/lard/coconut oil) and flour come together in a dough. That’s to avoid toughness when it bakes. Well, those geniuses over at my favorite food nerd publication, Cook’s Illustrated, figured out that vodka provides enough liquid to properly mix while evaporating completely when the crust bakes. You have liquid when you need it, and then it disappears when you don’t … the best of both worlds!
I know vodka in pie dough sounds totally weird, even though the science makes sense. After trying the recipe, though, I just have to say: it’s phenomenal. I did reduce the shortening by half and added a couple more tablespoons of butter. My crust came out pretty crumbly but easier than most to roll out after it chilled, and the baked result is just ridiculously buttery and flaky. Now this the only crust I’ll use — consider me a complete convert.
I used the same buttermilk pie filling as before, reducing the sugar and flour a bit, since those were a bit too overpowering in the last version. And, it’s amazing — rich, creamy, buttery. The traditional crust doesn’t compete with the filling as the graham crackers did, it’s just a perfect complement.
Lemon chess pie is one of my favorite pies of all time, and as I said earlier, this pie does have a chess-like feel to it. Turns out that as I was thumbing through Southern Living over Easter weekend I found a regular chess pie recipe that named milk and vinegar as its key ingredients. Well, I think when you mix milk and vinegar, you get something resembling buttermilk … so this pie isn’t that out of the box after all.
Buttermilk Pie with vodka pie crust
For the crust*:
14 tablespoons unsalted butter (that’s 1 3/4 sticks), diced and as cold as possible
In a bowl, add the butter, shortening, flour, salt and sugar. With a pastry cutter or two knives (or your fingers, if you have to), work the flour and fats together until there are only pea-sized chunks. Add the vodka and water and mix until the flour just starts to stick together. Divide the dough in half and pour out one half onto a piece of plastic wrap. Fold in the corners of the plastic wrap and twist so the crust comes together in a ball. Flatten the ball slightly, and repeat with the remaining dough. Store the two dough balls in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes before rolling out on a floured surface. Keep the dough as cold as possible so the butter pieces don’t completely melt. Those butter blobs in the dough burst in the heat of the oven and make the crust flaky.
For the pie:
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar and flour. Add the butter, buttermilk and vanilla and mix until well combined. Pour into an unbaked pie shell and bake at 350° for 45-50 minutes, until the top is barely golden and the middle of the pie is set.
*Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated’s Foolproof Pie Dough. Makes 2 pie crusts.