At a little Michigan bakery, we found crumb-topped cranberries, sunny-side up tarts, toasty meringue—and the secret to making buttery, flaky, utterly unforgettable pie dough from scratch.

By Writer Hannah Agran; Photographers: Blaine Moats and EE Berger
Sister Pie baking

No one frets over slicing apples for a pie. It's the pastry that intimidates. Lisa Ludwinski sees the fear when she hosts classes at her Detroit bakery, Sister Pie. "The terror really awakens when it's roll-out time," she writes in her new cookbook, Sister Pie (Lorena Jones Books, $25).

But Lisa has a tip that's as liberating as it is simple: Embrace failure. Your first attempt will almost certainly be patchy, lumpy, cracked-a truly humble pie. But it will taste better than anything you buy rolled in a box. Forge ahead.

"It's only through spending an afternoon in your kitchen with a couple of pounds of butter, making this recipe over and over again, that you'll begin to develop the necessary intuition for crust-making success," Lisa says. Bake again next weekend. And again. Take yourself to pie school. (Your friends and family are going to love you.)

With all that delicious practice, you'll hone a skill that will unlock a whole world of goodies, not just pies, but quiche, cookies and even crackers. So be brave! Thanksgiving is around the corner, and Lisa's tantalizing recipes await.

Sister Pie baking

Lisa Ludwinski (below) opened Sister Pie in Detroit's West Village in 2015.

Every day, the crew at Sister Pie makes pastry by hand, one quadruple batch at a time. Fillings feature seasonal ingredients, often purchased from farmers at Eastern Market.

Gear up!

Ready? A few inexpensive tools will make your pastry-making adventures easier.

Pastry Blender You can rub butter into flour with your fingertips, but this old-fashioned gadget cuts it in quickly. "Find one with a sturdy handle and sharp blades for maximum efficiency," Lisa advises. (Oxo is a good pick.)

Bench Scraper "This is hands down my favorite tool and a mainstay on our kitchen bench," Lisa says. "You can blissfully portion dough, clean countertops, scoop up vegetables, cut up butter and more."

Metal Pans Lisa prefers shallow 9-inch aluminum pie tins because they're light, durable and excellent heat conductors. If you use a glass or ceramic dish that's more than 13⁄4 inches deep, consider multiplying the crust recipe by 1.5, so you have plenty of pastry to work with.

Tapered pin Lisa sends her students home with a European-style rolling pin. The taper shape offers more control than a pin with handles, making it easier to roll evenly and maintain
a circular shape.

Best-Ever All-Butter Pie Pastry

Prep the ingredients Put a few ice cubes in a 1-cup liquid measuring cup. Add 2 tablespoons cider vinegar and cold water to fill. In a large bowl, whisk together 2 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon sugar and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Chop 1 cup (2 sticks) of straight-from-the-fridge butter into roughly half-inch cubes.

Cut in the butter Add butter to flour mixture and toss to coat. Using a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour. Turn the bowl and toss the mixture occasionally so you don't miss any butter. The blender will clog occasionally; clean it out with your fingers or a butter knife. Stop when the largest chunks are pea-size and the rest of the mixture looks like canned Parmesan cheese.

Add the water Fish out the ice, then evenly drizzle 1⁄2 cup of the vinegar-water over the flour mixture. (You probably won't need the remainder, but save it in case your pastry is very dry.) Toss with a fork until you can't see pools of liquid. Switch to hands: Scoop up as much of the mixture as you can, then smoosh it back into the bowl. It's OK to be a bit aggressive. Pressure will bring the mixture into a cohesive mass more effectively than water. Rotate the bowl a quarter-turn and repeat, as if kneading. When the dry bits at the bottom are gone, stop.

Finish and chill Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and, if needed, knead a couple more times. Cut dough in half. Gently pat each portion into a 2-inch-thick disc and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 2 hours or, ideally, overnight before rolling. (You can freeze the dough discs up to 1 year; thaw 1 full day in the refrigerator before using.)

Click or tap here for a printable version of Best-Ever All-Butter Pie Pastry.

Butter up!

Lisa prefers to use premium butter, such as Plugrá or Kerrygold: "The high butterfat percentage and low water content ensure a powerfully flavorful and flaky crust." We were skeptical of the splurge at first, but the difference is impressive. If you can afford the upgrade, go for it.

