Nut Crusts Are the Rich, Crunchy, and Protein-Packed Option for Pies You Should Try Making
Rather than rolling pastry, try preparing pies and tarts with a nut crust instead. They're easy to make, versatile to use, and absolutely delicious. Plus, they're often gluten-free.
In Martha's 1985 Pies and Tarts book ($19, amazon.com), our founder extolled the virtues of the nut crust. "This has become one of my favorite crusts because it's so easy and delicious," she wrote. "I like to keep one or two baked nut crusts in the freezer for a very quickly assembled dessert. Once thawed, the shell can be filled with fresh berries and glazed, or mounded with a cream filling or mousse." She suggested an almond nut crust for a fresh grape tart, and a walnut-studded crust beneath a bed of honey-glazed figs, among other highly delicious pairings. Martha's advice still holds true today—nut crusts are simple to make, versatile to use, and a boon to a home baker who doesn't like to roll pastry or needs a gluten-free pie crust.
Why We Love Nut Crusts
Nut crusts offer a world of possibilities in terms of texture and flavor. The most familiar recipes combine finely chopped nuts with melted butter, sugar, and a trace of salt into a mixture that's easily pressed into place in the pie plate. The shells are always baked—partially or fully—before filling. Other nut crusts, including the ones in Martha's early book, incorporate about 1/2 cup chopped nuts in place of the same amount of flour in more traditional pastry (like her beloved pâté brisée). Press-in crusts are a great option for pie makers at all skill levels, for the ease or preparation, appealing crunch, and tasty flavor possibilities. When made with nuts (as opposed to or in combination with cracker or cookie crumbs), they are especially rich and tasty, and pair well with creamy fillings like chocolate or vanilla custard or pudding.
A few more selling points for the press-in nut crust are that it bakes quickly and can be matched with an easy no-cook filling, like this bright lemon beauty with a pecan and graham cracker shell. Other fillings cook on the stovetop (rather than in the oven) before the pie is chilled in the refrigerator, as in this wintry showstopper with cranberries and a walnut crust. This is a great option for a holiday when your oven may be otherwise occupied for hours on end. At the height of summer, you may wish for a home-baked dessert that chills in the refrigerator for entirely different reasons (a stiflingly hot kitchen, maybe); here's one that does the trick with a creamy filling, blueberry topping, and walnut crust.
If you're partial to a quick and easy pie crusts that double as a crumbly topping, this summertime favorite crumb tart with raspberries and plums and this festive holiday showpiece with cranberry-raspberry jam are two surefire winners. Both incorporate hazelnuts into the two-for-one crust and topping, but you can substitute an equal amount of almonds in both recipes. As an ingredient, nuts are easy that way.
Which Nuts Should You Use?
Nuts are so versatile, which means you can usually swap one variety for another without any trouble in a nut crust. Do keep flavor pairings in mind. Almonds work especially well with stone fruits, meaning those with pits (peaches, cherries, plums, and apricots). Pecans are nice with apples and raisins, as in this old-fashioned American classic the pandowdy, though walnuts make a nice swap.
What You Need to Know When Making Nut Crusts
Regardless of which type of nut crust you choose, take care to chop the nuts evenly so that the crust holds together nicely once baked. You can use a food processor for convenience but be sure to pulse rather than process to avoid grinding the nuts into butter. (Doing so will release too much oil in the process, resulting in a stodgy crust.) Avoid using a blender, as it won't chop the nuts nearly as well. Chopping by hand may take longer, but it's the best way to go, as it allows for the most control.
They're Often Gluten-Free
Finally, who doesn't need a foolproof recipe for gluten-free pie? Whether or not you avoid gluten in your own diet, chances are you'll find yourself baking for others who do, so it's worth keeping a few nut-crusted pies in mind. Martha featured this gorgeous gluten-free lemon tart on Martha Bakes. Its flourless hazelnut crust is baked and filled with a tart lemon filling and topped with clouds of lightly torched meringue.