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Putting Pie Crust on a Diet

From a recent LA Times special on savory pies comes a classic calorie-bomb–only, it’s not even the pie. It’s the pie dough itself:

Basic savory pie dough No. 2 (cream cheese)

Servings: 1 double-crust (9-inch) pie or 6 individual hand pies

  • 1 (8-ounce) container cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup cream
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 2/3 cups (11 1/2 ounces) flour

Each of 6 servings: 638 calories; 9 grams protein; 44 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 48 grams fat; 29 grams saturated fat; 137 mg. cholesterol; 1 gram sugar; 518 mg. sodium.

Now come on. 638 calories before you ever get to the filling? Who wants to eat that much pie dough at a time, especially one so rich? OK, don’t answer that, but really. Gag.

Except for the extra cream and the teaspoon of added salt (and why do you even need those with a cream cheese dough anyway?) this is really just a classic rugelach dough–you mix the fats together and then stir in the flour a little at a time by hand. Only, rugelach dough is meant to be rolled out as thin as physically possible–1/16 inch thick or even less–before spreading with jam and nuts and chocolate and cinnamon and so on and rolling it up into a crescent shape. And a good thing too, because cream cheese doughs are notoriously rich. More dough per rugelach and you’d soon feel like you’d eaten an airline Danish–it would sit like lead in your stomach for hours.

I compared the recipe above with the one in my much-used spiral-bound 1984 edition of Joan Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Kitchen (thank you, Hadassah rummage sale!) It was probably the one cookbook that influenced me most as a college student, and I still use it for the classics, especially baked things like rugelach and hamantaschen that I can’t just wing (note–her cookie-style hamantaschen recipe is the best I’ve ever tasted, a far cry from the usual chalky white horrors on the Purim carnival bake sale table).

Based on Nathan’s rugelach recipe, which is the same recipe everyone everywhere seems to use, the quantities in the LA Times recipe above should make something like 40 rugelach, so figure about 15-20 realistic servings, not six. The cooks at the LA Times must be rolling the dough out the standard 3/8 inch thick for their pies, but it seems like a complete waste of this dough’s particular talents. One of the best things about rugelach dough is that it holds together very nicely at 1/16th inch thick, and then it flakes beautifully, almost as well as puff pastry or strudel, if not as thick, when you bake it. Plus, it packs a lot of cream cheese flavor, which is good for the couple of intense bites you get and plays off the sweet crumbly filling. Then you’re satisfied with a just-right serving of dietary badness (one chocolate, one raspberry or apricot and cinnamon, and don’t forget to plotz in ecstasy as you take the first bite, especially if the hostess is watching). And you won’t have to reassert your New Year’s Resolutions quite so desperately the next morning. Or reach for the Tums.

But back to the pie. A better and lighter choice for a main-dish savory pie, which the LA Times feature was going for in the first place, might be an olive-oil tart crust like the one Clotilde Dusoulier of Chocolate & Zucchini listed a while back. Olive oil, which has mostly unsaturated fats, is generally accepted as healthier and less artery-clogging than butter, cream cheese, sour cream, or the very unappetizing Crisco (sorry, an unfortunate memory of my childhood years just popped up here. I’ll get over it in a minute when the bile goes back down where it belongs). Or, of course, lard, which I don’t have any actual experience with (thank everything that my mother never had it in the house along with that horrid yellow Crisco can).

But how well does olive oil work? Common wisdom says the hard fats work best at creating flaky pie crusts, and some people really believe pie is “all about the crust.” Me, I’d rather have a thin, crisp crust that highlights the filling than end up with a big mouthful of greasy flakes or the standard doughy sog on the bottom. This olive oil tart dough delivers pretty well, surprisingly, and manages to be flaky/crisp without being greasy when rolled thin, or tender and crumbly when rolled to standard pie crust thickness.

So here are two informal versions, each of which will give you enough dough for a single-crust deep-dish pie, not too thick. Going with a single crust automatically cuts down the crust calories per slice. But both doughs also can be rolled out rugelach-thin into smaller circles, 5″ across or so,  and used as samosa-like wrappers for a variety of savory fillings from chickpeas or lentils to spinach-and-cheese, mushroom, eggplant, or the classic potato-and-pea. The very thin rolled labaneh or sour cream dough makes great-tasting but delicate herb and sesame crackers too. Just saying.

