Pie Practice

Here I am again, coming off another long stretch of dereliction of my blog-posting duties. In my defense, the last month-plus has involved an extended vacation, complete with the indescribable joy of hurricane evacuation traffic (that’s sarcasm, in case you were wondering), followed by a lovely ten-day visit from my out-of-state daughter, and whirlwind efforts to get Lolly’s personal training business off the ground.  Here’s a link if you want to pay a quick visit.

Despite all that, I have been in the kitchen more than a few times.  Today, in fact, I had the privilege of teaching a class at Williams-Sonoma on pie-baking, which will be the subject of today’s missive.  In the interest of full disclosure, however, I must say that my bookish understanding of pies far outweighs my actual practical experience in pie-baking.   There’s a reason for that. You see, for the past 26 years I have been married to a diet and fitness nut.  Lolly tends to be (how can I say this diplomatically?) very “particular” about her diet.  She frequently informs me that the things I eat will make me fat, or cause me to die a thousand horrible deaths, or make my brain ooze out my ears in my old age.  As you might expect, I have gotten very good at ignoring her about all that.

Thus, you may be surprised to learn that, whatever her other dietary hang-ups, Lolly loves pie — but only as a theoretical construct.  She loves the idea of pie far more than the actual eating of pie.  She loves the acquisition of pie, whether home-made or store-bought, and she loves the presence of pie in our home.  Sometimes she may even deign to partake of a tiny slice of the devilish stuff.  But after just one solitary nibble, that pie is on its own. It falls to yours truly to undertake the herculean task of polishing off that bad puppy, to save it from a fate in the wastecan.  And then she wonders why I get fat.

I say all that to illustrate that I don’t do a lot of pie baking at home. So when the store manager asked me to do a class on from-scratch pies, I thought it wise to make a little practice run, particularly considering that they were providing a formula for the pie crust that deviated from conventional wisdom. You see, normally pie dough is tricky to work with at best, and normally must be kept very cold to achieve good results. That involves refrigerating the dough at least for a few hours before rolling it out to form the crust. Today’s method, however, dispenses with that heretofore indispensable practice, so you can understand why I might raise an eyebrow.

Nevertheless, it works.  Both at home and in today’s class I enjoyed great success with this pie method and wanted to pass it on to you.  This recipe is for apple pie, but obviously you can substitute any fruit filling you like.

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So here goes…

For the apple filling:

  • 4 lb. whole apples
  • ½ cup light brown sugar (firmly packed)
  • 6 tbsp. sugar
  • ¾ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice

For the pie crust:

  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 8 oz. cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • ½ cup ice water

And for the final assembly:

  • 2 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
  • Egg wash made of 1 egg and 1 tbsp. water, well beaten
  • 4 tsp. sugar

A few of the necessary tools:

  • Apple corer/slicer
  • Sharp kitchen knife
  • Dutch oven
  • Large mixing bowl
  • Pastry cutter
  • Rolling pin
  • Wax paper

When making a fruit pie there are three main stages: 1. Make and cool the filling; 2. Make the crust; and 3. Assemble and bake the pie.

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First, preheat your oven to 400, then let’s start with the apple filling. Peel the apples, then core and cut into the desired shape and size. Some folks like slices, others like hearty chunks of varying sizes, and still others prefer their filling cooked down to something closer to a jelly. Whatever floats your proverbial boat – it’s your pie, after all. Do whatever makes you happy.  The same thing goes for your choice of apples. I made one pie with a blend of fuji and gala, and two others with all honeycrisp.  All three were amazingly delicious.

In a Dutch oven combine your cut apples with all the other ingredients except the lemon juice.  Cover the pot and cook over medium flame until the apples reach the desired degree of tenderness, stirring occasionally.  The “textbook” says cook them al dente, but I like mine a bit softer than that.  Whatever your preference, as the apples are nearing the end of their cook time, remove the lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook uncovered for the last 5 minutes or so to let the sauce thicken a bit. Remove from the heat, stir in the lemon juice, and allow the filling to cool to room temperature, which will likely take a good hour or more.  Needless to say, the requirement for this cool down time can make it helpful to pre-make your filling before baking day and set it back so it’s cool and ready to go when you need it.

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Moving on now to the pie crust.  An essential principle to keep in mind when making your crust is this:  cold is your friend. That is because butter is a key component of the dough and you want to keep it from softening too much or even melting.  For example, when cutting the butter in to cubes, try to limit contact with your fingers to avoid softening the butter.  Also, in a pie crust we want to minimize gluten development, and keeping things cold is a good way to do that.

In a large mixing bowl, combine all the pie dough ingredients except the water. Using a pastry cutter, work the butter into the dry mixture, cutting and blending until the mixture reaches the consistency of a coarse meal. The larger chunks of uncut butter should be no larger than pea-sized. Don’t work it so much, however, that it becomes sandy in texture. You want some of those small chunks of butter to promote a flaky finished product. When you reach the desired consistency, add the water, spreading it out in the dough as much as possible, and stir it in with a fork until the dough begins to pull together.

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Now comes the fun part, rolling out the dough and getting it into the pie plate. In my experience, wax paper is your best friend for this step.  Lay a sheet of it on your work surface and turn the dough onto it. It will still be dry and loose, so use your hands to shape and compress it into a ball. Cut the ball in two pieces and set half aside for the moment – this batch makes both the top and bottom crusts, so we’ll work each one separately.  Lay another sheet of wax paper on top of the first ball, press it into a rough disk, then roll it with your rolling pin. Work from the center to the outer edges to form a circular shape at least 12 inches in diameter, and of an even thickness between 1/8 and 1/4 inch. Carefully peel off the top layer of wax paper, and use the bottom layer to lift the crust and center it in the pie plate. Make sure the crust is gently settled all the way into the bottom of the plate around the entire circumference. Using a sharp knife, cut away the excess dough overlapping the edge of plate, leaving enough just to reach below the lip.

Now repeat the rolling procedure with the top crust. However, after removing the top layer of wax paper, we’re going to cut some leaf-shaped vents in it, and reserve the leaves for a decorative touch. With that, it’s time for the final assembly of our pie.

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Into your crust-lined pie plate, pour your cooled fruit filling. It is extremely important that you not pour hot filling into your unbaked crust – this will unleash the hounds of doom in the form of a soggy, poorly formed bottom crust when it comes out of the oven. Next, sprinkle the remaining 2 tbsp. of cold butter cubes over the filling then lay the top crust over your pie, making sure it is properly centered. Again, use your knife to cut away the excess. When that is done, use your thumb and first two fingers to pinch up the edge of the crust, working all the way around. Brush the entire pie crust, including the edges, with the egg wash. Position the leaf cut-outs between the vent hole and brush them with the egg wash as well. Lastly, sprinkle the pie top evenly with the remaining sugar.

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With that, this bad boy is ready to go in the oven. It’s a good idea to put a foil-lined baking sheet beneath your pie plate to catch any drippings. Bake at 400 for about 45 minutes until the crust reaches a nice medium brown and the filling is bubbly. Remove your finished pie from the oven, and cool it on a rack for at least an hour before serving.

There you have it, yummy home-made apple pie without too much fuss or muss. The results, if I may say ever so modestly, were stupidly delicious and received rave reviews all around. Even Lolly had two – count ‘em, two! – pieces of my practice pie, and the ones that I baked at the store didn’t last long. Big happy grins all around. Give this method a try for yourself and let me know how it works for you. Until next time: Eat well, my friends!

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