How to make a handsome and tasty apple pie

People sometimes ask me for my apple pie recipe. It's not so much a recipe as a meticulous method for baking a more-or-less classic pie.

The ingredients are pretty basic Betty Crocker American apple pie. Here is the process in pictures. This particular pie won "best presentation" (nope, nothing for taste) at the 2015 Volante Farms (Needham, MA) pie contest. Enjoy!


Filling

  • 10 or so apples, depending on the size of your dish. I look for, in order of preference: Cortland, Mcintosh, Braeburn.
  • 1/2 cup of raw sugar (Raw sugar is no healthier for you, but it tastes better, more complex, than refined white sugar)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of fresh ground nutmeg
  • 3 teaspoons of cinnamon (Vietnamese cinnamon is the best)
  • 2 Tbsp. of unbleached white flour plus a pinch of corn starch to thicken the liquid a bit

Crust

  • 3 cups of unbleached white four
  • 2 sticks of cold sea-salted butter (I used Kates sea-salted butter on the east coast.)
  • 3-6 Tbsp. cold water (need not be ice water)

Making the filling

To begin, peel the apples. Do this fairly quickly and without worrying about getting all of the peel off. Lots of the good apple flavor is right near the skin.

Slice each apple into about 12 pieces. I slice off two hemispherical pieces, "sides," then cut down to the core in the other direction. The two semicircles get cut into four wedges and the remaining half-moon shapes into two, but at an angle. This seems meticulous, but I think that these sizes make a pie that cooks well and has a good mouth feel. These shapes also pack well (see below).

I don't like those spiral cutters because the slices are too thin and the apples cook before a good crust can really get done. I've never used one of those simultaneous corer-slicer gizmos, but I imagine that would work just fine. I like to keep things simple. You can do with a good knife what most of those gadgets to when they're not just taking up space.

Now mix the ingredients to coat the apples: sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, flour and a little corn starch.

Mix the spices into a uniform powder before adding to the apples.

Coat the apples by pouring the mix over them and tossing well with clean hands.

Set the apples aside while you make the crusts. The sugar will draw a bit of moisture out and you can leave that in the bowl. The pie will be a bit less runny that way. Sometimes you don't draw out too much moisture before the crust is ready to be filled, but don't sweat it, so to speak.


The crusts

Now mix the crust ingredients into a glass bowl. The salt in the butter is about all you need to make the crust have a nice flavor. If you use unsalted butter, be sure to add about 1 tsp. of salt. Sea salt, which is a mix of many edible salts, is always tastier.

Cut the butter into 1 cm pieces and add to the flour.

Now use a pastry blender to mix in the butter. This can be a long process. It can take 300 or more strokes and you need to make sure you get all the way down to the bottom of the bowl on each. This is absolutely what makes a great, flaky crust. Roll up your sleeves and get going.

A fully blended crust is fairly doughy. You can feel the cutter moving through the flour/butter mix like it's moving through clay, not powdery flour, and you're getting pieces the size of peas and beans holding together. How long this takes and just what consistency you'll end up with depends a lot on the humidity of the day. Summer crusts are faster; winter flour is drier and takes longer to work.

Now begin adding water to the crust, 1 Tbsp. at a time, tossing thoroughly with a fork in between each addition. Use a tossing motion, working the fork to the bottom of the bowl. You're not trying to stick the four together. Let it do that on its own as you add more water.

As you add water and toss, the dough will stick together and become difficult to move around with the fork. 4-6 Tbsp. of water is common in summer, with more usually needed in winter.

This recipe makes enough dough for two large crusts, one top and one bottom, with a little trimming left over for decorations. Form (press and slap) 1/2 of the dough into a ball and place on a floured piece of light canvas or a floured smooth dish towel.

You can do quite a bit of flattening of the dough using just the palm of a hand. Slap in the edges as they crack to reform them. Try to keep the edges neat until you're just about at the size you want.

I like to use a tapered roller without an axle. I've used a wine bottle though. Any clean cylindrical object will do. Roll from the center in all directions, then roll in secants (picture below) around the outside of the crust to finish.

Here's the rolled out crust. It's big enough that those rough edges, formed in the final flattening strokes with the roller, will be trimmed off.

Test the crust for fit to your dish. I like a good quality ceramic dish, about 5 cm (2 in.) deep. Glass is good, too. Metal dishes don't have the heat capacity your need for even cooking.

Here is a recap of how to roll the dough. When I say "slap in the sides," I mean to kind of karate chop the sides with the heel of your hand when cracks appear after rolling. They always do, but you can help keep more of a circle if you do this when they're small.

With a hand under the canvas/towel under the crust, just flip the dish over to place the bottom crust in the pie dish.

Push the crust into the dish, then trim the edges with a sharp knife. That wrinkle on the left is fine.

The secret to a good crust us fat. That is, fat in the form of good, tasty butter. Hey. It's a dessert. Use as little water in a crust as you can get away with.

Filling the pie

I like to stack my apples at least twice as high as the height of the dish.

This is important: If you just throw the apples in, they'll bake down, leaving a lot of space between the apples and the top crust, which will eventually collapse. The key is to stack the apples carefully so that there is little space between them. It's like bricklaying in a way.

The shapes you cut should allow you always to find a slice to fit a space. Or you can cut smaller pieces to fill in here and there. Tedious, I know, but it doesn't take long and it will pay off.

Here's the pie all packed with apples, and the top crust has been rolled out, ready to put on.


Top crust and baking

To apply the top crust, first add some "glue." With a water-dipped finger, wet the rim of the bottom crust with water so that the top crust will stick to it. You don't want it to leak at the seams. Flip the top crust using the towel/canvas just like you flipped the bottom crust into the dish. Be careful with your aim.

Now trim the crust with a sharp knife.

Use the side of your thumb to crimp the edges shut. I used to do this more meticulously. It's best if you just keep moving. Keep the pie turning and keep crimping, making even divots, deep but not so deep that you push all the way to the rim of the dish, as you go. This step will esure that your highly stacked pie won't leak out through the crust seam.

Now let's put on some decoration. I like to put leaves on an apple pie. I cut them with an old rusty cutter (rust is just iron oxide; it won't make anyone sick). I'd buy a new one but I've never found another like this.

I use a sharp knife to cut in central veins ...

... then smaller veins. Here are the leaves attached to the pie with a little bit of water "glue."

Finally, I like to glaze the pie with egg white before baking. The oven is preheating by now (350˚F / 180˚C).

Make the glaze with egg white and a couple of drops of water. Whisk for just a bit (not to stiffen, just to homogenize and make it easier to brush on). Then brush on the glaze from the center outward.

Now all that's left is the cooking. It's 350˚ for at least an hour. For firm apples (like Braeburn or fresh Macintosh) it's 1.5 hours for a large pie, and that's usually just removing it from the oven just as liquid bubbles through holes you poked in the crust.

With softer apples, like Cortlands, don't wait until you get bubbles. By then the filling will be mushy. Take a large pie out after about 1 hour to 70 min. Here's the result.

You might want to keep a piece of aluminium foil in the bottom of the oven to catch drippings. This sugary stuff will really bake on to your oven and can be difficult to clean.

Mmmmm. Good luck!

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