As American as Apple Pie
The request for instructions on pie crust challenged me. It’s so easy to do. And so difficult to explain; for it’s all in the touch, the fingers, a delicate thing, stroking butterfly wings. Since a crust alone is an empty shell, we’ll fill it with apples. How American.
To start, you need a few basic tools:
1) Pie plate. Most folk use a glass plate. Or short of owning a pie plate, they turn to the aluminium or, heaven forbid, foil disposble plates. Glass is ok, the aluminium never good. Best, in my estimation, is a ceramic plate without glaze on the outside bottom. I have two of these, made by local potters. They’re among my most precious cooking tools. They need special care: when they’re hot, always set them on a pot holder or kitchen towel, and one that’s dry; never on a cold or wet surface, they’ll crack and the bottom will separate from the side walls. Here are some pie plates that I approve, not merchant recommendations, but to give you an idea what to look for:
Avoid plates with sides set at 90º to the bottom or with ruffled sides, like a quiche pan (a ruffled or fluted top is okay, but not the sides).
2) Rolling pin. Easiest are the pins with handles and a rod through the middle that roll freely; but anything, including a wine bottle, will do. If you invest in a wooden rolling pin, make sure that the wood is very smooth and that it rolls easily. Never wash it, only wipe it down with a damp towel. Store it somewhere where it won’t get dinged.
3) Pastry cutter. In a pinch, a fork will do. But a pastry cutter is worth the investment. Many have wires intead of sheet metal with blades cut into it, I prefer the sheet metal, the wires are too soft for the job at hand. I also use my pastry cutter for other tasks, chopping eggs for egg salad, chopping cheese, nuts, etc., and I’ve even been known to use it in making the stuffing for baked-stuffed potatoes.
4) Bowl big enough to mix the ingredients together – most standard mixing bowls will do.
5) Liquid measuring cup for measuring water; dry measuring cups for measuring flour and fat.
6) Plastic wrap for chilling the dough; I use food storage bags without zippers or saran wrap.
7) A soft pastry brush or spoon for moistening the rim of the crust in preparation of sealing.
Much of this equipment, including pie plates, pastry cutters, and rolling pins, can be had on the cheap at Good Will, yard sales, and junk shops.
• This is enough pastry for a deep-dish 9” pie. I prefer to have extra, so that I’ve got enough to work with without patching, so this recipe calls for a bit more flour then most recipes.
• It also uses more water in proportion to the flour. After years of trial and error, I realized that a dough that’s too dry to work easily will get overworked, torn, and otherwise manhandled to toughness. It’s okay if the dough feels sticky now, though it shouldn’t be gloppy.
• Tender crust requires tender touch. Working flour and water together develops the gluten in the flour; great for bread and pizza dough, not so great for pie crusts and quick breads. Mix until just incorporated, handle gingerly and tenderly, the lightest of touches. Be gentle and sweet and you’ll be rewarded with a flaky and tender crust.
Ingredients for crust:
2 ½ cups white whole-wheat flour plust additional flour for rolling out the dough; I use King Arthur
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup butter (½ stick), cut into smaller pieces; I use Kate’s Homemade Butter
½ cup palm oil shortening; I use Spectrum
¾ to 1 cup icy-cold water (maybe even a tablespoon or two more, it will depend on how much water the flour will absorb.)
Ingredients for the filling:
7 or 8 baking apples; I use Cortlands
1 teaspoon cinnamon; I use Vietnamese cinnamon
¼ cup flour
¾ cup sugar
Stir the flour with a fork to lighten it, and then spoon it into your measuring cup so that it’s heaped, level the cup with the back of a knife or spatula, and put it in your bowl. Add the salt, and stir again to mix through.
Drop in the butter and palm-oil shortening.
Use the pastry knife (or fork) to cut the butter and shortening into the flour, until it’s in baby pea-sized clumps. It’s crucial not to work it too much, and leave some clumps. When you roll the dough out, these clumps will flatten out, and are what makes the crust flaky. Take your time, make sure there’s nothing bigger then a pea, for it will melt and make a hole in your crust.
