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Pie Pointers for the Pastry Challenged

Jan Knobel, co-owner of The Upper Crust, shares her best advice for baking pies

After the fear of falling and the fear of public speaking, making pastry could rank third.

Why should that be? Pie is friendly. Pie is communal. Pie is nostalgic. Pie is also central to the Thanksgiving dinner. No pressure there.

Making wonderful pastry requires a touch you can only get with practice. And yet our rolling pins and pie pans might have been in hibernation since last Thanksgiving.

We need a refresher course. And here to give it is the Pie Whisperer, otherwise known as Jan Knobel. She is co-owner of The Upper Crust in downtown Overland Park with her sister, Elaine Van Buskirk. They use recipes passed down in their family, and the duo bakes about 600 from-scratch pies for Thanksgiving alone.

Selecting Ingredients. “We like really good ingredients,” Knobel says. “If you use icky ingredients, you get icky food.” She favors an all-butter crust for a better flavor (the dough also chills faster). She uses good quality all-purpose flour. For autumn fillings, she goes with Jonathan apples, fresh or fresh-frozen berries (never pie filling), and canned pumpkin because it has a reliable consistency. She uses flour or cornstarch, when necessary, as thickeners.

Making the Dough. Knobel blends the flour, butter and salt until the crumbly mixture looks like small peas.

“Only add a little bit of water at a time,” she counsels, to make the dough come together in a solid, smooth ball. “From day to day, the amount will be slightly different because of the humidity in the air.”

Rolling It Out. Form the dough into a disc, enough for a single crust, so it’s got a head start when you roll it out. Knobel wraps her pastry discs in plastic wrap and refrigerates them for about 15 to 20 minutes. On a flour-dusted surface, she starts rolling in the middle of the disc and works outwards, like the rays of the sun, turning the circle of rolled out dough as she goes. Then she lines the pie pan.

A few imperfect crimps in the crust? No worries, she assures us.

“Pie should look homemade,” she says. Whew.