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Vodka pie crust, rolled not stirred

So a cold wind blew in last week, and like a dumb blonde turns toward the nearest guy, it made me want to make apple pie.

I’m not much of a baker, but I have a few confections in my repertoire, and apple pie is what I make this time of year. I’ve been using the same, all-butter pie crust recipe for 20 years.
Every fall, I pull out my “Joy of Cooking” and take my crust recipe for a spin like a kid with a new two-wheeler. It’s always a ride because I never know if the crust is going to come together well or not. As simple as crust is – flour, butter (or another fat), salt, and water, it’s finicky.
One time, I must not have measured correctly and had to keep adding water and worked the pastry too long. That crust was a revelation: I never knew you could make something so leathery out of flour, butter, and water!
Last week’s pie hit the spot, even though some of the crust – the thickest part along the outer edge and the bottom crust – were a little tough. Just a little. But the flavor was delicious and we devoured it. I used five giant Macintosh apples for the filling with minimum amounts of sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and nutmeg, and it was truly delicious.
But one little pie wasn’t enough to satisfy my weather-induced desire for the All-American dessert, so I made another.
I’d read about several good crust recipes over the previous couple weeks and considered trying one of them, but I didn’t want to abandon my trusty crust. I just wanted to figure out how to make it more tender. And I found the answer in an article in Cooks Illustrated.
For those who may not know the magazine, its articles are written by a staff of writer-cooks who perfect recipes in a large test kitchen in Brookline. (The company also has a TV show.) They do a crazy amount of cooking – like making 150 (seriously) versions of a dish — to isolate all aspects of a recipe and find solutions to every possible less-than-perfect outcome. And they solved their major crust problems with vodka.
This is the deal: water and flour create gluten, a protein that forms stretchy fibers. A pie crust needs gluten, but too much makes it tough. So to keep crusts tender, many recipes use as little water as possible, even though too little liquid makes doughs hard to roll out without tearing or sticking.
Enter vodka, which is 40 percent alcohol, a liquid that doesn’t cause gluten to form. It does, however, add the wetness that makes dough pliable and easy to work. And the vodka, the article promised, was undetectable in the pie because it vaporizes in the oven. (Kind of like writing a letter with invisible ink.)
So I made another pie with my regular recipe, but I increased the liquid from six tablespoons to eight, using half water and half vodka.
Again the pie was delicious and the top crust, including the edge, was nicely tender. The bottom crust, however, was still slightly tough – but for a different reason: I hadn’t made the bottom crust large enough. Because it was too small, I couldn’t crimp it over the top crust well and the filling bubbled over it and down the inside edge of the pan wetting the outside bottom crust while it was cooking.
So, I got the vodka out again…
The third pie was pretty darn tender with that buttery flavor I love. And although it wouldn’t win a beauty contest, it was delicious enough that friends and family felt like they were having a real treat when they ate it.
As they say, cooking is an art and baking a science. But if you have no interest in culinary science, or you’re in a hurry, Morning Glories Bakery in Scituate makes great pies every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Owner Elcio Taborda uses only butter in his crust – very unusual for a bakery. Morning Glories also sells its homemade pies frozen, or will bake you one if you call ahead, any day of the week — no matter which way the wind blows.
Morning Glories Bakery, 52 Country Way, Scituate, 781 545-3400.