The only thing we have to fear

Andreae Prozesky scales Mount Piecrust.

These days are days of great acts of bravery in the Food Nerd Laboratories. The facing of culinary fears.

But what is there left to fear? Now that I’ve conquered wild mushrooms, cold jellyfish salad, and hamburgers, you thought I had it knocked?

Well, dear reader, I suffer from an acute fear of piecrust.

Of course, you surely know that when I say “piecrust,” I mean “failure.”

It’s textbook, really. Mired in self-doubt as I am, I live with the conviction that someday I will be exposed as a total fraud. This fear extends to all areas of my life – abandoned academic career, trial-and-error parenting, that novel I can’t quite start—let’s focus on the piecrust for now. I often imagine myself overhearing conversations like this one:

Person 1: So how was dinner at Dreae’s after?
Person 2: Well… it was okay.
P1: Okay? But I thought she was an awesome cook. The Food Nerd!
P2: She’s all right. The soup was good, and the Cornish game hens were a nice touch, but then there was this… well, I suppose it was meant to be a pie, but I don’t know what went wrong with the crust. It was… it was… bloody awful!
P1: Holy crap. You’re kidding. She can’t make piecrust?
P2: Would I lie about something like that?
P1: Man. That’s brutal. I’m never reading her column again.
P2: I’m going to have to start blanking her in the street. Andreae Prozesky is dead to me now.

Crazy? Perhaps. Irrational? You bet. But somehow I’ve managed to put off making a piecrust until now. Despite the fact that I passionately love pie.

The secret to good piecrust is never letting it know you’re afraid.

My friend Emily is absolutely fearless in the face of pie. I remember, years ago, sitting in her kitchen in Montréal while she transformed some strawberries and rhubarb she had into a stunning, top-and-bottom-crusted pie before my very eyes. There wasn’t even a break in the conversation, so seamless was the transition from flour to dough to dessert.

I’ve wanted to make a pie ever since. I just haven’t managed to get up the guts.

For someone with my piecrust-related issues, going from zero to double-crusted strawberry-rhubarb pie would be foolish, and potentially devastating. The possibility of a soggy lower crust and an overcooked top crust, of little crimped edges charring while bits of rhubarb remain stubbornly raw inside – it’s just more than I’m prepared to take on.

Best start with something essentially foolproof: the upside-down pie, or tarte tatin.

A tarte tatin is a French dessert in which pieces of fruit, apples usually, are cooked with butter and sugar on the stovetop. Then the whole pan is draped in pastry and put in the oven. The whole thing is ultimately flipped over onto a plate, so you’ve got your pastry on the bottom (perfectly un-soggy), then your gleaming pieces of fruit, slick with copper-brown caramel syrup. If you make the tarte in a cast-iron pan it all browns beautifully, and you don’t have to go shagging around transferring sautéed fruit and sticky syrup into a pie plate. You can focus your energies entirely on your dough-making.

My advice for the dough-making: keep cool, act fast.

I mean the “keep cool” part quite literally. Keep your butter and shortening super cold, in the back part of the fridge, until seconds before you’re ready to use them. Use ice water, or, if all the ice in your freezer smells like onions, put a jar of water in the freezer about half an hour before you’re going to need it. If you’ve got enough room in your freezer, chill the bowl you’ll be using too.

Some people like using a pastry blender, that funny, semi-circular implement that looks like a squiggly potato masher in a funhouse mirror. I’m useless with those, so I put my hands right in the dough. But that means I’ve got to be in and out of there in a minute or less. Body heat melts butter, and melted butter makes soggy piecrust. Agh!

So, again, keep cool: if it’s really hot in your kitchen, go out on to your deck, or back yard, or front step, to do the deed. People will think you’re crazy, but what odds?

We’ll see who’s crazy when you’re feasting on delicious pie and sounding your barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.


Crust for an 8- to 9-inch pie, made in a small cast-iron pan:

1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
1/2 teaspoons sea salt
pinch sugar
3/4 cup chilled butter, cut into small pieces
4 1/2 tablespoons vegetable shortening, chilled
7-8 tablespoons ice water

Place all ingredients except water in a large bowl. Using the tips of your fingers, quickly work the butter and shortening into the flour. The butter and shortening should be in bits the size of large oatmeal flakes. This should take less than a minute.

Add the water and, using a fork or your cupped hand, mix everything together until you can gather the dough up into a rough-looking ball. It should just hold together.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and place it in your freezer for a half hour or so.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
dash sea salt
pinch cinnamon (for apples or peaches), or nutmeg (for pears)
3-4 apples, pears, peaches, whatever, peeled, cored/pitted, and halved

In your pan, melt the butter. Add sugar and cook on medium-low heat about one minute, while sugar bubbles up. Add salt and cinnamon or nutmeg. Place fruit halves, cut side-down, in pan (they may not all fit). Cook without stirring about 5 minutes, then, using tongs, turn the fruit cut-side-up. Cook another 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove your pastry dough from the freezer. On a lightly floured surface, using a rolling pin, quickly roll to a 1/8- inch thickness. Cut a rough circle approximately 2 inches larger than the top of your pan. Place the dough over the bubbling fruity goodness and carefully tuck the edges inside the pan. Use a fork to poke a few holes in the piecrust and place the whole thing in a preheated 350F oven. Bake about 30-35 minutes, until crust is golden. Remove from oven and let sit about 10 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and invert the whole thing onto a plate. Gently nudge any displaced fruit halves back into their little nooks. Serve warm or cold, with whipped cream or ice cream and an air of victory.

Send your questions, comments, and confidence-building suggestions to


  1. dreae · January 5, 2011

    I got a message last night from Scope reader Gerard, with this excellent bit of advice for keeping things cool while wrist-deep in pastry dough:

    “I like your column, and I’m definitely trying that tarte tatin. Pie coolness thing: Chill your hands, too! Run ’em under cold water and dry ’em just before you start. It works!”

    Thanks, Gerard! I’m going to give that one a go, for sure.

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