This post comes from Piper Davis and Julie Richardson of Grand Central Baking Co. in Seattle, OR and Portland, OR who write about their experience baking flaky pie crust with whole wheat flour. This is just one example of how bakers and chefs are adjusting their recipes to make them work with small batch whole grain flours. Read on to learn some tricks for baking with whole wheat flour, and see a recipe for their flaky pie crust. The post can also be viewed in its original form on the Grand Central Baking Co. Bakers Blog.

Fabulous pie crust made with whole wheat flour? Impossible. Or so I thought. Whole grains might have the upper hand nutrition-wise, but most everyone in the professional baking world knows that the refined stuff simply makes a flakier croissant, a light, fluffy biscuit and the most delicate pie crust.

So color me shocked when last week, GCB Cuisine Director Piper Davis returned from Kneading Conference West – an artisan baking confab in Mount Vernon, Wash. – talking up the whole wheat crust she made for a fruit pie class. Bakers and farmers at the conference were buzzing about the resurgence of regional grains and small-batch milling. So naturally, Ms. Piper and her baking buddy Julie Richardson of Baker & Spice got their hands on some whole wheat pastry flour grown and milled in Eugene, Ore., at Camas Country Mill (which happens to make the delicious whole wheat bread flour now used in Grand Central’s hearth breads).

Fruit pie class is in session at Kneading Conference West with, from left,  Julie Richardson (Baker & Spice), Piper Davis and Mark Doxtader (Tastebud).

They wanted to use it to make a pie. Wheat farmer/miller Tom Hunton appreciated their interest, but countered with a warning: Not even his mother, he said, can make a good pie crust with whole wheat flour. Well, responded Piper, if anyone can do it, Julie can. So Piper sat back and watched while Julie followed all the right steps for a buttery, flaky crust, with some minor tweaks to make allowances for the whole wheat, one being overnight refrigeration for the dough. The proof, of course, was in the finished apple pie, baked in Tastebud’s mobile wood-fired oven as part of their pie workshop for the conference.

Piper, whose pastry vocabulary normally doesn’t include words like “whole wheat,” pronounced the crust delicious, tender and with a flavor “like buttery Wheaties.” Still wearing her oven mitts, she tracked down Tom Hunton, the wheat farmer, who also loved the results. (Tom’s comment to me in a follow up phone call: “I think your boss is really brave.”) Having tried the recipe myself, I can tell you that it doesn’t look or taste like classic pie pastry, but paired with the right filling (such as crisp, full-flavored fall apples), it makes a delicious rustic dessert.

Notice that flaky crust? Overnight chilling and resting for whole wheat dough is the key.

What did these two professional bakers do right to make the whole grain flour play nice, instead of becoming mealy and tough in the form of a pie crust? According to Piper, Julie paid close attention to three parts of the pastry dough process:

1. Sufficiently hydrate the flour. Piper explained to me that water is often the enemy of good pastry; you want enough to allow the dough to come together, but not so much that it ends up wet and impedes the butter-flour alchemy that makes a flaky crust. But whole wheat flour absorbs more liquid than white flour, so you’ll need to add a bit more, a tablespoon at a time, enough so that when you squeeze a bit of dough in your hand it holds together. The good news about working with whole wheat flour is that you can use a heavier hand than normally recommended with pie dough (usually a quick path to an overworked, tough crust). Mix it as much as needed to make cohesive dough.

2. “Stack” and wrap the dough before chilling. Piper likes to mix the dough by hand. When it just comes together, she turns it out onto a clean surface, cuts it in half with a bench scraper and places each piece on plastic wrap. She pulls up the edges of the plastic wrap, gathering chunks of loose dough and forming it into a rough ball, and gently flattens it into a disk with the heel of her hand and wraps it tightly in the plastic. The pie dough can be a bit shaggy at this stage because it will gather moisture as it chills. This “stacking” helps form buttery layers that encourage a flaky crust.

3. Chill the dough overnight. You can get away with chilling most pie dough for an hour or two. Not so with whole wheat flour. It needs that extra time, says Piper, to pick up moisture and to let the gluten relax. That makes it both easier to roll and more tender when it comes out of the oven. And don’t rush the process: If the dough starts to crack when you roll it out or otherwise becomes persnickety, put it back in the fridge to chill for a bit, then proceed.

Julie’s pie was lovely, but we’ll have to take Piper’s word for it, because it disappeared before someone thought to haul out a camera. Here’s an apple pie I made using the Whole Wheat All-Butter Crust recipe and served warm on a recent rainy, blustery night.

Homey, yes, but delicious. Whole wheat pastry flour passed muster in my apple pie, delivering a flaky crust with a flavor like buttery Wheaties.

It’s a bit rustic looking but the crust tasted earthy and sweet and had lots of flaky layers. And the pie was gobbled up by my tasters, including two dubious teens.

Baker’s note: You can make the recipe below with 100 percent whole wheat pastry flour or use up to 50 percent all-purpose white flour for slightly flakier results. Any whole wheat pastry flour works in the recipe. We used Camas Country Mill’s Oregon-grown whole wheat pastry flour, which isn’t sold in supermarkets but you can find it at the Creswell and Springfield farmers markets (Oregon), or through Hummingbird Wholesale.

Whole Wheat Flaky Pie Dough

Whole wheat pastry flour makes a buttery, flaky pie crust if follow a few crucial steps: Use very cold ingredients; add enough liquid to make the dough hold together (you’ll need more than you would with white flour); and refrigerate the dough overnight before rolling it out, so it’s adequately hydrated and easy to work with. The stronger flavor of the wheat flour is especially nice with apples or other fall fruit pies.

Makes 2 disks, enough for a double-crust pie

2 ½ cups (10.6 ounces) whole wheat pastry flour, chilled
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, well chilled
2/3 cup ice water, plus or minus 1 tablespoon
1 tablespoon lemon juice

In a medium bowl, whisk together the whole wheat pastry flour, sugar and salt. Slice the butter into 1/2-inch cubes and toss with the flour mixture. Using a pastry blender or two knives, cut the butter into the flour mixture until the texture is mealy and butter is in pieces ranging from the size of a lentil to a pea. Make a well in center of the mixture. Combine the water and lemon juice in a small bowl and add to the flour mixture all at once. Gradually pull the dry ingredients into the well with a fork, mixing gently until combined. Check the dough by gathering a small fistful; if it holds together, it’s ready.
Place two large pieces of plastic wrap on a clean surface and divide dough between them. Take one half and gather the edges of the plastic wrap together to form a round dough ball, stacking shaggy bits of dough on top of each other (this encourages flaky layers in the crust). Press the ball into a disk using the heel of your hand and wrap tightly in plastic. Repeat with other half of dough.
Chill the dough overnight. Use as directed in your favorite pie recipe, making sure to refrigerate it between steps.