A well-made apple pie is an ethereal delight, gustatorial heaven. In a bit of cosmic justice, the wonderful qualities of apple pie are directly correlated with the difficulty of properly making an apple pie. I’m actually coming out and saying that apple pie is one of the hardest desserts to get right. An apple pie should have tender apples, a thick, sweet filling, and a flaky bottom crust. I’ve never had an apple pie, until this one, that didn’t feature crunchy apples and a soggy bottom crust, and whose filling didn’t run copiously when you cut into it. Not even purchased apple pies could meet the basic criteria of tender apples, flaky crust, and thick filling.
Several years ago, I decided to attempt an apple pie, reasoning that I was a competent enough baker to get things right in the realm of apple pie. You can see where my hubris was taking me, right? I ignored the legions of bakers before me who’d turned out crunchy, runny apple pies, and figured I could somehow do better. I used the Pioneer Woman’s Caramel Apple Pie recipe, because I was young and in love and thought that she could do no wrong. Her recipe instructs you to mix raw Granny Smith apples with lemon juice, flour, sugar, and salt; this serves as the pie filling. You top the raw pie filling with a crumb topping that consists of flour, butter, brown sugar, and raw quick-cooking oats. Because the oats will cook themselves in the flour mixture?… Her recipe directs the clueless baker to pour up to two cups of caramel sauce over the baked pie. I even made my own caramel sauce to pour over the pie.
I’ll wait for those of you who are crying from laughter to dry your eyes.
Even without the tidal wave of caramel sauce spilling over the pie and onto every horizontal surface within ten feet (I exaggerate… slightly), the pie was a disaster. The apples themselves were crunchy, even hard – they tasted as though they were completely uncooked. Even after allowing the pie to cool to room temperature, the filling was so thin that it ran completely out of the pie when I cut out a slice. I’ll spare you the details of the crumb topping, and will only say that raw, hard oats are not appealing. The whole thing was a bizarre juxtaposition of soggy and hard.
I tried the recipe again, using a regular pie crust to cover the pie instead of that disgusting crumb topping. I even left out the caramel sauce, seeing as how parts of my kitchen were still coated in the stuff from the last time. (I kid about the coating. But really, that caramel wound up in the strangest places!) And the pie was still disgusting, so much so that I threw it out. I vowed I’d never again try an apple pie, because it seemed like no one could get the thing right. And mine was by far the worst I’d ever tried.
Well, ducklings, I’m nothing if not stubborn, so after six years (seriously) of apple pie abstinence, I tried again. I looked to the folks at Cook’s Illustrated for guidance, because they test the everloving hell out of their recipes, and they experiment with all sorts of ways to cook a given dish; consequently, they have amassed a large body of knowledge regarding kitchen science. From Cook’s Illustrated, I’ve learned that the pectin found in apples breaks down at high heat – the kind of heat that an apple pie is subjected to during baking. However – and this is weird, but cool – this pectin converts to a heat-stable form if apples are gently heated to between 140°F and 160°F for about 10 minutes. You can then bake the apples as needed for a pie, and the pectin doesn’t break down. Hence you get apples that maintain their shape, yet are soft and tender. Huzzah! Oh, and the reason pies usually contain tart apples? Tart apples have more pectin than sweet apples, so they maintain their structural integrity during baking better than do sweet apples.
I started off looking at an apple pie recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, but I had a hunch that adding pectin directly to the pie filling would help the filling remain thick, rather than oozing out of the pie after cutting a slice. I looked at many apple pie recipes to see if this was a “thing,” and if so, how much pectin people tended to use. I found a lovely apple pie recipe that uses both pectin and cornstarch to help thicken the filling, and I happily incorporated these ingredients into my recipe. These additions must have worked, because the pie filling was delectably thick. I debated adding spices other than cinnamon to the filling, and was going to add nutmeg, ginger, and allspice, but I decided to proceed conservatively and just use cinnamon. I’d read that too many spices make the apple flavour recede into the background, but I think small amounts of these additional spices – about 1/8 teaspoon each – would add a marvelous complexity to the pie without overshadowing the taste of apple.
