by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & know it seems kind of silly to be intimidated by something as soft and malleable as pie dough -- I mean, it's just a blend of flour, fat and liquid, one of the simplest doughs around. It's not even leavened, as cake and bread dough are, so you'd think it would be fairly user-friendly.

Not for me.

Despite years of cooking adventures at home, I've never become friends with my inner pie maker. I'll bake cookies, cakes and even bread with any excuse I get, but not pie. Oh, every year I do the annual apple pie at Thanksgiving, but I usually cheat by using a frozen crust for the bottom and a crumb crust on top.

Fortunately, I'm not alone in feeling unfulfilled as a pie maker. Gina Garcia, owner of Bittersweet Bistro, says many people, even those in the business, have difficulty mastering pie dough.

"With pie crust, you have to understand how the ingredients work together," she says. "A lot of people struggle with pie dough -- I know I did. I didn't understand how room temperature could affect the crust. With cakes, if you can follow the recipe, you're going to have success. But with pie dough, it's a matter of blending the fats and the flour. It's chemistry. It's practice."

Chemistry? Practice? No wonder I had problems. Lucky for me, Garcia was offering a class in pies and tarts through the city Parks and Recreation Department. I joined a handful of eager apprentices around Bittersweet's baking table last week to glean whatever tips I could.

The key to pie crust is to not over-mix the dough, Garcia tells us. Keeping the ingredients cold -- even the flour and the liquid -- will help keep the fat solid. And keeping the fat solid and enveloped by the flour, rather than melted into the flour, leads to a more tender and flaky crust.

"For pastry, you must be somewhat of an interpretive artist as well as a disciplined technician," she tells us. "You have to develop a sense for the dough."

I don't know about the "disciplined technician" part, but I think I can handle "interpretive artist." I just hope I end up with something more representational than abstract.

"People don't know your original intent," Garcia assures us. "Just bring your dessert to the table with pride."

As we mix our first dough -- a lightly sweet French dough called p & acirc;t & eacute; sucr & eacute;e from French Tarts by Linda Dannenberg -- I'm surprised at the wide variances in texture. My batch is rather dry and crumbly and barely holds together, while another student's dough is almost too sticky to handle. Garcia says the differences stem from variations in measuring techniques and the length of mixing time.

Because the dough needs to chill and rest before rolling, we wrap our batches in plastic and put them in the refrigerator. Due to time limitations, Garcia gives us each a pre-mixed, pre-chilled disk of dough to continue working. Somehow I think this might be cheating, but I'm happy to go along with the plan if it means I have a better chance of success.

The chilled dough is hard to roll, but Garcia urges us not to apply too much force. Pressing down on the rolling pin will only make the dough stick to the wooden table top, she says. Athleticism is out, subtle coercion is in. We brush off the excess flour and carefully lift the dough into the tart pan, lifting the edges to press it into the bottom.

Next, we try a basic pastry dough suitable for either sweet or savory fillings, from The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. The mixing process is similar: We mix the fat (unsalted butter) into the dry ingredients (flour and salt) until we have pea-sized pieces of butter evenly distributed throughout, then add the liquid (water and a dash of vinegar), mixing just until it holds together. Once again, we swap out our batches of dough for some that's been mixed and chilled ahead of time. The rolling goes more smoothly -- the lack of sugar seems to make it less sticky -- and soon we've all successfully navigated the transfer of dough to tart pans. Perhaps Garcia is right: Maybe this does get easier with practice.

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