Saturday, October 3, 2009


Mother made perfect apple pie - thin, tender, flaky crust hugging the cooked bed of apples, caramelized juice dripping down the side with a drop forever jellied in place.  Mine is pretty good too, but I'm not sure it quite measures up to Mom's.  That's what memory will do for you.

I'm here to tell you that you too can make an outstanding apple pie, better than you ever imagined, or maybe as good as you've always imagined.  You'll make some different choices than I do but you'll have a reason for that.  If some element doesn't come out as well as you want, come back here and reassess. The instructions are long only to cover every detail, not because this is difficult.

1)  The pan.
I currently use a pyrex pie pan because I have it around for so many other uses - makes a great shallow casserole or a dish to slice tomatoes into for sticking in the oven to melt the cheese on top.  But I think an aluminum (or better yet, a tin) pan makes a better pie.

2)  The flour
Flour accounts for the biggest difference in the pie crust you might make now and the melt in your mouth crust of your distant memory.  Pastry flour used to be available on your supermarket shelf, and it probably isn't now.  Pastry flour is a lower-gluten flour and it resists being tough, even if you have to rework it.  Most people now make their crusts with all purpose flour, and I think that's a mistake.  Cook's Illustrated devoted an issue last year to apple pie, and in particular to all sorts of trials to get a crust that didn't float above the apples.  The crust floats above the apples if it's made with a flour high enough in gluten so that it will maintain it's original shape as it bakes.  A crust made with pastry flour settles down like the dew on your baking apples.

So what to dew do?  Pastry flour can be ordered from King Arthur Flour, and many co-ops and health food stores will have pastry flour (or whole wheat pastry flour).  But you can lower the gluten content of your regular all-purpose flour by mixing it with cake flour, which is what I've done here, assuming this is what you'd do at first too.  Substituting one third of the total with cake flour should satisfy most of your pastry flour needs. Once you've tried this you might want to search out the real thing, as the cake flour on your grocer's shelf is bleached.  Pastry flour also makes incredibly tender cookies, so it won't go to waste.

3) The fat
Mom used snowcap lard.  Made a wonderful crust with a distinctive aroma and flavor that still means pie to me.  Most people aren't thrilled with the idea of lard and notice the flavor difference, which interferes with their dessert pleasure.  If you think pork fat rules, you won't find anything better, especially if you can find organic lard.  Many other people use solid shortening, but I'm not thrilled with the idea of artificially hydrogenated fats, and that interferes with my dessert pleasure so i don't use it.  It's the second best choice if you don't mind.  So that leaves me with butter (oil crusts are a whole different thing).  Some people use mostly butter and some shortening, and if I had shortening around I'd do that too.  I'm guessing that a better butter with a lower water content might make a better crust, but I use standard salted butter because it's what I have in the fridge.  If I were buying it just for pie I'd buy unsalted butter and add salt.

Pastry is flaky for two reasons:  some flour gets coated with fat, and that keeps it from developing gluten - but more importantly larger pieces of fat, when rolled out, create layers of flour and fat.  Think of puff pastry, which is a flour dough layered with butter and then folded back over itself, and rolled out again, and again.  This creates hundreds of separate layers of flour separated by butter.

4) The apples
I think the best apples are a little tart, firm, and spicy.  The first pie apples of the year for me are Cortlands, and then once the Northern Spies ripen in Mid-October I only use spies.  My sister prefers McIntosh.  If you aren't happy with your available apple choices try making a pie with mixed varieties.  I've tried that too and been very pleased.

5) The filling mix
I use half white sugar and half brown sugar.  Less cinnamon than lots of pies do, because I want the apples to be prominent - and a grating of fresh nutmeg on top of the apples.  For thickening I use minute tapioca.  It gives no flavor to the pie, and there's no chance of the chalky, thick coating that I've tasted in some pies made with flour.  The tapioca mixes with the juices and creates little jellied jewels.  Use less tapioca (or flour, or whatever else you use) as the season progresses and the apples dry out.



1 TEASPOON SALT (do not add if using salted butter)

Fluff up flour before measuring. (Use 1 1/3 cups all purpose flour and 2/3 cup cake flour if you don't have pastry flour). Keep the butter as cold as possible. Cut the butter into the flour using either a pastry cutter, two knives, or a food processor, until it looks like coarse meal with some pieces of butter the size of peas (This is a petite pea).  Refrigerate if necessary (if the butter has softened).  Divide the dough mix about in 2 (a little more than one cup for each crust),  Add water just to the first (bottom) crust.

