You know how people often preference the climate in and traditions with which they grew up? Take me, for example. I was raised in the tropics of Louisiana and to this day prefer to be in the warm-hot sun, while others, from more northern climes, enjoy (or at least don't mind) wearing sweaters and cords on a regular basis. I like the way my family celebrated Christmas (gifts on Christmas Eve, Santa comes overnight, stockings in the morning, a big family lunch) versus those who wait to do everything on the 25th. Personal preferences honed over a lifetime of experience.
The same is true, I believe, for pie crust.
My family pie crust is an oil-based one with a confident measure of salt that incorporates neither butter nor lard. Nanny picked the recipe up at the Wesson Oil booth at one of the restaurant conventions she and Papa used to attend when they had their place, Frank & Bob's. Those conventions were in the 1940s and '50s, in places like Chicago, and I remember Nanny telling me how she and Papa would take the overnight train to them from Louisiana. Those conventions always sounded so grand.
Anyway, once that pie crust recipe made its way into our family, all others fell out of favor. I don't think I had one pie growing up -those made by folks in my family- whose base wasn't that simple, four-ingredient shell. Not one.
It really spoiled me, frankly, in the way that getting used to great food does. I could taste a sub-par or store-bought pie crust in a second flat. And it wasn't until I was an adult that I remember tasting butter-crust pies.
Butter-based doughs are so wonderfully pliable. They roll out like a dream and can be cut into whimsical shapes that are easy to transfer and mend. Butter crusts cook to a gorgeous golden-brown hue, and they are sturdy. I love them for savory pies and tarts, for gougères and anything that requires pâte à choux, like éclairs and cream puffs.
But I simply cannot abide by butter crusts buttressing dessert pies. In my opinion, fruit and other sweet pies need a foil, something to cut and thereby enhance their sugary insides. Butter has no bite. It is sweet and creamy, two elements that are inherently part of any sweet pie. And so the whole always tastes less to me than its discrete parts.
Surrounding a rich filling of sugar-encrusted blackberries, pecans swimming in Caro and brown sugar, chocolate, and even lemon meringue, the butter crust tastes flaccid and weak. It is beautiful but it disappoints. It is a flabby distraction rather than a critically important partner in the dance.
An oil crust, like my family's Wesson one, lacks some of the butter crust's pros. It really cannot be rolled out more than twice, you can't double the recipe or even make it in advance.
But oh how it flakes! How its salty underpinning perfectly offsets even the sweetest of fillings and in doing so makes everything taste that much more alive! How the whole is always more than the parts, as each lifts the pie to greater heights!
I made a butter crust for the sour cherry pie yesterday because I wanted to try yet again to make one I like and also I wanted to maximize the aesthetics. It was beautiful, but the crust again left me cold.
Lard does a better job than butter in the flakiness department, but I still prefer the flavor and crunch of that oil + salt impart. And so, henceforth, I'm swearing off the old butter crust and know I'll never look back.