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For Thanksgiving: Conquering fear of pie crusts

I've suffered from it for years, and I'll bet you have, too. It gets especially bad around Thanksgiving time.

You know the drill. The best cooks of the family load up the sideboard with their deep-dish apple wonders, dreamy sweet-potato custard pies and decadent chocolate-and-pecan confections. You slink in with your pitiful little pumpkin pie. Everyone knows your dirty little secret: You got the recipe off the side of the pumpkin can and dumped the filling into a store-bought frozen crust. (To be honest, you didn't really know there was any other kind of crust.)

Folks, I hear your pain! Over the years, I have hidden my baking deficiencies by excelling at savories. "Please!" I beg. "I'll cook everything but dessert! Turkey and dressing and all the fixings! But please, don't make me do the pie!"

Recently, however, I decided to stop this foolishness. I decided to conquer my fear of crusts. I decided to call Shirley O. Corriher, the Atlanta food scientist and James Beard Award-winning cookbook writer. Shirley said she would teach me her no-fail recipe for Simple Flaky Crust (from her indispensable first book, "CookWise") on one condition: She would sit, and I would roll.

Before Shirley arrived one recent day, I decided to go it alone. The results were tragic. To begin with, I couldn't even find a rolling pin. When I did find my mama's old wooden beauties, cowering in the farthest corner of my cabinet, I had no idea what to do with them. I ended up pressing the crust into a pan with my thumbs. Play-Doh flashback. Shirley told me it looked great. But I could tell she was lying. I could see the vague look of horror in her eyes.

So we started over.

And in her inimitable way, Shirley gave me a scientific explanation of pie-crust technique: tender vs. flaky and the fickle nature of fat. "Tender is one characteristic and flaky is another characteristic," she said. For a flaky crust, "you need big slabs of cold fat." The fat acts as a spacer in the dough; when it melts, it releases steam that puffs the dough apart. For tender crusts, you want to grease the flour with fat so that it can't soak up water to form tough gluten. (You may have tried this technique before, using a pastry cutter or food processor to mix the flour and fat into pebble-like lumps.)

Well, pretty soon, I started to get the hang of it. I lost my fear of the pin and learned that flour was my friend. I rolled out two crusts, folded them up and gently pressed them into the pan. "Way to go," Shirley said.

By the end of the day, I had a Spicy Peanut and Chocolate Pie, a variation on the classic pecan pie that anyone would be proud to put on a Thanksgiving dessert table, and a wonderful Quiche of Gruyere and Mushrooms, an elegant pie for a holiday brunch.

Shirley had introduced me to the joys of making beautiful hand-made crusts. That's a gift I will always be thankful for.

Pie recipes and a step-by-step guide to making crust

Quiche of Gruyere and Mushrooms

Inspired by Julia Child, this savory pie is rich and voluptuous.

Hand on: 35 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Serves: 4-6

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons minced shallots

1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon lemon juice

4 eggs

2 cups whipping cream

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup grated Gruyere cheese, divided

1 single 9-1/2-inch pie crust, pre-baked

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a heavy skillet or sauté; pan over medium heat, melt butter, add shallots and cook for about 2 minutes. Stir in mushrooms, salt and lemon juice and cook over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium, and cook down all the liquid, about 10 more minutes. (A couple of pointers: don't over-stir, or you will break up the mushrooms; do reduce as much liquid as possible to avoid a soggy quiche.)

Crack eggs into a medium bowl. Add whipping cream, black pepper and nutmeg. Beat well with a fork or whisk. Gently stir in 3/4 cup of the Gruyere and the mushrooms.

Pour into pre-baked pie crust. Sprinkle remaining Gruyere on top. (If you have extra cheese, feel free to sprinkle a bit more on top.) Bake in the upper part of oven until puffed and brown, about 30-45 minutes.

Per serving, based on 4: 870 calories (percent of calories from fat, 76), 21 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 75 grams fat (41 grams saturated), 423 milligrams cholesterol, 1,235 milligrams sodium.

Spicy Peanut and Chocolate Pie

Hands on: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Serves: 8

This pie is from Nancie McDermott's "Southern Pies" (Chronicle, $23). McDermott attributes it to Barry Maiden, a Virginia native who runs Hungry Mother restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. I served the pie dolloped with bourbon-spiked whipped cream. If you like, reserve about a tablespoon of chopped peanuts for garnish or make a few extra.

