Knowing how to make your own pastry is a crucial skill, and it's not that difficult. Start with this autumnal shortcrust pumpkin pie - just in time for Thanksgiving.
Here's a guilty secret: I hardly ever make my own pastry. The ready-made stuff is so good these days that it's easy to become lazy. I keep a packet in the freezer for emergency pie toppings and tart bases, and often get complimented on the buttery delicacy of my crusts.
But there is a world of difference between not making your own pastry and not knowing how to make your own pastry. Cracking this particular skill is the culinary equivalent of passing your driving test: it will give you the confidence you need to take off your L-plates and start thinking of yourself as a capable cook.
The three most common pastries used in the home are pressed crust, shortcrust and flaky. The trick to making any flaky pastry is to trap little pieces of butter within the dough. The butter then melts during cooking, creating layers in the dough, while the water turns to steam and pushes up the layers as it rises. This is why you to need make sure all your ingredients are cold, and ideally make it in a cold room; if the butter melts before you cook it, you will get something crumbly.
Pressed crust is made with hot butter and is biscuity. Shortcrust pastry crumbles into small pieces because the fat has been worked through the flour. But you can experiment with it: if you don't work the butter so finely into the flour, leaving it in bigger lumps, it will become a flaky pastry. Try it. Keep trying it. Think of it as reversing round a corner: once you've cracked it, you might never need to do it again. But it feels great to know you can.
Today's recipe uses shortcrust in a pumpkin pie - a seasonal dish - and for our readers in the US, just in time to mark the Thanksgiving holiday.
Prep time: 40 minutes, not including chilling of pastry
Cooking time: 1 hour 40 minutes
For the sweet pastry
175g plain flour
75g icing sugar
A pinch of salt
125g cold butter
2 egg yolks
For the crumble topping
2 heaped tbsp plain flour
50g cold butter
1 heaped tbsp soft brown sugar
100g pecans, roughly chopped
For the pie filling
1 small pumpkin or squash (400g cooked flesh - any raw pumpkin weighing more than 1.2kg should give you plenty)
100ml maple syrup
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp ground ginger
A pinch of ground allspice
150ml creme fraiche
A few drops of vanilla essence
1 Make the pastry by sifting together the flour and icing sugar into a large bowl with the salt. Take the butter from the fridge and cut it into small cubes. Add to the flour mix. If you have hot hands, or it is a warm day, or you work slowly, you can cut the butter up beforehand and put it back in the fridge to chill.
2 Using your fingertips and thumbs, rub the butter into the flour until the mix resembles breadcrumbs. (You can also do this in a food processor on pulse mode, but it isn't as much fun.)
3 Beat the egg yolks together and stir into the pastry mix with a palette knife until it starts to resemble a soft dough. Using the knife ensures the bits of butter don't break up too much.
4 Tip on to a clean surface and bring the pastry together with your hands until you have a smooth ball. Wrap this in clingfilm and chill it in a fridge for at least 20 minutes - or even a few days if you want to make it well in advance. This will make the gluten in the dough, which has developed as you rolled it, "relax" and become less elastic. It will make the pastry easier to work with when it comes to rolling it out and will prevent "shrinkage".
5 Dust a clean surface with flour and place the pastry from the fridge on to it. Roll out the chilled pastry on a floured surface. Do this by rolling away from you, turning the pastry by 90 degrees (a quarter turn) and rolling away from you again. Continue like this until it is a disc 1-2 mm thick. Lift the pressure as you get to the edge of the dough to avoid making it too thin. Add extra flour to the surface if it sticks. This pastry is incredibly forgiving and any cracks or tears can be easily repaired by squeezing a lump into the gap when you have put it into the tin.
6 If you are nervous about rolling pastry, you could try doing it between 2 pieces of floured baking parchment. Or, it is actually possible to grate the chilled pastry directly into a tart shell with a coarse grater and press it out if you prefer.
7 Using your rolling pin, transfer the pastry to a roughly 22cm tart shell (a size bigger or smaller won't do any harm). Gently ease it against the sides and into the bottom edges. Trim the top edges with a knife and pinch over the top of the tart shell to prevent shrinkage down into the tin when you cook it.
8 Repair any cracks and tears with the trimmings. Chill the pastry shell for about 30 minutes until it is hard. You can put it in the freezer to speed up this process if you are in a hurry. Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/gas mark 3.
9 Now "blind bake" the shell - that is, bake it without its filling. Cover the pastry with baking parchment. Allow it to come over the sides of the tart and fill the centre with baking beans (metal or ceramic beans sold especially for this purpose), other dried beans or rice. This stops the pastry from puffing up when the water in the butter turns to steam.
10 Put in the oven for about 15 minutes. Then remove the baking beans and parchment and cook for a further 5 minutes, so that the base is lightly coloured. Remove from the oven and allow it to cool. Rest the pastry in the fridge.
11 Meanwhile, make the filling and the crumble topping. Cut the pumpkin in half and put in the oven on a baking tray with the cut sides covered with foil to prevent browning. Roast in the oven for about 40 minutes or until the flesh is soft. This can also be done ahead of time.
12 Make the crumble topping by rubbing the butter into the flour until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and chopped pecans. Spread the mix over a parchment-lined baking tray and put in the oven with the pumpkin for about 25 minutes or until the nutty crumble is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
13 Scoop out the seeds from the pumpkin and discard them. Then scoop out about 400g of the cooked flesh (any extra can be used in soup or stews or dressed with olive oil, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon and eaten). Put the flesh in a blender or food processor with the rest of the filling ingredients and blend until smooth.
14 Pour the pumpkin mix into the cooked tart shell and bake on a tray for about 30-40 minutes until the filling has set. Allow to cool slightly and sprinkle with the topping before serving.
Pumpkin pie with an easy-to-make shortcrust pastry. Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian