Pie lovers know that the secret to perfecting a pie lies in the dough. A filling could go inside any number of things, but the crust is base of the dessert, what makes a pie a pie. This is where people find their signature finesses because every new pie is an opportunity to experiment, to discover the virtues of butter vs. lard vs. shortening, and in what ratio and how that affects the crust’s consistency. But so often the filling overshadows the thing that holds it all together. When you’ve given the crust all that consideration, why not let it take a more prominent role? That’s why we love hand pies.
In a sense, hand pies are to regular pie what the calzone is to pizza. All the same components, except you’re bumping up the crust to filling ratio—and keeping it all self-contained, so they’re also slightly more portable. On the subject of portability, you generally don’t want a wet filling in your hand pie. Part of the appeal is that these require no fork or spoon. It shouldn’t drip down your chin or fall apart when you bite into it. Adding a soft cheese, like we do in our Caramelized Plum and Ricotta pies, can tame a fruit’s juices. Otherwise, go wild. Sweet, savory, the crust is a blank tableau for just about anything you desire—sour cherry, spinach and feta (with lots of dill and parsley), kale-sausage-ricotta, lemon blueberry, classic beef (stewed with potatoes, peas, and carrots), ginger peach, apple-cheddar-thyme. The options are limitless.
In terms of crust, what people like varies from pie maker to pie maker, but there are a few universal principles that will help you achieve a flakey, tender crust that shatters at the lightest pressure from a fork. When it comes to the dough, you want to just barely bring it together—not wholly integrated—so that there are fat striations when you roll it out. Over-handling creates too much gluten, which makes for a tough crust. So does adding too much water. And cold is your friend here. The water should be very cold. Same with the butter. Some people even refrigerate their flour. The cold helps the butter stay separated in little flecks. When those pieces of butter melt, they form pockets of air that then expand with steam, forming beautiful flakes.
Unconfined by the pie tin, the hand pie can take any number of shapes—half moons, rounds, pop tart-like squares. With the latter two, there’s more edge, which means a higher crust to filling ratio. But tread carefully. Too much crust is also a disservice to your efforts. Fill each pie with as much fruit or meat or cheese as the structure will support. It will vary depending on the size of the pie and the consistency of the filling. And to prevent losing any of those precious insides, barely wet the edge of the bottom crust before sliding on the top. Roll their edges into a sealed ridge and crimp or press with a fork. Keep the rim small, but distinct, about a half-inch, to prevent the crust from overpowering the filling and to keep the filling from falling out, and don’t forget to cut a slit or two on top to let it breathe.
Once they’ve baked and cooled a little (let it set, your patience will be rewarded), enjoy your hand pies’ luxurious balance of crust and filling. Isn’t it nice when all things are equal.
A few of our favorite hand pie recipes to try: