How master pie maker Cathy Barrow cracked the secret of a perfectly flaky crust

Pie dough will last in the freezer for three months — so you're already late getting prepared for Thanksgiving

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published November 26, 2019 8:30PM (EST)

When Pies Fly: Handmade Pastries from Strudels to Stromboli, Empanadas to Knishes to
Knishes by Cathy Barrow (Photos provided by publicist)
When Pies Fly: Handmade Pastries from Strudels to Stromboli, Empanadas to Knishes to Knishes by Cathy Barrow (Photos provided by publicist)

Nothing really says the holidays quite like a good pie. And with Thanksgiving just around the corner and Christmas soon to follow, pie season is finally in full bloom.

One of the foremost American pie makers is Cathy Barrow, whose Pie Squared: Irresistibly Easy Sweet & Savory Slab Pies, was nominated for a 2019 James Beard Award for Best Cookbook: Baking and Desserts.

This season, you'll find Barrow in her kitchen baking a Chocolate Pecan Tassie Galette. A hint of bourbon takes the classic flavor pairing to a new stratosphere. And soon she'll be rolling out a spiced apple streusel. Perfect for a crowd, it smells like autumn should.

Both of these recipes are features in Barrow's new book, When Pies Fly, which teaches Americans how to master all types of pie — from strudels to stromboli, empanadas to knishes.

Empanadas and stromboli are pie, you ask? As she mastered the craft of pie making, Barrow has come to understand that pie is the more universal term for anything that is wrapped in pastry. While she admits that she took huge leaps of faith to say that, when you open her beautiful new book, this modern definition of "pie" makes sense.

Below, Barrow serves up advice for aspiring pastry chefs, shares time-saving tips for at-home pie makers, and reveals her secrets for a perfectly flaky crust. (Hint: It's all about the butter.) With this no-nonsense advice, you have all the ingredients you need for a tasty holiday 2019.

The holidays are just around the corner, and I feel like nothing really says holidays quite like a good pie. If you're going to be making pies this season, do you always have some  crust ready to go in the freezer or something like that?
I have a method for making pie dough in the food processor, which you'll see in the book. And I have learned that I can make three batches of pie dough before I have to clean the food processor. Isn't that a good tip? I make three every time, and I put two in the freezer. Pie dough will last in the freezer for three months — so you're already late getting prepared for Thanksgiving.

That's a great time-saving tip, because there are so many things to do before Thanksgiving dinner reaches the table.
Exactly. If you take the pie dough out on Tuesday and put it in the refrigerator, take it out of the freezer. It takes about five hours to defrost, and it'll just stay fresh in the refrigerator for two days. And so I usually start Thursday morning, and make myself a pot of coffee. And I roll out the dough, and put those pies in the oven before I even get going for the day.

The other thing I can say is that many people don't realize that frozen fruit is just as good as fresh fruit in a pie. I mean, it works the same way, and in fact, it's often easier to deal with, because you want to use it while it's still frozen so you don't get that really wet, sloppy filling that you don't know what to do with. It's very contained. You can buy a couple bags of organic peach slices, for instance, or blueberries, or tart cherries or the mixed berry bags that they have — they're sort of prepped for smoothies. 

When Pies Fly contains so many different types of pie. How do you define pie, and how did that definition possibly evolve over time?
That's a great question. This book is the second of my pie books, and the fact is I made a lot of pies writing my first book. I made — I counted 200 pies — and I always had a bit of dough and some filling hanging out in the refrigerator. And so I started to make these little hand pies or small galettes, or maybe I'd use filo or puff pastry. And I just started exploring all the ways that I could wrap filling up in different pastries.

And that got me thinking of all the ways that home cooks all around the world are sort of extending little bits of things that are in the refrigerator or in the fruit basket. And wrapping it up in pastry means that two peaches serves six people. Or a little bit of roast chicken, or some leftover beef or something like that. You add some vegetables and potatoes, you cover it with a crust, and suddenly you have a whole meal.

And so I started to think about how pie is the more universal term for anything that's wrapped in pastry. And I know I take huge leaps of faith to say that. And at one point that I was speaking to a crowd, a woman asked me if I've had any pushback on this idea. But I really am doing it in a good spirit and the thought that everybody loves something crispy, and flaky and buttery.

How did pies become your thing? How did you originally come to pull up pies and to be an expert on them?
Well, my mom was a great pie maker, and she would start Thanksgiving with like six or seven pies. There were only four of us, but she had to have one, and my stepdad had to have pumpkin. There was always sour cherry. I mean, there were just a lot of pies, and I watched her as I was growing up always making them. And I had a lot of trouble making them myself until I just miraculously one day figured it out.

