Testing Vanilla Cakes

Every cake artist is searching for the ideal scratch vanilla cake recipe. Wait, most bakers want a great tasting vanilla cake too! I’ve been seriously searching for and testing vanilla cakes since 2001 trying to find that elusive perfect vanilla cake. I have no delusions; I may never find it.

Testing Vanilla Cakes

Cake mixes create a wonderfully textured cake, but they always taste artificial. Even if you add pudding or a bunch of other ingredients, you can’t hide the fake taste of a mix.

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Perfect Pie Crust Recipe

I’ve always been compelled to find the best recipe possible for whatever I’m baking. That’s what sets apart good bakers from great bakers. I have been testing for the perfect pie crust recipe for as long as I can recall. Way back around 2003 when I was a moderator in the Pastry & Baking Forum at eGullet.org we talked about pie crusts a lot! It seemed like everyone had a different recipe and a different technique so I thought it would be fun for us to look deeper into the topic and share our opinions. If you’d like to see that conversation you can view it here: Demo: Pie Crusts. Whenever you gather a group of experienced bakers and talk about pie crusts, you can’t help but learn a lot, I know I did.


Extraflaky

Oil Pie

My crust, all butter

The recipe I’ve been using is a ‘different’ recipe from the majority of crust recipes, so I probably would have avoided it and missed an opportunity. This crust has whole eggs and apple cider vinegar in it. I was lucky that I was introduced to it in person; I had actually to make it at work. They say some things happen for a reason; well working at a small bakery in my area taught me things about pies I would never have learned on my own.

This crust is bullet proof in the respect that it could be under-handled or over-handled, and it always worked! That contradicts everything I’ve read about pie dough. One of the MAJOR points in making pie dough has always been ‘the method in which the dough is made, completely affects your finished crust’. If you over-mix the fat into the flour, it changes the amount of liquid the dough absorbs. That fact changes how much water you need to add to your pie dough. Which then leads to the confusion most pie bakers have, “why don’t their crusts turn out the same way every time them make them?”.

pie crusts


Apricot Tart

Last summer I wanted to add individual fruit tarts/pies (check out my post Pie Should Die) to my bakery menu. So I set out to create the perfect product at the right price, which I could make in volume profitably. I had the perfect pie crust recipe, so I only had a couple other factors to work out:

  • I couldn’t hand-roll hundreds of little pie crusts and crimp tiny little edges.
  • I needed to source cheap containers to bake them in.
  • They had to be pretty visually, yet they couldn’t involve a lot of labor to make them beautiful.
  • They had to be profitable!

I bought several different fruits, fresh, canned and frozen with the prerequisite that they are affordable/cheap, didn’t require a lot of preparation, and could be easily sourced all summer long. I also made a big batch of pastry cream and created a few different flavors so I could match my fillings to my fruit type. I made up my favorite pie crust recipe and started playing.


Testing Freshness Tarts

Everyday I’d bake up 4 or 5 mini pies in various flavors. I would taste them fresh; day old, two days old, etc. to learn how long they remained fresh. Son of a gun, the first problem I ran into was the one problem I never expected. I was certain I had a great bullet-proof pie crust recipe; I’d used it countless times over many years. But guess what, my crust was not fork-tender fresh from the oven, and it got less tender every day it sat in the cooler, YIKES!

Somehow I had missed this fact. I do try to eat everything I bake to taste test for quality, but sometimes with the type of baking I was doing you don’t get a chance to. So damn, what was going to be a quick product development turned into yet another pie dough search and recipe testing adventure.

I did several experiments with my bullet-proof perfect pie crust recipe (trying to tweak it) and also tried a new crust recipe that had gotten a lot of press. I’d like to share with you what I did and what I learned along the way.


Before I go any further, I feel like I need to address something that isn’t talked about ANYWHERE.

It’s the possibility of reading the science wrong. I haven’t figured out how some people can feel so bold and self-assured that when they write or talk about baking they state their theories as ‘facts.’ It’s 2015, and I don’t believe the majority of ‘facts’ in baking have been established. I’ve had to accept that I probably won’t live long enough to see baking broken down into science. Tiny increments of ingredients do change results. Facts change when a method is slightly modified, or a temperature is slightly adjusted. All it takes is one little factor to ruin all the science you think is ‘fact.’