I usually roll out dough between two sheets of plastic wrap with just a little bit of flour. The plastic wrap scheme keeps the dough from sticking too much, gives me a peel-off backing I can use to lift the  rolled dough into a pan without it falling apart, and keeps the cutting board and rolling pin clean. For crackers, I roll out directly onto tinfoil or a baking sheet, with plastic wrap on the top side of the dough. There’s enough fat in both doughs that you don’t need to grease the baking dish.

Olive Oil Tart Crust (adapted from Clotilde Dusoulier of Chocolate&Zucchini)

This one makes a standard-thickness pie crust, but I personally like it rolled a bit thinner, which means there’ll be leftovers for crackers or samosas. The scraps can be used the next day if you wrap the leftover dough tightly and refrigerate it, but I wouldn’t rework it too much or leave it too long, or the dough will probably toughen and lose some of its flake as the water integrates further.

  • 2 c. unsifted flour (can be whole-wheat or a mixture)
  • pinch of salt (Clotilde’s calls for a whole teaspoon, which I reject on principle but also because savory fillings are bound to have their own saltiness)
  • up to 1 t. mixed savory herbs if those will work with your filling–go light because they can make the crust kind of bitter
  • ~1/3 c olive oil (Clotilde’s recipe calls for 1/4 c, which works fine, but I like a little extra. Don’t use your very best decorator olive oil for this, keep it for salads)
  • up to 1/2 c. cold water

Stir together the flour with the salt and/or herbs if using. Stir in the olive oil with a fork until you start to get a mixture that looks something like very lumpy oatmeal. Stir in the water a little at a time, moistening all the flour until the dough just holds together. Gather it in a ball, squeeze or knead lightly just a few times, roll out or press into a tart shell or pie plate, and refrigerate 1/2 hour before baking. Prick with a fork and parbake at 350 degrees F for 10-15 minutes before filling (I’m not fussy enough to blind bake with foil and pie weights),  until the dough looks a little puffed and dry on the surface but hasn’t colored much. If you’re baking it all the way for a cold filling, bake 20-25 min. until it’s golden brown all over.

Olive Oil and Labaneh or Sour Cream Dough (richer and more caloric, obviously, but with that distinctive sour cream tang, so I roll it out thinner than for standard pie dough)

  • 1.5  c unsifted flour
  • 1/4 c olive oil
  • 2-3 T labaneh or sour cream
  • few spoonfuls of water, up to about 1/4 c

Same directions as above, but put the labaneh or sour cream in after the olive oil, not with it, and then the water last. Use your judgment on whether the dough needs to be a little moister at the end. Some labaneh is pretty firm, even though it has water in it, and a little added water will make the dough more flexible and keep it from cracking while you work. It will also keep the baked crust or crackers from crumbling apart weakly the instant you cut or bite into them.

For crackers, do use a little water when you make the dough. Break off some of the chilled dough, put it on a sheet of tinfoil or a baking sheet and roll it out partway toward 1/16th inch thickness. Sprinkle sesame seeds, dried oregano or thyme, and fresh-cracked black pepper on top, cover it again, and press the herbs and sesame seeds into the surface of the dough as you finish rolling it out. Score the dough into crackers with a knife or better yet a rolling pizza cutter and bake at 350 degrees F for about 8-10 minutes, until at least the edges are golden, or to your liking. Keep an eye on them and don’t let them go too far or the sesame seeds and possibly the dough itself will scorch.

2 Responses

  1. I have seen few Samosa’s recipe were they fill it with panner and every time I attempt that the Samosas, the covering breaks up. Let me check how it works using your recipe.

    • I did try the olive oil dough as a samosa dough, and it works pretty well as long as you don’t overstuff it. A tablespoon of filling will do ok with a typical wrapper–say half of a 5-inch circle. You can roll it out pretty thin without it tearing because although it’s got olive oil (the fat) for flakiness it also has a fair amount of water to activate the gluten in the flour and make it elastic. A ball about the size of a walnut in the shell should roll out to about 5-6 inches diameter and still have some strength. I would just knead it a little more than if you were using the dough for pie crust in order to work up the elasticity a little. It might not taste the same as samosa dough made with ghee (clarified butter), but it’s pretty good, or you could use a more neutral vegetable oil if you don’t like olive oil. I haven’t tried paneer for samosas–but lightly-cooked diced cauliflower and peas worked pretty well, if that gives you some idea. You just have to handle it a bit gently while wrapping, and don’t be afraid to patch it if necessary.

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