And I guess that's the side statement here is that pie making is a skill. It's not a talent, and really, if you practice, anybody can do it. As time went on, I became known for my sour cherry pie — really known for it. To the point where I entered a pie contest 10 years ago, and I won and it kind of kicked off my food writing career. So I've been making pies for a long time, and it's been an integral part of my writing, everything since.

Is advice you would give to anyone who's and up and coming in the culinary scene: Master one thing that you're really good at, and grow from there?
Absolutely. Think of all the makers out there, you know, somebody who just makes a terrific Bundt cake, or pound cake or barbecue or something like that. One thing that you're great at? That's not a bad thing.

What are a few basic tips for making your crust that will help you produce the right results every time? Would you be willing to share any of your secrets with us?
Use a scale. Weighing your ingredients when you bake is a guarantee of consistency, and consistency is going to make you better at this. You know, not always fighting with the different amounts of water, or flour or whatever. Keep all your ingredients very, very cold. Work quickly.

And, I guess, worrying so much about perfection. We're so bombarded with pictures of beautiful pies on Instagram. And I admire those people, and they make incredibly gorgeous pies. But I don't want anybody to feel incapable of doing this simply because they see that. You know, I've never in my life prepared a pie and had someone say, "That's just not pretty enough for me to eat." It's always delicious. That's the thing to worry about: It this thing going to be delicious?

It may be difficult to name just one, but do you have a favorite from your new book?
Wow. You know, I kind of play it as a passing parade. I'm very pleased with the recipe for the antipasto stromboli, which is really a sensational crowd-pleasing, easy-to-make recipe. You can use store-bought puff pastry. You can pick up almost everything for it at the olive bar at your grocery store. And it comes together in about 15 minutes, and bakes in an hour and it is such a crowd pleaser. It's really good. It's got cured meats, and provolone, and mozzarella, and olives, and red peppers and artichokes. And it's delicious — puff pastry.

When Americans picture pies, they often think of sweet pies. But there are a lot of undiscovered savory pies out there, too, right?
Yes, half the book is savory pies. I think savory pies don't get enough attention in this country. But then if you go to the U.K. — of course, they think sweet pies are really weird. "I don't know why — why you want warm fruit?" They think it's a really strange idea.

But I think that we don't do enough with savory pies. It's a great family dinner and then they become a terrific lunch the next day. I have in the book a turkey, leak, bacon, and Gruyere galette to make with your leftover Turkey on Thanksgiving. And that's just a yummy way to do it. It's like the alternative to a sandwich. 

I think it's time for all of us in America to embrace the savory pie. All of my pie crusts are sugar-free with the exception of the chocolate one. So they do go both ways, whether it's a butter crust, or shortening or lard, you can do them with fruit or with a savory fillings.

And you write that your favorite butter to use in pie making is all-American butter?
I do. I buy my butter at Costco, because that's what you do when you buy 15 pounds at a time. American pies, you know, our pie crust was developed not with the European butter, which has less water in it. And the water is actually really useful in the whole flaky crust program, because your nice, beautiful cold pastry goes into a super hot oven, and the water in that butter and in the pastry bursts and steams in the heat. And it lifts up the butter, and the flour. And so that water is really an important part of creating a flaky crust, and American butter just has a higher water concentrate.

I think there's a lot of opportunity to use really good European butter, but it doesn't have to be in your pie. I love a pat of butter on my asparagus or on my morning toast. And I want that to be salted European butter, but in my pie crust, I'm happy with Land O'Lakes, or Breakstone's or Costco.

Now that "When Pies Fly" has been published, what's next for you?
I have a monthly column in The Washington Post called "Bring It." It's about large-format cooking, which is a lot of fun. And I do have an idea for the next book. I'm just trying to find a couple of days to write that proposal.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 


Recipe: Cathy Barrow's Spiced Apple Strudel

Serves 8 to 10

Apple strudel is a heavenly pastry to serve to a crowd. It smells like autumn should. Once the sugar hits the apples, they will begin to get juicy, which makes strudeling a little more challenging, so work quickly and with purpose. Feel free to omit the nuts, or substitute pecans or walnuts, according to your particular tastes. I like this just as much with firm, slightly under-ripe pears as I do with apples. Or try substituting quince for some or all of the apples for a heavenly, slightly pink delight.

