Your hands are the best tools for making it, so I urge you to plunge them right into the flour and shortening and forge ahead. You will become familiar with the feel of the dough right away, and be surprised how quick and easy it is. When friends taste your pies, they will want you to show them how you did it.
Blending the Flour and Shortening
Put the flour and salt in a large bowl-large enough to hold the ingredients, with room for your hands, and stir them together with your fingers. Drop in the shortening, then with your fingers break it in to several pieces as you push it around the flour.
Now put both hands in the bowl with the flour and shortening, and rub the fingers of each hand against the thumbs, lightly blending the shortening and flour together into smaller lumps and flake-shaped pieces. Your goal is to rub the shortening into the flour while keeping the mixture light-textured and dry.
Work as quickly and comfortably as you can, lifting your hands often and letting the mixture fall back into the bowl. You know when you have blended enough when you do not see any lumps of shortening and you have a mixture of particles the size of coarse and fine bread crumbs.
Adding the Water
Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of water over the dough and stir briskly with a fork. Continue adding water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring after each addition and concentration the areas of the dough that seem the driest. When the dough forms a rough, cohesive mass, reach into the bowl and press the dough together into a roundish ball. If it does not hold together, or if parts of it seem crumbly and dry, sprinkle on a little more water.
The amount of water can vary slightly from time to time, depending on your ingredients. If you are in doubt, it is better to add a little too much than not enough, because a dough that is too dry can be difficult to roll out.
Rolling Out the Dough
Have a handful of additional flour nearby in a small cup, for flouring your hands and the rolling surfaces. Rub some flour on your hands and pat the dough in to a smooth cake about 1 inch thick and 3 to 4 inches across. (If you are making a two-crust pie, pat it into 2 cakes, one slightly larger than the other.)
Sprinkle your rolling surface lightly with flour, spreading the flour to cover an area about 12 inches in diameter. Put the dough in the center, using the larger pieces if it is a two-crust pie, and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Flatten the dough a little with your hands, then begin rolling it into a circle. Do most of the rolling from the center out to the edges of the dough, lifting and turning slightly every 5 or 6 rolls to help keep it round.
If it sticks on the bottom, slide a long metal spatula underneath to loosen it, tossing some more flour under the dough as you lift it gently with the spatula. If the top of the dough is damp and sticky, dust it with additional flour as well. Do not be afraid to touch the dough and to use enough flour to keep it from sticking; it is really quite durable. If it tears, simply push it back together.
Although the edges will probably look uneven, keep the shape as round as possible without agonizing over it. When you have a circle 11 to 12 inches across and about 2 inches larger than the top of your pie pan, you have rolled enough.
Putting the Dough in the Pie Pan
If you are confident, you can probably just pick up the whole circle of dough and set it in the pie pan. Otherwise, try this: Roll the dough up onto the rolling pin, like a carpet. Then put the edge of the dough at the edge of the pan and unroll it, letting it drop into the pan. If it is not relatively centered, slide it gently so it is. If it tears, push it back together. Pat the dough snugly into the pan, starting around the edges and easing toward the center.
You should have 1/2 to 1 inch of overhanging dough all around the pan. In places where there is more than an inch, cut it off with scissors or a sharp knife. In spots where there is less, brush the edge lightly with water and press one of the scraps of trimmed dough onto it.
If you are making a two-crust fruit pie, roll out the second piece of dough just as you did the first. Transfer it, either by lifting it or rolling it onto the rolling pin, to a sheet of waxed paper, and set it aside. Then follow the instructions given later, for a two-crust pie.
Cream, custard, and chiffon pies have only a bottom crust, called a pie shell. Depending on the recipe, the shell is filled either unbaked or fully baked.
For an Unbaked Pie Shell
Fold the overhanging dough over itself and pinch it together to make a double-thick, upstanding rim all around. Pinch the rim to make a scalloped edge-this is called fluting or crimping, and the more you do it, the easier it will become and the better you will be at it. Fill the shell and bake as directed in the recipe.
For a Fully Baked Pie Shell
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Fold and flute the rim as directed in the instructions for an unbaked pie shell, and then prick the dough all over the bottom and sides with a table fork. This should be a rapid motion, and I usually prick it 100 to 120 times. These tiny holes keep the dough from puffing up in the oven, and it is better to have too many than too few.
So the dough will hold its shape, press a 12-inch square of heavy-duty foil (or a double-thick square of regular foil) snugly into the pie shell, over the bottom and sides of the dough. Bake for about 8 minutes, until the edges of the dough are beginning to look dry but not browned. If they still look wet, bake the shell a couple minutes longer. Remove the foil and bake for 6 to 10 minutes more.
Check a few minutes after you remove the foil, and if the dough is puffed in the center, prick it with a fork and it will deflate. The pie shell is done when the dough is light brown and looks dry all over. It is fragile now but will become crisp as it cools. It does not matter if it has shrunk a tiny bit. Set the baked pie shell aside to cook completely, and then fill it as directed in the recipe.
For a Two-Crust Pie
Put the filling into the dough-lined pan as directed in the recipe. Using your finger, a small brush, or a wet paper towel, brush the rim of the dough generously with water. Transfer the rolled-out top crust from the waxed paper-either lift if gently or roll it onto the rolling pin-and place it over the filled pie. Press firmly all around to seal the top and bottom crusts together. Trim the edges, using a sharp knife or scissors, so you have about half an inch of overhang.
Fold the overhang under itself to make a thick, upstanding rim. Flute the rim as directed in the instructions for an unbaked pie shell. With the point of a sharp knife, cut 10 to 12 slits, or vents, in the top crust, so steam can evaporate as the pie bakes. Be as random as you want with the vents, making about half of them around the edge and the rest around the center.
Two-crust fruit pies are usually baked at a high temperature for the first 15 to 20 minutes, to help brown the crust and begin cooking the filling, and then the oven is turned to a lower temperature for the remainder of the baking.
Fruit pies with juicy fillings sometimes boil over in the oven. To keep your oven clean, and to prevent a smoky kitchen, place a large sheet of heavy-duty foil on the rack under the pie to catch drips. It might not be needed, but if it is you will be glad its there.
It is okay to open the oven and check your pie a few times during baking. If you see the edges of the crust becoming too brown, remove the pie from the oven. Gently cover the edges with 2-inch strips of foil, bending them to fit the pie, and then return to the oven.
John Phillip Carroll, pie pie pie (Chronicle Books, 2005).