The amount of apples Cook’s Illustrated specified – 5 pounds – made enough for two apple pies, so I divided the apple filling in half, storing one half in the fridge. I used this second half as an experimental batch, adding additional pectin, cinnamon, and even some vanilla extract to see how the filling would taste. I made a Dutch apple pie out of this second batch of filling, and it was smashing! I didn’t much care for the vanilla flavour, but my sweet Husband loved it, so I suppose that is a matter of personal taste. To be fair, I added twice as much vanilla as I should have (2 teaspoons, which were meant for the whole 5 pounds of apples; I should have added 1 teaspoon), so I think at lesser amounts, vanilla would go beautifully with the flavour profile of this pie.
Remember that one of my beefs with apple pie was the soggy crust. To combat this problem, I made a thick crust (the same crust I used for my beloved Badass Pecan Pie) for the bottom of the pie (along with an equally thick crust for the top of the pie), and blind-baked it (meaning I baked the crust with nothing in it before adding the apple filling and baking the whole thing). Some bakers say that brushing the bottom crust with butter will help prevent it from getting soggy. I think the combination of the thickness of this bottom crust, the fact that it is a very buttery crust, with a thin layer of melted butter appearing on it after its having been blind-baked, and the blind-baking itself all contributed to yield a bottom crust that was not in the least bit soggy, but flaky and just the right amount of crunchy.
Apple pie, thy name is bliss.
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Classic Apple Pie
Yield: 1 9″ apple pie
For the crust:
Double the amount of ingredients for the crust, as you will be making the crust recipe twice: Once for the top crust, and once for the bottom crust.
1 9″ deep dish pie pan
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more flour for dusting the rolling surface and rolling pin
2 TBS sugar
1 tsp. salt
12 TBS (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into roughly 1/4″ pieces & very cold
8 TBS (1 stick) vegetable shortening, cut into 6 – 8 pieces & very cold
1/4 cup vodka, chilled
1/4 cup ice water
2 TBS heavy cream, for brushing the top of the crust
1/4 cup sugar, for sprinkling over the cream
For the filling*:
1 cup sugar**
1/3 cup light brown sugar, tightly packed
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon*** (I found this amount of cinnamon to be barely noticeable, and will add 1/2 tsp. next time)
1 generous TBS cornstarch
2 tsp. powdered pectin
4 TBS unsalted butter, cut into 1/4″ pieces
2 1/2 lbs. Granny Smith apples, cored, peeled, and cut into 1/2″ cubes OR into slices 1/4″ thick
2 1/2 lbs. Golden Delicious apples, cored, peeled, and cut into 1/2″ cubes OR into slices 1/4″ thick
boiling water (3 quarts per 4 lbs. of prepared apples)
2 tsp. vanilla extract, optional
For the crust:
In a food processor, blend 1 1/2 cups flour, sugar, and salt until combined, about 5 – 8 seconds. Scatter the butter and shortening on top of the flour mixture and process until the butter and shortening are incorporated, and uneven clumps with no remaining floury bits are formed, about 15 seconds.
With a spatula, scrape sides of food processor and redistribute dough evenly around the bottom of the processor. Add remaining 1 cup flour and process until the mixture has broken into pieces and is evenly distributed around the processor, 4 – 8 seconds.
Transfer mixture to a large bowl and pour the vodka and ice water over the dough ball. With a spatula, press and flip the dough with the liquids until the liquids are absorbed and a cohesive, sticky ball forms.
Wrap the dough ball in cling film and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.
Repeat recipe for a total of two dough balls. One dough ball will form the bottom crust and the other dough ball will form the top crust.
For the filling:
Mix the sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, cornstarch, and pectin in a medium bowl until thoroughly combined. Add the pieces of butter and toss to combine. Set aside.
