A Brief Stint as a Holiday Food Writer

Literally The Best Apple Pie Ever (Scroll down for the recipe)

We celebrate Thanksgiving with a pie-baking day at the office. During yesterday’s wind-whipped afternoon the kitchen was filled with nine women, cases of apples, a row of cutting stations and scattered rolling pins, handfuls of cinnamon and bowls of lemon juice. And lots of wine (which can be risky if you find yourself in the row of cutting stations).

Feasting may make a brain sluggish, but it’s always worth taking a step back from celebrations. Personally, I find it hard to strike a balance between good cheer and dealing with the aspects of Thanksgiving that I don’t support. Like (for example) the way that it gets used in elementary schools to perpetuate a myth about peaceful Indian-Colonist potluck dinners. Or the way that it promotes the image of an idealized, nuclear family: why does Dad carve the turkey if Mom prepared most of the food? The whole image is always a tiny bit awkward for anyone who isn’t married, or who isn’t straight.

I think those things are important to remember (even just subconsciously) when you pause for those Thanksgiving moments of reflection.

In any case, I definitely support Good Cheer. And I hope a sense of awareness, gratefulness, and graciousness spreads throughout everybody’s year. (I realize Thanksgiving is usually not a holiday for wishing, but eh!)

I also support pies, so here’s a recipe for Literally The Best Apple Pie Ever.

» Literally The Best Apple Pie Ever «

A combination of my dad’s semi-famous apple pies, and my foodie co-workers.

The Crust

Sometimes, storebought is just as good as homemade.

…when it comes to pie crust, this is not the case.

A flaky-crumbly-golden-crisp-crust is the difference between a B- pie and an A+ pie, and unfortunately, you can’t get it in the freezer aisle. It turns out that making your own crust doesn’t actually take much time at all, especially if you make the dough a day or two before and store in the fridge until you’re ready to bake.

The trick to a perfect crust is to use both shortening and butter: the shortening helps it to be firmer and crumbly, while the butter makes it flaky and golden. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of ice water! My brief lesson in dough-science yesterday taught me that the dough has to stay cold until right before it goes in the oven in order to get that beautiful flaky separation. If the dough gets warm when you’re mixing it, or if you take it out of the fridge too early, the butter begins to absorb the flour and they won’t separate into flaky goodness while baking.

You’ll need:

  • 2 ¼ cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 10 tablespoons butter (soft, but not melted)
  • 8 tablespoons shortening
  • 6 to 8 tablespoons of ice water (I’ve heard you can substitute one spoonful of water with a spoonful of cider vinegar, though I’m not sure why)

Mix the flour, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Then cut in the butter, shortening, and ice water– and take care not to overmix! Pie crust is not a smooth, whippy dough; it should be more bulky and just barely mixed up. Then wrap your dough in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for 20 minutes (or overnight, or whatever).

The Filling

For this recipe, I’m sticking with a basic apple filling. In Advanced Pie 301, we can move on to subtle flavor additions like ginger, cranberries or bourbon, but for now we’ll have our bourbon on the side.

Selecting Apples

Some cooks like to combine different apple varieties to create a more complex flavor. You can use whatever combination you prefer, but the thing to remember is that you want to use apple varieties that are firm enough to cook beautifully without losing their shape or structure. We don’t want no apple sludge.

In general this means you should stay away from any apple variety that you would eat for lunch, such as Red Delicious or Gala. They tend to be softer and sugary-er, and don’t bake well.

The best varieties for apple pies are firmer and tarter: Granny Smith apples are a reliable choice, but I would recommend getting organic because I’ve found that the non-organic ones are weirdly tasteless and sour at the same time. If you want to branch out past Granny Smith, try varieties like Jonathan, Jonagold or Honeycrisp. A lot of cooks swear by Pippins, but they’re smaller which can make peeling difficult. I’ve also good heard things about Winesap, Northern Spy, and Pink Lady.

The consistency of the filling is not an exact science, but it shouldn’t be too watery, or too thick like canned preserves. The juices surrounding the apple slices should be the consistency of a silky syrup, with just a bit pooling in the bottom of your mixing bowl. You’ll probably develop an instinct about your preferred filling so the measurements below are just approximate.