  • 1 recipe Pulled Dough for Strudel (recipe below)
  • 4 tablespoons (55 g) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup (60 g) dry bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup (43 g) sliced or slivered almonds
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 1/2 pounds (680 g) firm apples like Granny Smith, Pink Lady, or Pink Pearl
  • 3/4 cup (150 g) granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons (45 ml) spiced dark rum
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 3 tablespoons (42 g) unsalted butter, melted
  • Powdered sugar for decorating

Bring the strudel dough to room temperature for 1 hour before stretching, keeping it wrapped until ready to use so it will not dry out. Place the oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Heat the oven to 400°F and line a baking sheet with parchment.

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add the bread crumbs, stir well to coat with the butter, and toast until scented and golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape the bread crumbs into a small bowl and wipe out the pan. Place the almonds in the pan, shaking and turning them over medium heat for 3 or 4 minutes, until slightly golden at the edges. Stir the almonds into the bread crumbs.

Juice the lemon into a large bowl. Peel the apples, slice in half, and core (I use a melon baller); then slice into half moons no more than 1/8 inch thick. Add the apple slices to the bowl and gently stir around in the lemon juice so they will not brown. Add only ½ cup of the sugar, the rum, cinnamon, and nutmeg to the apples and gently stir together. I use my hands.

Prepare the work surface and stretch the strudel dough to 20 by 24 inches, until it’s possible to “read a newspaper through it” or some close approximation of that idea. The whole process doesn’t take long at all, just 5 minutes or so, once you’ve done it a few times.

Pat the stretched dough into shape and then, using scissors or your fingertips, tear or cut away the thick edges and discard.

Spread the bread crumb mixture generously over the dough, leaving a 2-inch border. Scatter the remaining ¼ cup sugar over the bread crumbs. Transfer the apple filling to the dough, using your hands and leaving any liquid behind in the bowl. Shape the filling into a log about 2 inches from a shorter edge.

Begin rolling by lifting and pulling the bare 2-inch edge of the dough over the apple log. Tuck in the sides and, using the strudel cloth, lift and roll the strudel into a tight log with the thin layers of strudel dough encasing the filling. The goal is to make this log firm and tight, not loose and sloppy.

Use the cloth to transfer the strudel to the prepared baking sheet, seam side down.

Brush the top and sides of the strudel with the remaining melted butter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, shower with powdered sugar, and slice and serve.

If serving later, reheat for a few minutes in a 350°F oven.


That beautiful aromatic liquid remaining in the apple filling bowl should not be wasted. Place the liquid in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook briskly until syrupy and thickened, just 2 or 3 minutes. This is glorious spooned over a slice of strudel, particularly when vanilla ice cream is nearby.

How to Make Pulled Dough for Strudel

Makes 1 strudel sheet, about 20 by 24 inches when pulled

Strudel dough is not rolled out with a pin, but stretched. Because of this, the dough needs to be very elastic, requiring well-developed gluten which means active, extensive kneading. Kneading can be tiresome, so do as generations of Germans, Austrians, and Alsatians have done, and slap the dough on the counter with vigor instead. Just lift it up and slap it down, turn, fold, and do it again. And again. In fact, most classic strudel dough recipes include the direction to lift and slap the dough on the counter 100 or more times. It’s a great way to get out that daily grr, and a good workout for the arms. But if you aren’t feeling the slapping, you can knead in the usual way, folding and pushing the dough away from you, and then turning it 90 degrees and continuing the fold and push and turn action for 10 minutes. Alternatively, put the organized dough ball in the stand mixer and let the machine do the work for 10 full minutes.

  • 1 1/4 cups (150 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil
  • 1/3 cup (80 ml) cool water

In a wide bowl, using a table fork, stir together the flour and salt. Make a well in the center and pour in the oil. Gather the flour into the oil with the fork. Pour in the water slowly, continuing to use the fork to incorporate the flour, until the dough is shaggy and wet. It will look impossible and you will be unhappy with me, but please persist.

Let go of the fork, lightly flour your hands, and work inside the bowl to gather the dough (which, admittedly, is more like batter). Just lift and turn, fold and lift, and unbelievably the dough will begin to feel silky and smooth and come together after 5 minutes or so. It’s a miracle.

Move the dough ball onto a very lightly floured counter and knead for 10 minutes; or slap it vigorously 100 times (see headnote); or place the dough ball in the stand mixer and, with the dough hook in place, let the mixer knead the dough for 10 minutes.

Lightly coat the inside of a ziptop bag with cooking spray and place the dough in the bag. After a 30-minute rest on the counter, seal the bag and refrigerate overnight before stretching the dough. Strudel dough can be refrigerated for up to 2 days and cannot be successfully frozen.

Excerpted from When Pies Fly: Handmade Pastries from Strudels to Stromboli, Empanadas to Knishes by Cathy Barrow (copyright © 2019 by Cathy Barrow).  Reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing.  All rights reserved.

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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