Add ice water a teaspoon at a time, mixing gently. This will take longer than you want it to.  Here I've added a few spoons of water and some clumps are forming.

When it just comes together, stop adding water.  The mix may seem a little dry to you. This is as wet as it should be

Throw a little flour onto your rolling surface, which can be a clean counter, bread board, or a plastic mat adhered to the counter with water.  You will not need to roll between sheets of plastic wrap.

Roll from the center outward, putting more emphasis on the outward movement than on downward pressure.  Turn the crust over every few rolls, and add more flour to the board if necessary to keep the crust from sticking.  Repair any tears in the edge, but don't worry about it a lot.  This looks like it's going to tear and like it's too dry, but it was just right.  This is actually the top crust.  I didn't take pictures of the bottom crust, but you can see in the pictures that the bottom crust doesn't hold its own very well and was too wet.  My hand slipped as I was adding the last water, and got too much in.  It's always best to add the water with a spoon instead of pouring it, and then these things won't happen.

When the crust is larger than the pan, either roll it up on the rolling pin, or (my preference) fold in half twice.  Either roll the crust over the pan, or put the corner in the center of the pan and unfold.  Take excess from one place and add it to holes at the edge.  Especially in the bottom crust no one will ever know.  There are no extra points for rolling a perfect crust.  This crust is actually too thick.  I should have removed some and continued to roll it thinner.  The thinner the crust the more delicate and flaky it will be. In fact, I'm remembering that I only need about a cup of mix for each crust, and there should be more than a half cup of dough mix you won't need.  Save it for the next pie, or make tiny tarts, or sprinkle cinnamon sugar on it, roll it up, and have little cinnamon pastries. 



This is for a large pie pan filled to overflowing.
Reduce the sugar mix if making a smaller pie. 

1/3 Cup white Sugar
1/3 Cup brown Sugar
2 Tablespoons minute tapioca
1/2-1 teaspoon cinnamon
nutmeg to grate on top
a couple of pats of butter to top apples

Mix together in a bowl.  Sprinkle a thin layer on the bottom crust to protect it from the first layer of apples, which should be placed carefully on the bottom and up the sides. 

Sprinkle some filling on the apple layers as they build up, leaving a good amount for the top. (Mom used a full cup of sugar.  My sister uses none.  Experiment).  Some of you like to mix the apples with the sugar mix before adding to the pie.  That's good too.  I don't because it's not necessary and it's messy.


Plan on at least 3 pounds of apples for a 9 inch deep dish pie. Cortlands, spies, macs, a mix. Ask for suggestions at your farmstand or farmer's market.

Wash the apples.  Quarter the apples with a paring knife, remove the seeds, peel, and slice either the long way or the short way.  Place the first layer on the bottom of the pie with care, to protect the pie crust.  The apples should mound up high in the middle, as they will reduce in volume as they cook. Leave a little space to adhere the second crust to the first.  Here you can see how sloppy the bottom crust was; it won't matter.   Grate a little fresh nutmeg on the top, and perhaps add a few very thin slices of butter.


Remove a cup of dough mix from the fridge, add ice water and roll out the second crust as before.  Patch where you need to.  Make a fluted roll at the edge if you want to. 

Top with a tablespoon or so of cream, and spread with your fingers or a pastry brush over the whole top of the pie.  Cut vents in the top crust with a paring knife.   


Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, then at 350 for up to another 45 minutes.  Check at 30 minutes.  When done the crust will be golden brown, the apples pliable when you insert a cake tester.  But most important, some juice will have bubbled out of the crust and caramelized.  (Prepare for this with an oven liner under your pie pan, if you want.)  Letting it cool allows whatever starch you've used to jell (this slice was cut a little warm).  I like it best just a little bit warm, with ice cream or frozen whipped cream.


  1. When I worked in the orchard, we used to say it was "Spoys for Poys." (Spies for Pies.) Mutsu (Crispin) and Honey Crisp are really good, too.

  2. I'm trying to picture myself putting a Honey Crisp in a pie. Don't think I can get there - They are so good to eat fresh.