Reserve the vanilla, if using, and add after the sugar mixture has been combined with the apples.
Place the apples you have cored, peeled, and cut into a large, heat-proof bowl (5 quarts, minimum; 8 quarts is best). Heat water to boiling in the stated ratio of 3 quarts of water per 4 lbs. of prepared apples. Pour the boiling water over the apples and let sit for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally so that all apples have a chance to be submerged in the water.
Drain the apples (I used a collander) and return them to the large bowl. Add the sugar mixture to the apples. Stir and toss to thoroughly combine. The butter pieces will melt, which is to be expected. Add vanilla extract, if using. Set apple mixture aside to cool completely.
Assembly and baking:
Once the apples have cooled to room temperature, and the dough balls have chilled for at least an hour, it is time to prepare the crust.
Preheat oven to 425°F.Generously flour a large, flat surface along with a rolling pin. Take one of the dough balls and place it on the floured surface; it will be sticky, so be patient. Roll dough ball out into about 1/2″ thickness. Carefully transfer the flat disc to the pie plate. Press disc so that it evenly lines the inside of the pie plate. Crimp edges so that they are more or less even and line the edge of the pie plate. Loosely cover with cling film, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes have passed, remove cling film and poke holes in bottom of crust with a fork. Place a large piece of aluminum foil loosely over crust, so that the entire crust is covered, and put pie weights in the bottom. (I use dried kidney beans for this, and they work beautifully.) Bake crust for 17 minutes; remove pie weights and aluminum foil, and bake for an additional 4 – 7 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, prepare the second dough ball by rolling out to approximately the same size and thickness as the bottom crust. Line a large, flat plate or cookie sheet with waxed paper, and transfer disc to the waxed paper. Place in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Adjust oven to 350°F.
Once the bottom crust has cooled, place pie dish on a rimmed cookie sheet to catch any drips. Add the pie filling, ensuring it is evenly distributed. Cover with the chilled top crust, crimping the edges over the pre-baked bottom crust’s edges. Brush top of crust with the heavy cream, and sprinkle with the 1/4 cup sugar. Cut a few slits in the crust to allow steam to escape.
Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, loosely tent pie with foil and bake for an additional hour. Remove foil and bake pie for 30 more minutes.
Carefully take pie off rimmed baking sheet and place pie on cooling rack. Allow pie to cool completely to room temperature. This is important! The pie needs to cool completely so that it will thicken properly. If you cut the pie while it’s still hot, or even lukewarm, the juices will run out of the pie, and your hard work will have been for a pie that is still tasty, but not stellar.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to four days.
*I found that this much in weight of apples made enough filling for two pies. You have two options:
1. Halve everything for the filling, and continue as directed for the rest of the pie.
2. You can keep the ratios as they are, and store half of the apple mixture in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for up to three days, to be used for a second pie or for cake filling, ice cream topping, apple turnover filling – the possibilities are many, as the apple filling is absolutely scrumptious on its own before being baked into a pie.
**You may increase or reduce the amount of either type of sugar, depending on your preferences. Personally, I think you could add up to 1 1/2 cups of granulated sugar, plus 1/2 cup light brown sugar (firmly packed, of course), before the pie became too sweet; everyone is different, however, and you may prefer a milder tasting pie. The sugar ratios as presented created a pie that was quite balanced between the flavours of sugar and apple, still with a robust apple flavour.
***You can also add nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and other spices you feel would go well with apples and cinnamon. Be cautious with the amounts, as spices are stronger than they seem. I wouldn’t add more than 1/4 tsp. each of nutmeg, ginger, and allspice, as these spices, along with cinnamon, would quickly overwhelm the flavour of the apples.
Sources: Crust from Cook’s Illustrated All-Time Best Holiday Baking, 2013; apple pie filling an amalgamation of Cook’s Illustrated All-Time Best Holiday Baking, 2013, Leite’s Culinaria, and Serious Eats; many helpful tips found at Serious Eats