The Why of Pie

Why is everything kept so cold? Two reasons: First, unlike in cake or cookies, the butter should not be so soft that it blends into the flour. (Butter bits = flaky piecrust.) Second, chilled pastry is easier to roll. if things get sticky as you work, just pause and chill everything in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Why resist using extra water? Excess moisture leads to overdeveloped gluten and tough pastry. The mixture will seem dry and crumbly. Have faith: squeezing the crumbs and clumps nearly always brings the dough together. That said, if you overmeasured flour or the air in your house is dry, you may need to sprinkle in a tiny bit more water. Just be cautious.

Why add vinegar? Not everyone does. Lisa learned the trick from a mentor and although she's not sure it does anything to the pastry's texture, she likes the faint tang (and the sense of tradition).

Beginner-Friendly

Plan to use your first practice batch of pastry to make these addictive (and forgiving) Piecrust Crackers (below). You won't have to roll a perfect circle or crimp a pie's edge. At Sister Pie, the daily soup always comes with a few of these butter crackers, flecked with seeds, cheese or paprika. You could also serve them with drinks at the holidays. Piecrust Crackers recipe

Classic holiday flavors, reimagined

Clockwise from top left:

Bittersweet Chocolate and Pear Pie A handful of chopped chocolate sprinkled over the bottom crust melts and mingles with the pear juices while baking, creating a sinfully rich filling. Bittersweet Chocolate and Pear Pie recipe

Apple Sage Gouda Pie Inspired by the traditional combo of apple pie and a wedge of cheese, Lisa adds grated Gouda to her crust and fresh sage to the fruit, creating a sweet pie with savory attitude. Apple Sage Gouda Pie recipe

Toasted Marshmallow Sweet Potato Pie A Thanksgiving classic, in pie form. For beautiful bronzing, indulge your inner pyro: Buy an inexpensive culinary blowtorch and toast the meringue until it smells like a campfire s'more. Toasted Marshmallow Sweet Potato Pie recipe

Cranberry Crumble Pie Lisa leaves a peekaboo hole in the brown sugar-and-oat streusel to glimpse the ruby filling inside. (She confesses this pie, topped with vanilla ice cream, might be her all-time Sister Pie favorite.) Cranberry Crumble Pie recipe

Pie Cookies

Born of economic resourcefulness, Pie Cookies made from dough scraps have become a Sister Pie classic. Sandwich them with buttercream or ganache. Pie Cookies recipe

How to Turn Pastry Into a Pie

Hit it with the pin (really) Unwrap 1 disc of dough and place it on a lightly floured surface. Bang the dough with your rolling pin about 4 times, from left to right. Flip the dough over and bang left to right again. (This fun, noisy stress relief does serve a purpose: slightly softening the cold dough for faster, easier rolling.)

Roll it out Firmly roll the pastry from the center forward, using less pressure on the edge. Every few rolls, rotate the disc a quarter-turn. If the pastry starts to stick, lift it gently and sprinkle more flour underneath. If the top gets sticky, flip the disc over. Continue rolling and rotating until the circle is 12 to 13 inches across (aim for 14 if your dish is deep and you want a thick crimp).

Transfer to the pan Loosely fold the circle in half and transfer to the pan. Unfold the dough, and gently but snugly press it into the corners. If any dough hangs over by more than 2 inches, trim it with kitchen scissors. (Use those scraps to patch holes or bolster spots where you don't have much overhang. Or collect them in a freezer bag for crackers or cookies.)

Crimp the edge For a rustic, Sister Pie-style fluted edge, roll the overhang up and inward like a poster (far left). Form a "C" with the thumb and index finger of one hand. Hold that hand over the center of the pie. Position your opposite thumb outside of the pan. Simultaneously push outward with the "C" fingers and inward with your opposite thumb, moving around the pie until the entire edge is crimped. Freeze the crust for 15 minutes, because it will have softened and needs to rest. (Crimping works the same on a double-crust or lattice-top pie; you'll just be rolling two layers of pastry together.)

Egg-on-Top Galettes with Potato and Cream Cheese

With the pastry prepped ahead, individual Egg-on-Top Galettes with Potato and Cream Cheese-which sell out every morning at Sister Pie-come together fast. Serve with Dijon mustard for the perfect sharp bite. Egg-on-Top Galettes with Potato and Cream Cheese recipe

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