Pour ¾ cup of very-cold water into the flour mixture all at once, and gently stir with a fork until it just comes together in a sticky mass. There will be some flour mixture still loose in the bottom of the bowl. Dribble the water into this and gently stir until it’s also incorporated into the mass of dough.
Do not overwork the dough; just stir until things come together. Stirring flour and water together develops the gluten in the flour, and the more gluten, the tougher the crust will be. Tender crust requires tender touch, and it starts here.
Divide the dough into two equal masses. Put each in a large plastic bag or between sheets of saran wrap. The second secret of good crust: preliminary shaping, which will be done inside the bag or between sheets of plastic. Gently pat the top down just a bit. Use your hands to cup the edges, and pat the top flat to form a disc, about 1.5 inches thick. Without cracks or seams on the flat surfaces or edges.Occasionally peel the plastic back as you work so that it doesn’t get lodged in the dough and cause cracks, and flip the disc over now and then so that you’re shaping both sides. Do this gently until you’ve gotten the cracks out of the dough, particularly the edges. Those cracks will split when you roll the dough, so take your time.
When you’ve finished both, stack the doughs – still inside their plastic wrap – on a plate and put them in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours; overnight is fine. (And if you’re in a hurry, 20 min. in the freezer works, too, but not as well; the dough will be more difficult to roll without sticking.)
Now, prep your apples:
I quarter each apple, cut the core out and peel each quarter, and then slice the apples perpindicular to the core intead of through the core; this results in shorter slices that compact in the pie more easily. I prep the apples in the same bowl I made the crust in to save on the washing up. Toss with 1 teaspoon cinnamon (and cinnamon matters; make sure it smells fragrant and sweet, not bitter or acrid), a few gratings from a whole nutmeg, ¼ cup of flour, and ¾ cup of sugar. Letting the apples sit for a bit before you make the pie wil give you a good idea of the finished consistency of the filling. When it’s time to use them, stir some of the juice up from the bottom, if it’s watery, add a tablespoon or two more flour; if it’s thick and pasty, a tablespoon or two more sugar.
When it’s time to roll the dough, preheat your oven to 350ºF.
Prepare a surface. I roll it on my bread board, but a counter or large cutting board will do, and a marble slab is every pastry chef’s dream. No matter your surface, flour it heavily; I don’t measure here, but I probably use at least ½ cup of flour., and I keep the container of flour on the counter in case I need more. Spread the flour out, making sure you’ve floured your hands and the rolling pin in the process. Set pie plate within easy reach.
Put one piece of dough in the center of your flour, and then flip it over so that both sides are floured, reaching under the dough and redistributing the flour while it’s in the air during the flip. This is something of a trick, because you need to flip the dough fast so that you don’t distort it, and you need to redistribute your flour at the same time. Smooth the flour over the top of the dough, and pat the top, cup the edges again, to make sure you’ve got a round disc that’s a circle of even thickness and without cracks at the edge. If it’s at all sticky, add more flour over the top and underneath.
Roll, always starting from the center of the dough and rolling toward the edge and always stopping just short of the edge, rolling center to 12:00, center to 6:00, center to 3:00, center to 9:00. Don’t push, roll gently. Always feel free to add more flour if there’s any sticking. When the dough’s the size of a salad plate, flip it again, redistributing the flour on the board while the disc of dough is off the board, and dusting the new top with additional flour. You’ll find you can control the shape and maintain a circle by the direction you roll in, always center to edge, always stopping just short of the edge, which keeps the edges from getting too thin.
You should not have any problems with the dough cracking as you roll if you’ve done your preliminary shaping well, your dough has enough water, and you refrain from putting pressure down on the dough. Control sticking with flour. Many recipes say use as little flour as possible; I’m here to tell you: use as much as needed.
