Nidhi Pugalia is an Editorial Assistant at Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House and has a baking Instagram called “Underproved & Overbaked.” I first met Nidhi Pugalia at my last job, where she was known as the person who was always bringing in baked goods, and let me tell you, whatever she brought in was always delicious, but there was something extraordinary about her pies. Because I’ve had more time on my hands recently, I’ve been baking more pies, and so I wondered how she got her pie crust to be so flaky and so delicious. It turns out, she has this trusty tool to thank.
Tell me about when you first started baking.
I’ve legitimately never thought about this before—which is so strange, considering how much of a constant baking is in my life, especially right now. Thinking back, I couldn’t tell you my exact first bake, but I can say that all my earliest memories of baking are wrapped up in Rat Pack movies, late nights, midnight snacks, and a whole lot of laughter—so, your average sleepover.
I’m not sure what came first, my two best friends and I wanting brownies because of course all people at all times, if they examined themselves at their core, want brownies—or because that’s what movies had taught us a successful sleepover is supposed to have: a solid scoop of vanilla ice cream over fresh, fudgy, chocolaty goodness. Either way, it quickly became a tradition: every month, we baked brownies using a different recipe. That’s not to say all of our bakes were good by any means. One time our “brownies” were really just a solid inch of congealed butter over a layer of diamond-hard chocolate. I couldn’t tell you how it happened. It still keeps me up at night.
But those sleepover bakes are how I got my very first baking pan: an orange brownie pan I somehow, against all odds, still have with me today.
What are your baking basics?
My basics, for the most part: a pie pan, 8-inch cake pans (multiple if you’re baking layered cakes —it saves you time and gives you more uniform layers), a rectangular baking pan, a brownie pan, two different-sized, flexible spatulas (to really get those corners), a good whisk, and measuring cups. A rolling pin is a must for anything from cookies to pies, cooling racks are useful for cookies and cakes, and I’ve loved the electric beater my mother gave to me when I moved into my first apartment.
A friend gifted me a stand mixer for my birthday last year, which is my very special and most beloved first child, and during the holidays I was gifted a pastry cutter—not a necessity in any kitchen, but it’s made a real difference in my pie crust, and I make a lot of pie, so it’s high on the list.
What led to your pie obsession and why was a pastry cutter essential?
I think I have Smitten Kitchen to blame — the way she described that perfectly flaky all-butter crust made my mouth water. I became obsessed with perfecting my crust, and to me that meant having the exact same tools. Which meant, a pastry cutter.
Pie dough is tricky. It’s not the ingredients, those are pretty simple: very cold butter, flour, ice water, salt, and apple cider vinegar (optional). But to get that truly flaky, buttery crust—you need to cut all the ingredients together and keep them cold. It usually means popping it back in the fridge if it gets too malleable—and it also means that if you can avoid using your hands, and therefore avoid melting the butter, you should. My poor crust was serviceable, but I inevitably melted the butter—so I really set my heart on a pastry cutter to make that flake achievable.
How do you use a pastry cutter?
I use my pastry cutter in place of my hands, to cut the butter into the flour until they make small balls of butter, evenly-ish spread out through the pastry dough. It makes the difference between a good-enough crust, one that will hold your pie together, and a crust that flakes in beautiful buttery layers. For that kind of reaction, the butter needs to stay cold—so the more I can avoid body heat, the better! (Especially during the summer).
Making pie dough sounds intimidating. What do you think I should know?
In short: it’s way easier than it looks.
People say baking is a science. I agree! So be your own mad scientist. When you start out—yes, be a stickler, follow those instructions to a T. Like anything else, you have to learn the rules before you break them. So, measure the tiny chocolate chips to perfection; use a scale; smooth out the top of your half-cup of sugar with a knife. The more you bake, the more you’ll understand how things react to each other and why things come out the way they do—like, what happens when you make a cookie with browned butter versus straight-from-the-fridge butter. And then, like any of your favorite mad scientists, you keep experimenting. It becomes less about making a carbon-copy of that cookie from that recipe book you love—and more about making it your own creation. Throw in that dash of cinnamon. Yeah, maybe brown sugar will give it a little more molasses flavor! Maybe you’ll discover buying that peppermint extract was a complete waste of time and now your brownies taste like toothpaste! Or maybe you’ll stare at the abundance of tangerines your mother gifted you and decide to make a glaze for a ginger cake and have it turn into absolute perfection—or throw in a healthy dose of spiced rum and chocolate together to make a buttercream and create the true nectar of the gods. Who knows?!
It’s not going to come out perfect every time. The weather will be against you, and the butter will be melty despite your best efforts—or maybe the dough will keep tearing and you’ll have random gaps in the bottom of your pie tray. Bake it anyways: trust me, pie is like art—maybe it isn’t exactly the way you hoped, but it will turn out well. And as for the gaps? The filling you pour over it will keep your secrets.
And if all else fails, just ball the dough back up, stick it in the fridge to chill, and roll it out again. You are the little engine that could.
A pastry cutter kind of sounds like a bench scraper, which is what I use for pasta and bread. What really makes this pastry cutter perfect, and why shouldn't I just get a bench scraper instead?
I love a good bench scraper—wish I had one! But if I had to pick one? As long as I flour whatever surface I’m working on well, I don’t usually run into scraping issues. As for the cutting? The edge of a bench scraper is plenty sharp, but a pastry cutter just has more edges—it’s more efficient.
But I think what it ultimately comes down to is how often I bake pies. If I were baking bread, for example—all that kneading with often sticky dough is going to need some scraping. But with pie, it’s all about cutting cold butter in to form that godly crust—and it’ll be the same for anything that requires distributing butter (or whatever your chosen fat is) throughout dough, from crusts to biscuits and other pastries.
I could tell you all about how delectable clearly defined layers of crust look—how the butter legitimately shines, makes that crust look glazed—how saliva will pool in your mouth within milliseconds looking at that gorgeous sheen—how there is nothing more satisfying than the sound of cutting into it—and how the perfect pairing of that mouth-watering, buttery crust with any kind of filling will make you realize heaven is in fact a place on earth, and it is that very same slice of pie.
But I think these pictures, from the most perfect pie my friend Morgan Hedden and I ever baked, will speak to better than I ever could:
Orblue Pastry Cutter
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