Flaky Cream Cheese Pie Crust

Rose Levy Beranbaum is one of my favorite recipe authors.  Her Cake Bible is a stand alone work of complete brilliance.  You should definitely visit her website and blog at http://www.realbakingwithrose.com/.   Ms. Beranbaum’s recipes are tested, written out with both volumes and weights (this alone gives her a special place in my heart), and are well explained and scientifically documented.  Really, I cannot sing this woman’s praise enough!

REFERENCE: The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum page 29-31

As I don't keep pastry flour on hand, I used a mixture of all-purpose flour, and . . .

As I don’t keep pastry flour on hand, I used a mixture of all-purpose flour, and . . .

cake flour.

cake flour.

I like to use canning salt in my sweet baking applications as it dissolves easily and doesn't have any additive that can give it an off flavor.

I like to use canning salt in my sweet baking applications as it dissolves easily and doesn’t have any additives that can give it an off flavor.

The baking poweder is used to slightly lighten the pie crust

The baking poweder is used to slightly lighten the pie crust

Sweet, delicous unsalted butter.  I keep mine frozen (so it doesn't get any funny flavors in the refrigerator).

Sweet, delicous unsalted butter. I keep mine frozen (so it doesn’t get any funny flavors in the refrigerator).

Cream cheese, cubed and ready to go!

Cream cheese, cubed and ready to go!

Just a little bit of water to help with gluten polymerization

Just a little bit of cold water to help with gluten polymerization

The cider vinegar gives the crust a zing and keeps the crust tender.

The cider vinegar gives the crust a zing and helps keeps the crust tender.

Add the cream cheese to the flour mixture in one step and pulse until well mixed.

Add the cream cheese to the flour mixture in one step and pulse until well mixed.

The cream cheese has coated the flour and gives it a slightly mealy look.  Coating the flour keeps it tender, but doesn't add any flakiness.

The cream cheese has coated the flour and gives it a slightly mealy look. Coating the flour keeps it tender, but doesn’t add any flakiness.

Adding the frozen butter.  Pulse gently!  Overmixing the butter will result in minimal flakiness.  The butter needs to be kept in whole pea sized chuncks.

Adding the frozen butter. Pulse gently! Overmixing the butter will result in minimal flakiness. The butter needs to be kept in whole pea sized chunks.

Here the butter is still a bit too big.

Here the butter is still a bit too big.

Now I have nice pea-sized butter pieces.

Now I have nice pea-sized butter pieces.

Adding the water.  Don't run processor while adding the water or vinegar.  You will over process the butter!

Adding the water. Don’t run the processor while adding the water or vinegar. You will over process the butter!

Adding the vinegar.

Adding the vinegar.

I switched the mixture to a gallon zip-lock so I can knead it easier.

Each crust should be ~11 oz.  A gallon zip-lock makes it easier to knead.

Here I am kneading the mixture to form a dough.

Here I am kneading the mixture to form a dough.  Once formed, wrap in plastic and let set in the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes, and ideally overnight.

The dough is formed, but I don't notice the butter chunks I like to see.  I hope I didn't overmix it!

The dough is formed, but I don’t notice the butter chunks I like to see. I hope I didn’t overmix it!

TIME SCHEDULE:

Ingredient Prep Time:  30 minutes

Chilling Time:  at least 1hr 30 minutes

Oven Temperature:  see specific pie filling recipe

Baking Time:  see specific pie filling recipe

MAKES:  Two-crust 9-inch pie (22 ounces / 624 grams)

INGREDIENTS MEASURE WEIGHT
volume ounces grams
unsalted butter, frozen 12 Tbsp 6 oz 170 g
pastry flour or                                                            2:1 mixture all-purpose flour: cake flour 2 cups or                 1 1/3 cup + 2/3 cup 10 oz or                  6 5/8 oz +   3 3/8 oz 284 g or                              189g + 95 g
salt 1/4 tsp
baking powder 1/4 tsp  –  –
cream cheese, cold 4 1/2 oz 4 1/2 oz 128 g
ice water 2 Tbsp 1 oz 28 g
cider vinegar, cold 1 Tbsp 1/2 oz 14 g

SPECIALTY EQUIPMENT:

Food Processor

PROCEDURE:

Cut butter into small (about 3/4-inch) cubes.  Wrap it in plastic wrap and freeze it until frozen solid, at least 30 minutes.  (Or start with frozen butter noting that this will be a bit harder to cube.)  Place the pastry flour (or flour mixture – I never have pastry flour in my pantry, but I generally keep all-purpose flour and cake flour), salt, and baking powder in a reclosable gallon-size freezer bag and freeze for at least 30 minutes.  Everything has to be cold, cold, COLD!