For the spicy peanuts

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cayenne

1 cup unsalted roasted peanuts

For the filling

4 eggs

1 cup sorghum, molasses, pure cane syrup or dark corn syrup

1/2 cup dark or light brown sugar, packed

3 tablespoons butter, melted and slightly cooled

3 tablespoons bourbon (optional)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1 9-inch single pie crust, pre-baked

Whipped cream (optional)

To make the spicy peanuts:

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper.

In a small sauce pan, make a simple syrup by combining the granulated sugar and 2 tablespoons water. Bring to a vigorous boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar thoroughly, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and pour syrup into a medium bowl. Add salt and cayenne and mix well. Add peanuts and toss to coat evenly. Spread peanuts in a single layer and bake until fairly dry, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board and allow to cool for about 20 minutes. Chop coarsely and set aside.

To make the filling:

In a medium bowl, stir eggs lightly with a whisk or fork. Add the syrup and granulated sugar, stirring well to combine. Add the butter, bourbon (if using) and vanilla extract. Mix evenly. Stir in the flour; then fold in chopped peanuts.

Sprinkle half the chocolate chips over the bottom of the pre-baked pie crust, and pour in the filling. Sprinkle remaining chocolate chips into the pie. Bake at 350 degrees, or until the edges puff up and the center is fairly firm, wiggling only a little when you nudge the pan, 25 to 35 minutes.

Serve pie at room temperature with optional whipped cream.

-- Adapted from "Southern Pies" by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle, $23).

Per serving: 470 calories (percent of calories from fat, 42), 9 grams protein, 62 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber, 22 grams fat (8 grams saturated), 118 milligrams cholesterol, 501 milligrams sodium.

A step-by-step guide to making Shirley Corriher's Simple Flaky Crust

1. Mix 2 cups bleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup instant flour (Wondra or Shake & Blend) and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

2. Cut 1/2 pound (2 sticks) of butter Corriher's way. Slice each stick into quarters with a sharp knife, cutting lengthwise into long slabs; then slice each slab into thirds. Toss the butter in the flour mixture, coating the butter well. (It's OK to use your hands.) Place in freezer for 10 minutes.

3. Dump the mixture onto the counter, and roll with a large rolling pin to flatten lumps. If you have never done this, it may take a moment to get the hang of it. Press down on the rolling pin with your fingers or palms to flatten the lumps, and slowly begin to roll. Using a spatula, scrape the flour mixture into a pile and roll again. Repeat one more time. Return the mixture to the bowl, making sure to scrape the dough off the rolling pin, and place back in freezer for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, repeat process above: dump on the counter, and roll and scrape together three times. Return to freezer for 10 minutes.

4. Remove from freezer, and gently fold in eight ounces of sour cream. The dough should be moist enough to hold together in a ball. If needed, you may add 1 to 3 tablespoons of water or milk. Nifty hint from Corriher: you can mix a little milk or water into the sour cream container and use the liquid.

5. Divide the ball in half. Flatten into two discs and dust with flour. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight. This will make two single crusts (enough for the pie recipes here) or one double 9-inch crust.

6. When ready to roll crust, place one disc on the counter. (Keep a small bowl of flour handy, and dust the counter and dough liberally with the flour so the crust won't stick to the counter surface.) Gently press the rolling pin down at the center. Roll away from you toward the edge of the disc -- but not all the way to the edge. Repeat, rolling from center toward you. Rotate the crust slightly and continue the process, flattening it into a circle.

7. When the crust is big enough to place into a pie pan, fold it in half. Then fold it again. This will help you ease it into the pan with out breaking it.

8. Place the crust in the pan with pointed edge at the center, and gently unfold it, adjusting it evenly.

9. Tuck the crust into the pan as snugly as possible. This is important, because the crust will shrink during baking, so every surface of bottom and side of the pan must be covered. Trim crust, leaving about a half-inch margin of crust around the edge. You may leave the border plain, or decorate by pressing with a fork or crimping with fingers. Check your recipe; if it calls for a pre-baked or partially baked crust, bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Be sure to weigh down the crust with a layer of parchment or waxed paper, then a layer of rice or dried beans.

10. Cookbook author Shirley O. Corriher describes the secret of a making a flaky crust. "For flakiness, you need big slabs of cold fat. … If you work it in too fine, there's no way on earth you are ever going to have a flake. That's why rolling the butter out in big slaps like this gives you such a flaky crust!"

-- Adapted from "CookWise" by Shirley O. Corriher (Morrow, $35).

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