Use Good Stuff
Sure, the ingredients for pie dough or tart pastry aren't exotic, but their freshness is paramount. Make sure your flour is fresh, your butter or shortening is sweet and unsalted, and that you are using the type of flour called for in the recipe.
KEEP EVERYTHING COLD
Really, everything. It's the fastest way to good flaky pastry. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, and pop the whole thing in the fridge for a bit. Don't take the butter or shortening out of the fridge until you're ready to mix it in, so it stays firm and cold. I like to cut mine into small pieces ahead of time so I can chill it down and not have to be fussing around with warm hands just before adding it in.
It's just pastry. Your grandmother could probably do it in her sleep, and after once or twice, you'll be able to too.
Use them hands:
I like making pastry without my food processor or stand mixer because I can get a better feel for the dough that way. Otherwise, it's too easy to over-mix, making the lumps of fat in the dry ingredients too small. Small lumps of fat mean small air pockets in the baked pastry, which means tough pastry. I use an old fashioned pastry cutter to work the cold fat in at first, then switch to my hands, using only my fingertips to work the flour and fat together until the largest lumps are about the size of fat peas. Err on the side of too big, but don't forget tip number 3. It'll be fine.
Remember: Light and Fast.
Mix swiftly and lightly, and get the liquid in with as little mixing and fussing as possible. You can make a whole batch of pastry in under five minutes; probably in under 3 if you stop worrying. Gather the portions of dough, still crumbly now, into rough balls, put one on a strip of plastic wrap. Using the wrap to help you, flatten ball into a disc, and tighten the wrap around the disc, condensing the edges so it's a uniform thickness and density. You now have a lovely flat circle, ready to chill or freeze, that will roll out like a dream when you're ready for it. Presto – nothing to it. But don't upstage Grandma – it's not polite.
Regan Daley worked for several years as a pastry chef in some of Toronto's most prominent restaurants, including the celebrated Avalon (named by Gourmet magazine as one of the best in North America), where her elegant and original dessert creations, such as Valrhona Molten Chocolate Cakes, quickly become household words. She now conducts dessert and pastry-making seminars and is a contributing editor for President's Choice Magazine. She lives in Toronto with her husband and their two sons.
For more information visit sweetkitchen.regandaley.com.