With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I figured it was time to start experimenting a bit with pie. Pie, especially apple, is such a classic New England dessert, and the favorite of so many people– that’s why it is really such a shame when a delicious holiday feast is finished up with store-bought or frozen crust pies. Because that is what really separates a good pie from a bad one, after all– the crust.
While I really enjoy baking, I’ve always been a bit intimidated by making my own pie dough. My mom told me she attempted it in the past, but I had never seen her do it, and my grandmother had always bought decent apple pies from the orchard down the street from her home in Connecticut. Whenever I baked pies while in school, I would use Vermont Mystic Pie’s frozen pie crusts. When baked, it’s really difficult to tell these crusts are store-bought. They are so good, I’d always bring them back with me for the holidays. But I have not been able to find these crusts outside of Vermont, and expectations for Thanksgiving this year are high because of my culinary schooling, so thus, I broke out some flour, butter, and a rolling-pin, and had at it.
We have a pie and tart dough lesson at the FCI in two weeks, but I asked Chef for advice any way. I thought it would be difficult without a food processor, but Chef assured me it wasn’t. On a clean countertop, I cut the cubed cold butter into the dry ingredients with a pastry cutter until it was the size of small peas. I then made a small well in the center to which I added my cold wet ingredients a little at a time. I had read in last months Cook’s Illustrated that by replacing some of the water with vodka, because gluten won’t readily form in alcohol, you are able to add more liquid to the dough which makes it a little easier to work with. (The flavor burns off during baking). I had plenty of vodka in stock, and was looking to make things as easy for myself as I could, so I decided to try this method.
I then fraisaged the dough, a technique Chef emphasized in ensuring a really successful flakey crust. To do this, you form walnut-sized pieces of dough and smear them against your work surface with the heel of your hand. This makes even thin layers of butter within the dough.
It is important to refrigerate your dough for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out. I didn’t have a lot of free time this week, so I ended up keeping mine in the fridge for two days. I let it sit for a few minutes before starting to roll it out on my floured work surface.
The rolling wasn’t easy. Every recipe I’ve read stresses applying even pressure and rolling from the inside out, but I found my dough did crack a bit, which forced me to handle it a little more… warming it up further, and making it even more difficult to work with. I guess it just takes a bit of practice.
I keep my filling fairly simple and not overly sweet. My favorite apples to work with are cortland. They are tart, crisp, and hold their shape well. I couldn’t find any locally grown cortlands at the Union Square farmer’s market, so I bought macintosh apples which tend to lose their shape and are better for apple sauces. I took the advice of Lucinda Scala Quinn from her cookbook Mad Hungry and balanced the sweet flavor of the macs with some tart granny smiths. I cut the apples into fairly thin, even wedges, (about 1/4 cm), I usually use about 8 apples. I go easy on the sugar, keeping it to under 1/2 cup (I use organic cane sugar), because I also add some Vermont maple syrup for sweetness. I add lemon juice, lemon zest, and for spices I use a good amount of cinnamon, and just a pinch of allspice, ginger, and some freshly grated nutmeg. I covered the pie and refrigerated it for about a half hour before baking for 1 hour at 350 degrees.
Here is the recipe for “Foolproof Pie Dough” I used from Cook’s Illustrated. In the original recipe it called for 1/2 cup vegetable shortening in addition to the butter, because it is a pure fat with no water (water encourages gluten development), but I just had butter, so that’s what I used.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 sticks COLD unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 in cubes
1/4 cup vodka
1/4 cup cold water
I topped my warm apple pie with a few thin slices of Shelburne Farms 2 year cheddar… and I have to say… it was pretty amazing. I think for my next pie I will try a different dough recipe, and hopefully learn a few more tips in class to pass on before thanksgiving. Please comment with any advice you might have! And of course to keep in theme with last post… Both Quinn and my friend Annie’s grandmother agree… Men love desserts, but pie is their favorite. Didn’t get to have this one tested as planned, but hope to get some input on next weeks experiment.