Measuring

Here I am writing a post disclosing my interpretation of the science in my experiments. I can read someone’s article on pie crusts and pick apart their science. I can offer examples of how I did the same things; but got different results, or how they did something wrong, or they missed a slight difference in the method that would throw off their results. Except, I’d have to be an idiot not to realize that they can probably do the same things right back at me. (This is why I had to throw that disclaimer up as my first sentence to this post.) Until science can prove our theories, they remain unproven, and my article is no more factual than anyone else’s.


 

The method is to cut the cold fat into the flour & other dry items. Then mix all the wet ingredients together and hand stir with a spatula the wet into the dry, mixing only until the two hold together. I flatten the dough into a flat round disk then thoroughly chill it before rolling it out to test bake. It’s important that the mixing and rolling method remain consistent, or I wouldn’t be able to see how each recipe differs based only on the ingredients used.

Let’s only look at the ingredient list for now, because the method/mixing remains the same in all these recipes.

The Perfect Pie Crust, Using 100% Butter:

16 oz. butter
25.3 oz. bleached all-purpose flour
1 whole egg
2.5 tsp. salt
1 oz. apple cider vinegar
water

Here’s what that dough looks like: the butter is cold/hard, so it doesn’t over-blend into the flour when mixed.

All Butter Crust

I did keep my butter in large pea sized pieces so there would be nice layering throughout my dough when baked. My conclusion, 100% butter crusts are NOT fork tender, and I won’t be using them again until I find some other factor I can change to make them tender.

Please allow me to share my opinion, it’s relevant to all bakers. Back when I was learning to bake, I followed what the majority had to say. In my efforts to make “the best,” I only used 100% butter in everything I made. As I’ve progressed as a baker, I’ve learned the crowd isn’t always right. I hope you will be wiser than me and keep your thoughts and ideas open to trying new things and develop your opinions.


Scrapping the 100% butter recipe, I went back to how this recipe was originally formulated with half shortening.

1 Pie

The Perfect Pie Crust, Using 50%/50% Fats:

8 oz. butter
8 oz. shortening
25.3 oz. bleached all-purpose flour
2.5 tsp. salt
1 whole egg
1 oz. apple cider vinegar
water

This dough is easy to handle, and it’s always consistent, that’s why I think it’s bullet-proof. It was considerably more fork tender than my all-butter crust. Yet, I thought the flavor could be improved if I could figure out how to do that.


Pie Crust Tests1

My next experiment I tried my recipe with-out any butter. Didn’t our grandmothers make 100% shortening crusts when butter wasn’t so readily available? Grandma had to be right.

The Perfect Pie Crust, Using 100% Shortening:

8 oz. butter
8 oz. Crisco butter flavored shortening
25.3 oz. bleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
2.5 tsp. salt
1 whole egg
1 oz. apple cider vinegar
water

I’d guess it isn’t hard to figure out what my opinion of this dough was. Even when it was fresh, it was horrible tasting. It was a nightmare to work with too. The cold dough was very soft, which made it hard to work. So I froze the raw dough before rolling, to make it easier to handle. If you look at the photo closely, you can see that the sides of the crust slumped down while blind baking. After it had been baked, it broke in my hands just moving it. But it does have a nice layered flake.


CI with vodka

Around this time when I was testing crusts, I noticed Cooks Illustrated magazine was making a big media blast that they had created a “Foolproof Pie Dough” and the secret was using vodka. (I’ve posted two links about this recipe at the end of my article). I stopped working on my recipe and tried theirs!

Cooks Illustrated Pie Dough Recipe:

12.5 oz. all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
6 oz. butter
4 oz. vegetable shortening
.25 cup of vodka
.25 cup of water

I was disappointed with the vodka crust. According to the article; the vodka should have developed less gluten structure when combined with the flour. I think the vodka changed the dough structure, but it wasn’t in the positive way I had hoped. It didn’t create a flaky crust; it wasn’t tender to eat at all.

When I blind baked the crust, it sunk in the pan, making it thick and dense. It tasted alright, but it wasn’t good. Once the crust was cold with a filling in it, it became hard to cut through with my fork. It wasn’t an improvement at all for me. So I moved on to my text experiment.