Continue rolling, ever so gently, center to edge, no pressure, adding flour as needed, and flipping the dough occasionally, redistributing the flour underneath, until the dough is about 8” across. It won’t be possible to flip it any longer, it’s too thin and delicate now, so make sure they board’s well floured on the last flip. Continue rolling until the dough’s large enough to fit in the pie plate with a good inch of overhang. Dust the top lightly one last time, and brush any excess off. Dust the rolling pin, too.
Now you’re going to transfer the dough to the pie plate. Set the pin on the edge of the dough furthest from you, lift the edge and roll, loosely rolling the dough up onto the rolling pin. Don’t apply any downward pressure as you do this. When the dough’s wrapped around the pin, you”re going to lift it onto the pie plate and unroll it; if there’s a center shaft that the pin spins around, put a finger on the edge of the end of the rolling portion of to keep it from spinning as you lift. Now grab your pie plate with the other hand (the one not keeping the pin from rolling,) and put it on the board. Take your time here, and line the edge of the crust up so that it’s going to overhang the plate evenly all the way around, and unroll the crust into the pie pan without actually resting the rolling pin on the pan (doing so will put a dent in your crust.) It’s really important to take the time to line the crust up well; it’s difficult to reposition it after the fact.
Ease the dough down into the plate from the edge, to take any tension off and avoid stretching the dough. This helps keep the dough from shrinking when you cook the pie, which will pull the crust off the rim of the pie plate.
Take kitchen shears and evenly trim the crust hanging over the rim leaving ½” of overhang. Use some of the trimmings to patch the dough if it has split or there are places where it is not quite long enough. Hopefully it won’t, but stuff happens. To patch, cut a piece of trimmed crust slightly larger then the crack/hole. Brush the bottom side with water, using either a very soft pastry brush or the back of a spoon. Lay the patch, wetted-side down, over the weak spot, and press the edges of the patch to seal. If the patch is at the trimmed edge, re-trim with your kitchen shears. Also, check the bottom crust in the plate for places where there is only a piece of fat, no flour, that might make a hole during baking, releasing the juices within the pie and making the crust stick to the pie pan.
Pour your apples into the crust, and set it aside, within easy reach.
Roll the top crust out, just as you did the bottom.
If you trust your ability to place the top crust over the bottom on the first try, it’s easiest and fastest to put a small bead of water around the rim of the crust to seal it before you transfer the top crust; but that bead of water will seal the crust closed, so don’t do this if you’re uncertain of your skills lining the top crust up on the first try. Either way, roll the crust up around the pin, hold the pin so it won’t unroll until it’s positioned properly, and unroll it over the top of the pie without resting the pin on the pie. Trim the top crust with the kitchen shears so that it’s about ½” longer then the bottom crust. If you didn’t add a bead of water, gently fold a section up, and with the back of a spoon or a soft pastry bruch, wet the bottom crust that’s resting on the rim of the pie plate, fold the top crust back down, and keep working around the pie until the entire circumference is sealed. Fold the overhang of the top crust up and under the overhang of the bottom, and tuck it into the inside of the pie plate. Make a decorative crimp with your fingers around the rim.
Slit the top of the pie so that steam can release as it bakes. I often make decorative designs, but two or three 2” slits are sufficient.
Put the pie in the oven, and bake. It usually takes about 45 min., sometimes more — it depends on the apples. When the juices have bubbled up and are oozing around the slits, it will be done. If the apples are really juicy, if you’ve overloaded the pie, or not properly sealed the pie, it may leak. Put a baking sheet on a shelf under the pie to save nasty oven clean up later. When you take the pie from the oven, place it on a wire rack, a pot holder, or a dry cutting board to cool, particularly if you’re using a glass or ceramic plate; temperature shocks can cause the plates to shatter.
Let the pie cook at least an hour and a half before cutting; the cooling is essential to the juices thickening.
The crust recipe can also be used for two single crust pies. To pre-bake, use pie weights or beans (with beans, it’s helfpul to line the bottom with parchment paper) to prevent lifting as the crust bakes, and bake for about 20 minutes.