Place the flour mixture in a food processor with the metal blade and process for a few seconds to combine.  Don’t throw that gallon-size freezer bag away yet – it will get used it again!

Cut the cream cheese into 3 or 4 pieces and add it to the flour.  Process for about 20 seconds or until the mixture resembles coarse meal.  (See picture above)  Add the frozen cubes and pulse until none of the butter is larger than the size of a pea.  (Also, see picture above)  Slowly add the ice water and cold cider vinegar through the feeding tube of the food processor.  Pulse until most of the butter is reduced to the size of small peas.  (Again, see picture above)  The mixture will be in particles and will not hold together.  Spoon it into the saved plastic bag.  For a double-pie crust, it is easiest to divide the mixture in half at this point.  Each crust should be about 10-11 ounces.

Knead the mixture in the bag by alternately pressing it, from the outside of the bag, with the knuckles and heels of your hands until the mixture holds together in one piece and feels slightly stretchy when pulled.

Wrap the dough with plastic wrap, flatten it into discs, and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, preferably overnight.

Roll out the crust and bake as directed by the filling recipe.

MAKE AHEAD POINTERS:

The crust needs to set for at least 45 minutes and can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 3 months.  Be sure to wrap it tightly with plastic wrap for extended storage!

POINTERS FOR SUCCESS:

This recipe has been extensively tested by its amazing author Rose Levy Beranbaum.  And then I have given it a real world test in my tiny little Mid-Western kitchen.  Every little aspect of this recipe has a reason.  Although it might seem easier to mix the cream cheese and butter together in the food processor or skip the step of freezing the butter – resist the urge!  All these little details have been worked out to ensure just the right amount of tenderness verses flakiness in this pie crust.  (For a more detailed explanation, see the “FOOD SCIENCE GEEK OUT!” below, or read The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum.)

FOOD SCIENCE GEEK OUT!

Traditional American pie crusts are a tricky balance between tenderness and flakiness.  A pie crust that is too tender is very difficult to work with and will fall apart as it is sliced.  Unfortunately, the flakier a pie crust is, the less tender it will be.  So finding that sweet spot is imperative.  The secret lies in just the right amount of gluten polymerization.  What is polymerization?  It is the formation of a cross-linked matrix from individual gluten proteins.  The crust needs enough gluten polymerization from water and the proteins in the flour (the gluten) to give the crust substance and allow for flakiness.  However, too much gluten polymerization makes the crust tough.

gluten cross-linking

Example of Gluten Polymerization (referred to in picture as “crosslinked”)

How is gluten polymerization controlled?

Starting out with a flour with the correct amount of gluten is key; thus, this recipe uses either pastry flour (protein content of ~ 9 grams per cup flour) or a combination of medium gluten all-purpose flour and low gluten cake flour.  Use of entirely all-purpose flour can result in a gluten average of 11 grams protein per cup flour.  More gluten means more polymerization which results in a sturdier, but tougher pie pastry.

Second, the mixing of the fat with the flour affects gluten polymerization.  If the fat is warm, it coats the flour particles and prevents the polymerization of the gluten proteins.  However, if the fat is frozen hard, the fat more-or-less stays in whole particles so that when the pie is baked the moisture in the fat evaporates leaving lovely, little air pockets resulting in the desired flakiness.  Frozen fat also results in less coating of the flour, allowing for more gluten polymerization.  Thus, once again, it is a balance between coating enough of the flour to prevent too much gluten polymerization, and keeping the fat pieces large and solid to ensure flakiness.

If that wasn’t enough to balance, the amount of water in the pie crust affects gluten polymerization, as water is a necessary molecule to induce the formation of the gluten matrix.  Too much water can result in too much gluten polymerization (resulting in a tough crust), but not enough water doesn’t allow for enough gluten polymerization (resulting in a pie crust that will fall apart as it is being rolled out).  To make things even trickier, the majority of the water in the recipe is actually supplied by the butter and cream cheese!

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