In a cruel confluence of events, peak pie season comes at the worst time of year. Because the peaches like it hot, but pie crust wants to be cold. So we fight with butter that oozes out of dough; we persevere through crumbling and sticking; we wince at shrinking crusts. And we get really frustrated. All in the name of pie.
But there's an easier way, and that way is Rose Levy Beranbaum's Cream Cheese Pie Crust. According to the prolific baker and cookbook author herself, it's "the best thing [she's] ever done" (followed closely by her cream of tartar-egg white revelations).
First published in her 1998 book The Pie and Pastry Bible, the "Perfect Flaky and Tender Cream Cheese Pie Crust" has been refined and expanded in later works; it was also published in the Washington Post in 2008, where it remains one of the most-requested online recipes of all time: "It’s so important to people. They want to be able to bake pies but they’re baking it at the time of year that’s the hardest time because it’s hot!"
Rose understands our struggles. She developed the recipe by thinking about how to turn a cream cheese-enriched dough, like the kind used for rugelach or pecan tassies—into something with a consistency flaky enough to work for pie crust. What came about was a dough that, she says, is the best in taste, the best in texture, and the most forgiving.
Above: Rose's pie crust; the Hesser family peach pie.
Whereas a regular pie crust will shrink away from the pie tin— curling in on itself like a sad skeleton of what it once was—Rose's cream cheese pie maintains its volume and, for a number of reasons, is less likely to turn tough.
First, the fat and milk solids in the cream cheese inhibit gluten formation (and provide a flavor that makes the crust tasty enough to eat bare). Then there's the baking powder, which makes the dough tender after baking but not too fragile to roll out or shape. The liquid comes from cream and vinegar, with none of the guesswork of "Add a tablespoon of ice water, or more as needed." The pressure's off! The cream tenderizes (yes, even more); the vinegar relaxes.
Rose has made the crust with both all-purpose flour and pastry flour, the latter for an even more tender crust. But by adding sugar to the all-purpose flour dough (1 tablespoon for 1 crust), Rose discovered she could achieve the same effect as pastry flour but without requiring a speciality ingredient. (Stay tuned for that information in her next book.)
And after all that experimenting, "I can't think of anything more I'd want to do with it," Rose says. And for an endless tinkerer, a tireless improver, those words mean a lot.
(Though, for the curious among you, there's this: Rose has always wanted to try balsamic vinegar instead of cider for a savory crust. If you try this, let us know.)
Below, you'll find a slightly streamlined version of Rose's recipe, adapted by Amanda Hesser and featured in A New Way to Dinner (Amanda uses all-purpose flour, with no added sugar to tenderize; she also uses water instead of cream, though feel free to do either). For all of Rose's nitty-gritty details, reference The Baking Bible.
- 1 1/3 cups (165 grams) bleached all-purpose flour
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 cup (110 grams) unsalted butter, cold, cut into cubes
- 3 ounces (85 grams) cream cheese, cold, cut into cubes
- 1 1/2 tablespoons heavy cream or water (Rose uses heavy cream, Amanda uses water)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
A couple of tips from Rose, to make a foolproof recipe more foolproof:
- You'll want to chill the dough at two stages: Once when you form it into a ball, and once after you roll it out and nudge it into the pie plate.
- It's ideal to make the pie crust and refrigerate it for 45 minutes, at which point it's cold, but not too cold—perfect temperature for rolling out and shaping.
- And while the pie isn't going to hold its edge or crimp like a Crisco crust would (Rose says you might as well use modeling clay), the colder you get it before baking, the more likely it is to maintain its shape. Cover it after you roll it out and put it in the fridge: It's ideal to chill it—try for overnight, but even a half-hour or an hour will make a difference—before filling it.
- You can also bake the pie dough directly from frozen: Chill the dough disc, roll it out, place it in the pie tin, then freeze the whole thing. (Don't put a Pyrex or ceramic dish on a solid hot surface, like a preheated pizza stone or baking sheet—instead, place it on the oven rack to ensure your pan does not crack).
- And, all that being said, if the dough isn't too soft or too hot after working with it, you really can bake it right after making it and it won't shrink on you. "I consider it really a miracle," says Rose.
- Use non-sodium baking powder, which lends a sweet, but not sugary, aromatic flavor and creates an even loftier and flakier crust by lifting the layers. Rose says that the sodium-based stuff is "bitter and nasty." So stay away.
- If you do skip the baking powder, double the salt.
- Bonus points if you roll the pie out with Wondra! Rose discovered that this flour works "like little ball-bearings": It's both fine and rough, which means you don't have to use as much of it when you're rolling out the dough. And by introducing less flour, you ensure the crust is even more tender. Everything is working in your favor!
Other doughs to compare (and experiment with):
Name your go-to pie dough in the comments below.