You will need:

  • 8 to 9 apples (don’t skimp on this! You need more apples than you think to stuff a perfect pie)
  • Lemon juice (I recommend using a couple of Meyer lemons; they have a more complex flavor)
  • A couple teaspoons of tapioca powder (this is another addition from yesterday; before I would have used corn starch)
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 4-6 teaspoons cinnamon

Peel and slice your apples. Thinner slices will create a dense pie with the crust resting on top of the apples, while thicker slices will collapse and leave the top crust domed. Both pies are pretty, so it’s just a matter of preference.

In a large bowl, add the juice from the Meyer lemons to the apple slices immediately. If you’re a slow peeler, you might want to add the lemon juice to the  sliced apples earlier on.

So add all your spices, and use a big paddle spoon to mix everything up. Make sure you keep pulling the juices from the bottom of the bowl upwards, coating everything evenly. If you need to pour off some of the juice, do so.

Preparing and Cooking the Pie

You will need:

  • 3 or 4 pats of butter (¼ inch thick)
  • 1 egg, beaten

Take your dough out of the fridge and split it in half, putting one half back in the fridge. Make sure you’re using flour to coat the rolling pin and the counter surface. Now roll out your dough as evenly as possible, aiming for 1/8 inch thickness and creating a large, round shape.

To get the crust onto the pie dish: Make sure both the dough and your hands are coated in flour, and maybe you have a cute smudge of flour on your cheek in case someone takes a picture. Fold the dough in half, then pick it up and lay it over half of the pie dish. Unfold and gently adjust so that it’s molded to the dish. This method was another trick from yesterday and it helps to avoid stretching or tearing the crust.

Now pile in your filling. Like literally. Heap it as high as you can. Gently place the pats of butter on top of your apple-mountain.

Take the second half of your dough out of the fridge and roll it out using the same method as before. Transfer it onto your apple-mountain using the handy-dandy folding tip.

Depending on how much excess dough you have hanging off the sides of your pie dish, you may have to trim. Ideally, you want 3-ish inches of dough around the edges. If you do trim, cut the layers of crust together, using the knife to press them together as you cut.

Now, going around the edge of your pie, roll both layers of excess crust underneath and tuck them into the edge of the pie dish. The idea is to seal in your filling so that the top and bottom crust don’t separate while cooking.

Once you’ve done this step, go around the edge again and pinch the rolled part together every half inch or so. That’s how you get those beautiful magazine crust edges.

Using a knife or a fork, make ventilation holes in a pretty pattern. Maybe a smiley face. Then brush the egg onto the top crust thoroughly, but not thickly.

Oh right, you should’ve preheated your oven to 400°.

Assuming that you read the recipe all the way through before starting to cook, your oven should already be hot and you can finally begin to bake! And then make your roommate or spouse do the dishes while you rest and munch on cinnamon-sprinkled apple peels.

Bake at 400° for 10 or 15 minutes, then turn the oven down to 375° for the rest of the cooking time – another half hour or so. Your pie is ready when the innards begin to bubble out of the ventilation holes.

When that happens, take your pie out of the oven, let it cool, and feast.


2 Responses to “A Brief Stint as a Holiday Food Writer”

  1. 1 Josh Gross November 26, 2010 at 4:05 am

    This is literally the best pie-making guide ever. It hadn’t even occurred to me that adding the lemon quickly would deal with browning, and that’s the kind of incidental information that people need to feel comfortable but don’t get from recipes. My two cents: sprinkle some sugar on the crust after you glaze it, because then your pie will sparkle and glow. Maybe take some sugar out of the crust to compensate. Also, lemon zest is good for packing in flavor without adding more liquid.

  2. 2 Cole November 26, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    Josh– Yeah, I’ve seen lemon zest in a few recipes! but I’ve never used it myself, though. I always felt like it was strange to cover the apples in lemon juice and also add lemon zest…? Good call on the sugar-sprinkling, I’ll have to try that next time 🙂

    I totally agree about the incidental information in recipes. I feel like cookbook authors always leave out kind of basic instinctual information – even when they’re trying to make cooking easy to understand and accessible to the average joe/jane. There must be a solution somewhere out there…

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