Working with my hands has to be one of my favorite things about baking. When I can, I prefer to forgo the stand mixer and make doughs the old-fashioned way. Working together flour, butter, and salt with my hands just puts a smile on my face and a jump in my step. I even tried hand kneading the base dough for laminated pastry a few times. And while my arms were definitely a bit sore after kneading for so long, my dough was elastic and satiny, my heart was full, and my croissants left me feeling like I’d taken an afternoon stroll down the Champs–Élysées.
You might call this kind of self-inflicted extra manual labor crazy. I call it therapeutic. I love feeling the stages of the ingredients melding together to make, biscuits or cinnamon buns or soft pretzels or…
In my opinion, pie dough is best made by hand. And here’s the thing– pie dough is a great place to start if you’re at all nervous about making doughs by hand. It’s a little more effort than a simple drop biscuit, but not nearly as intense as hand-kneading a brioche dough. I know, I know. You can use a food processor, and it works well for a lot of people. Loads of cookbooks, food magazines, and blogs recommend processing dough. But I disagree.
When you use your hands, even along with a pastry blender or fork, you get a better feel (literally) for what’s going on with your dough. You can feel when the dough is too wet or too dry; if the butter is too small or too large; if the butter is properly worked into the flour. Pulsing the machine to process your dough just doesn’t give you that amount of control, and it’s really easy to overwork the dough in a processor.
Get your hands in the flour. Rub the butter into gorgeous, thin flakes with your fingers and palms. Your pie crust will be all the flakier for it, and your fellow pie eaters will thank you and ask for more pie.
In this recipe, I make a super simple all butter pie crust by hand. While it chills, I simmer pears, brown sugar, tonka bean, and lemon to make deliciously fragrant filling. The tonka bean lends the most intoxicating scent and flavor to this mixture– they’ve got a little spice and a little sweetness, like a mixture of cinnamon, clove, almond and vanilla. I only heard of tonka beans a few years ago, but I’m a big believer in these little beans that look kind of like long shrivel-ly raisins. You grate them like you would fresh nutmeg, taking in deep breaths of the heavenly aroma as you do. If you can’t find these little gems, although I do think they are worth searching for, feel free to use a pinch or two of whatever spices you like!
After simmering down and cooling, the filling is spooned into the middle of cut out circles of the dough and sealed up to make the perfect little hand pies.
If you like these Pear & Tonka Bean Hand Pies, you might also like:
Pear & Tonka Bean Hand Pies
For the pie dough:*
- 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 2 sticks unsalted butter very cold & cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- pinch of fine sea salt
- 8 tablespoons ice cold water (you may need a little more or less depending on where you live)
For the filling:
- 3 medium pears peeled & diced very small (it's about 2 1/2 cups)
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar
- 1/2 tonka bean grated with microplane
- pinch fine sea salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
To finish the pies:
- 1 egg + 1 teaspoon water whisked together
- 1 tablespoon turbinado sugar or granulated sugar
- ?Note: this pie dough recipe makes enough for one double crust pie or two single crust pies. In this case, I use half of the dough to make 7 hand pies, and freeze the rest for later use!
In a large bowl, mix the flour and sea salt together. Toss the butter into the bowl, making sure it is all coated with flour. Start working the butter into the flour, using your hands to really rub the flour and butter together. Rub pieces of the butter between your fingers into thinner pieces, drop these bits back into the bowl of flour, and repeat. Do this until all your butter pieces are broken down into pieces no bigger than a penny. Some of your butter pieces will be smaller and that's fine.
Make a well in the center of your bowl and add two tablespoons of the water. Use one hand with your fingers spread out (as though your were holding a big grapefruit) to drag flour into the water. Keep moving your hand around the bowl bringing the dough together. As the dough begins to come together add a little more water at a time. continuing to bring it together with your hand. You want to stop adding water when the dough is shaggy, moist, and still a bit loose. It should NOT feel sticky or tacky!
Tip the dough out onto a clean countertop and lightly knead it a few times into two discs. Wrap each disc in plastic wrap. Place one in the fridge to chill for at least an hour. Wrap the remaining disc in foil and store in the freezer until you want to make pie again!
While your dough is chilling, combine the pears, brown sugar, grated tonka bean, and salt in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Let the sugar melt and the mixture come to a simmer. Whisk the lemon juice and cornstarch together in a small bowl and pour into the simmering pear mixture. Reduce the heat to medium low and continue to simmer for about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat when the pear filling is the consistency of loose jam. Let the mixture cool completely.
Line a baking sheet with parchment. Roll out your pie dough to about 1/8th inch thickness. Cut seven 4 inch circles from the dough. You may need to gather your scraps and re-roll to get all seven cut outs, just be careful not to overwork the dough! Place the circles on the prepared baking sheet and brush the outer half inch edge of all the circles with the egg and water mixture. Spoon about 1 tablespoon of the pear filling into the center of each circle. Fold each in half and crimp the edges together with a fork. Place the sheet pan in the freezer for 30 minutes to chill the pies well.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit while you wait for your pies to chill.
After thirty minutes is up, remove the pies from the freezer and cut three little slits each pie so that the steam can escape as they bake. Brush the tops of the pies with the remaining egg mixture and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.
Place the pies in the preheated oven and bake for 25-30 mins until golden, rotating the pan midway through baking. Allow the pies to cool for about 5-10 minutes before eating.