Perfect Pie Crust & Paul Hollywood

Faking is basically what I do half the time I make anything. I pretend that it will work - that odd flavor combination, that interesting pairing of textures. And usually this impudence pays off with success. While watching the first season of The Great British Baking Show, my discomfort grew with certainty: I would die if I had to stand in front of Paul Hollywood and actually watch him eat anything I've baked. Why? Because I mostly fake those complex techniques, and he would have me pegged in three flat seconds. I mean, I know in theory that some of the things I make shouldn't work. But they pretty much always do and I've become extremely good at trusting that, to my detriment in moments. My biggest con to date was when (at the age of sixteen or so) I entered a pie-baking contest at a friends' huge Memorial Day picnic. Imagine it: fifteen or twenty home-schooled girls lining up their pie dishes to be judged by a handful of old men who just wanted their fill of free (mostly excellent) pie. I gave into ambition and tried sprinkling the egg wash over my berry pie with cane sugar before baking. The sugar, of course, burned spectacularly. Not burned quite to the point of being inedible, but burned quite to the point of being mahogany which, I am positive Paul Hollywood would abhor.

There was no time (or inclination - I've always been against pie-baking. There's something annoying about the process of making a crust which never quite makes up for the fun of decorating your pie.) for a rematch so I put my handwriting to good use:

triple berry pie with caramelized crust

I wrote it ostentatiously with a stubborn little flourish of my pen. I'd cast their good taste into question and then, of course, if they'd never heard of a "caramelized crust" it was up to them to accept mine, or admit ignorance. What I thought was going to happen, I'm not sure. I just knew that I had no time left and that I meant to enter that ridiculous contest if it was the last thing I did. The con worked.
I won first place.
"Triple berry pie with caramelized crust, eh?" the shrewdest judge repeated, winking at me. I remember steeling my nerves, pulling my dignity together, and taking my ribbon away with me so as not to have to watch him watch me with a very comprehending look in his goggly eyes.

Back to Paul Hollywood. Paul Hollywood knows. I mean he knows that there is no such thing as a mahogany colored caramelized crust. And I know just how it would go if Paul Hollywood had been judging that long-ago pie contest instead of gold-toothed Mr. J:

P.H.: "What have you baked for us?"
Me: "A triple-berry pie with caramelized crust."
P.H.: "Caramelized? It's burnt." *turns pie to camera. Lifts edge with pie-server fussily.* "You can see right there on the edge, it's burnt."
Me: *avoids looking into his scathing blue eyes* "Yes, chef."
P.H.: "You know what you did wrong, don't you?"
Me: *nurses third-degree burns* "It's the sugar."
P.H.: "Yes, it's the sugar. You can't put sugar into an egg wash of an unbaked pie. It'll burn long before the pie is finished." *releases pie server with a poignant clang and a smouldering look into my eyes to cement the idea that sugar on pie-crust is a no-go.*

I don't find him handsome; I find him terrifying and stern and so so knowing. In that world - the world of The Great British Baking Show, the world of Paul Hollywood and his skin-flaying eye contact - I would probably never have won first prize for that con-artist pie. And then again, I have the feeling Paul Hollywood has probably bluffed a lot through his life. And now he's worth a reported 10 million pounds. So there. All I lack is the silver goatee and killing glare. And an actual knowledge of the science behind why certain things work and others should never be attempted. But till that day...I'll bake and bluff on. The worst that can happen is a temporary, spectacular failure. That is, until another more spectacular one takes its place. But there is a certain adrenaline in learning as you go and I can say with honesty that I've got to understand quite a lot of the science by trial, error, and a lot of reading and testing. Here then is my favorite pie crust recipe, far removed from those self-righteous days when I advertised a burned pie as something chic and stole first place. I've never seen this crust fail and it's got to such a state that we never use any other. Flaky, golden, holds-up perfection. Your pie-crust woes might just be over. That is, as long as you hold the sugar.

Perfect Pie Crust 
makes one 9" double crust

2 cups all purpose flour
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold butter, cut into small chunks
1 egg, lightly beaten
2-3 Tablespoons ice cold water
1 Tablespoon white vinegar

1.) In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients. With only your very fingertips, cut in the butter until your mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
2.) Mix together egg, vinegar, and two Tablespoons of the ice water in small measuring cup. Make a well in the center of your dry mix and then mix together quickly with a wooden spoon. Add remaining water if necessary.
3.) Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for an hour before use.


  1. I am not a fan of Paul Hollywood - who reportedly sells loaves of his bread for £60 at Harrods. Yes it's Harrods - everything is overpriced there. But REALLY? Also, calling things flat out 'disgusting' to people's faces and in the tone he does it is bad manners. Happily he has mellowed as the series of GBBO went on...

    In terms of the science of cookery - there is a free course run on EdXU that appears every so often that is about discovering the science of cookery - just in case you were interested.

    That strawberry pie looks lush!

    1. 60?! Good heavens, man! I'll check out that free course - I'm always down for learning how things REALLY work so I don't make certain mistakes again. Also, the scientific method is so helpful in learning success when making salad dressings, for instance. Or the art of balancing flavors. I wish I knew more and I'm always sitting down with culinary books to learn. (But back to Harrods: HOW?)

  2. I was laughing so hard at this post, Rachel! I do love The Great British Bake-off. I've learned so much from it, and I've only seen a handful of episodes so far!