 

CI Part Vodka, Part Vinegar

I started wondering if I used half vodka and half apple cider vinegar if that might be better. So adding back some vinegar was my next experiment:

Cooks Illustrated Pie Dough Recipe, With Half Vodka & Half Vinegar:

12.5 oz. all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
6 oz. butter
4 oz. vegetable shortening
1/8 cup of vodka
1/8 cup of apple cider vinegar
.25 cup of water

This crust turned out very much like the all vodka version. It slumped down in the pan when blind baking and it tasted only, o.k. One thing it did prove to me was the vinegar did make a real difference! The 1/8 cup (which is 2 tbsp.) was significant enough to make this more fork tender than the vodka only crust. YES! That was a good re-confirmation that my original crust recipe was on the right track using vinegar.


After a while, I realized something else was happening with the Cooks Illustrated recipe that I liked. Their crust had a more pleasant golden brown color than my crust. That lead me to think, I should try adding sugar to my recipe and see if it improved its taste or color. So I tested this new theory.

50, 50 With Sugar 3

The Perfect Pie Crust, Using 50%/50% Fats & Sugar:

8 oz. butter
8 oz. shortening
25.3 oz. bleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
2.5 tsp. salt
1 whole egg
1 oz. apple cider vinegar
water

This recipe was an improvement! The sugar improved the dough’s taste and color. It did make the dough softer to handle, so it had to be cold when rolled. The sugar didn’t hurt the flake of the dough; the baked crust remained fork tender, and the slight sweetness was delicious! Plus, I noticed another surprise; if you look at my photos, you’ll see that the dough didn’t slump while blind baking. I think the sugar relaxed the gluten in the dough making it easier to roll too. Sugar is sharp, and it cuts through ingredients, that’s how it whips butter. I was on to something good.


By chance, one day when I was at the grocery store I looked at the butter-flavored shortening sitting next to the original stuff and decided I’d go wild and crazy and test this. So what the heck, l gave it a try.

Perfect Pie Crust Recipe

The Perfect Pie Crust, Using 50% Butter/50% Crisco Butter Flavor Shortening & Sugar:

8 oz. butter
8 oz. Crisco butter flavored shortening
25.3 oz. bleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
2.5 tsp. salt
1 whole egg
1 oz. apple cider vinegar
water

Guess what? (You serious bakers out there, try not to laugh.) The Butter Flavored Crisco was unbelievably good!! Swear to god!

I don’t know what they do to make a butter flavored shortening; I hope it’s natural because it was fabulous in my pie crust. I couldn’t detect an artificial flavoring, it tasted like a natural butter crust. Plus it worked exactly like the regular shortening, achieving a light, flaky crust that was fork tender.

Double Rolled Pie Crust

I had to post this photograph. Something quite strange yet momentously terrific happens with my dough recipe; you can re-roll the scraps, and it bakes out just as well as the first time it was rolled. That is something you can’t do with a classic pie dough recipe. The gluten becomes stronger when you re-work traditional pie dough. It is both; harder to roll thin, and it always bakes-out thicker (because the gluten contracts in the oven).


 

There’s one issue I haven’t addressed throughout this post, and I have to admit, at the science level I have to guess at what’s happening. I haven’t discussed the egg in my pie dough recipe. When I think about it, I begin to wonder if I’ve created a tart dough/pie dough hybrid or not. I have learned that a great crust recipe needs; some shortening, sugar, salt and vinegar. There hundreds of traditional crust recipes that do.

But what is it about the magical egg? If you read the science on eggs we know:

  • Whites can aid in drying and leavening
  • Yolks are great emulsifiers

My guess is that it helps bind the ingredients together, so they become more flexible (with-out building gluten), yet there isn’t enough egg to turn this into a dough. I hope you don’t find this a horrible let down that I can’t give you the exact science of the eggs roll in my crust. The most important thing is it works, really well!!

Pie Crust

Thank-you for being patient while I rambled about my tests. I find it fun and interesting to do them because I always learn new things along the way. Every new bit of knowledge goes into my knowledge base. I hope some of you will try my recipe, perhaps compare it to the pie dough recipe your using. Please, comment and share with me/us what your results are. I’d love to hear from you!

(Click on this link) The Perfect Pie Crust Recipe


 

Pie Crust Tests

There are a few more things I want to mention:

  • In case you don’t know this, photo editing software allows people to do amazing things. I would guess it’s rare that you see a published photo that isn’t enhanced. This point ties into my post on There’s Gold In Them, There Blogs!. YOU, the consumer can be lured into believing something tastes great because an accompanying photo looks great. My photo below isn’t edited, only cropped for size. You can compare what each crust looked like and believed what your eyes see in my pictures.
  • Did you know you can click on my photographs, and they will enlarge on your screen, for better viewing?
  • I use a point and shoot camera that I thought was doing a good job focusing because I need glasses. I have new glasses on order, and I’m also looking into buying a better camera, so I’m sorry my photos stink.
  • No one paid me or influenced my findings, these are all my personal opinions.

Lets Separate The Facts From The Myths

(If you have any questions, please feel free to post them in the comment section, and I’ll include them in this document)

      • An all butter crust isn’t hard to work with, and butter has great taste, but it’s not fork tender.
      • Yes, keeping your all your ingredients cold helps prevent over mixing.  Cold butter doesn’t “blend” easily. It’s also advantageous to roll your dough on a cool surface and in a cool room. Warm dough in warm rooms makes the dough soft, so it’s much harder to handle and pick up.
      • If you weigh your ingredients, the amount of liquids you need to hydrate your flour mixture is always consistent. That’s why using measuring cups gives you unpredictable pie crusts. Have you ever read pie instructions that tell you to add just enough water, but not too much? If you work with weights, you’ll never have to guess how much is correct. Here’s an article that explains how unpredictable measuring flour by cups is; The Weight Of Flour.
      • I’ve seen demonstrations on ‘how to make pie crust’ where they mix in each ingredient one at a time. This is flawed thinking and assumes that mixing a pie dough is similar to mixing a cake batter when, in fact, they are very different even though they share some of the same ingredients. 1. You can’t properly mix a whole egg into flour with-out it creating small pieces of dried egg throughout your dough that will never blend in thoroughly. 2. The more you mix the liquids into your flour, the tougher the dough becomes. Your forming tough gluten strands, which will make your dough harder to roll and when the dough bakes the gluten strands will contract, shrinking and pulling your dough into a smaller tighter mass. It also will not be fork tender.
      • The correct method for pie dough is to, mix the dry ingredients together in separate bowl and the wet ingredients together in a separate bowls. Pour your wet ingredients into the dry mix (not visa/versa) then mix as little as possible, just enough to incorporate the two.
      • Vodka! There for a while it was ‘the’ talked about pie secret, but I think it would be smarter to let you learn about this concept from the person who wrote the article creating this factor. The Food Lab: The Science Of pie Dough, here’s a little excerpt from it:
        “The one trick that got majorly hyped up about it was the inclusion of vodka in place of some of the water in the recipe. It was a pretty neat trick, if I do say so myself, and it solved one of the major problems people have with pie crust.** Unfortunately, due to some legally binding document I signed, ironically, as the creator of the recipe but not the owner, I am now the only person in the universe who is not allowed to write about it. Never mind that. You can read about the science of it over at The Kitchn. Gotta love lawyers.”
      • What do you have questions about? What are you experiences that are different than mine?

 


I do address some of the issues I think these articles got right and wrong, but there’s far to many points to have mentioned them in my comments above. If you are interesting in learning more about pie crusts and other people’s recipes and opinions, I think you will enjoy some of these links.

The Science Of Pie: 7 Myths That Need To Go Away

The Food Lab: The Science Of Pie Dough: this article is an important read, in my opinion. The person who developed the use of vodka in pie dough (that spawned article after article about how vodka/alcohol was a game changing miracle to making pie crusts) has a lot more to say about pie dough……..and I think this article got the science correct.

The Pie Academy

In Search Of The Perfect Pastry Crust

Your Favorite “tool” for making Pie Crusts

The Pie Whisperer

How To Make A Pie Crust, at Gimme Some Oven.com

Standard Pie Crust, at Joe Pastry.com

Pie Fats Revealed! at The Pioneer Women.com

Flaky pastry: King Arthur Flour.com

Understanding Your Pie Crust Ingredients, Step by Step and More…, at Everything Pies.com