How To Make An Apple Pie

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Some of us have Oedipal complexes, others have Electra complexes, but very few of us have a complex based on apple pie. Allow me to lay on your therapist’s couch for a moment: I have a serious pie issue. My apple pie is inadequate–it comes from Martha Stewart–and though it often inspires a happy nod and a fleeting smile, it rarely induces the kind of exaltation that comes when Craig’s dad–who we’ll call “Steve” because that’s his name–makes his signature apple pie.

What is it that makes his pie so good? Why do my pies never measure up? On a recent visit to Bellingham, Washington–home of “Steve”–I decided to solve this mystery once and for all. What follows are the closely-guarded secrets of Steve’s Signature Apple Pie; a pie that I finally recreated at home to much acclaim–so much acclaim that I don’t need this therapy anymore. How much do I owe you?

Steve’s pie is a great pie because it’s aggressive. It’s got truckloads of fat–butter AND shortening–and it’s got busloads of sugar and cinnamon. This isn’t the kind of pie your earth-loving cousin who lives in Berkeley is going to make for the world peace rally: the apples are all Granny Smith, not basketfuls of heirloom varieties from your farmer’s market. If that’s your kind of pie, you better avert your eyes. It gets pretty intense here on in.

Ok, so let’s start with the apples. Get your Granny Smith apples–about 6 or 7 (I used 6 and that worked fine)–peel them, core them, and cut them into 6 or 8 fat wedges (depending on the size of your apples). Toss the wedges in a big bowl with (here it comes): “1 cup of sugar, 1/3rd cup flour, 1 generous Tablespoon of cinnamon and about 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg.” Those are Steve’s words exactly, from a confirmation e-mail I wrote him to make sure I had the proportions right. Steve adds: “Toss with the cut apples and…booya!…..put em’ in the pie.”

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Hold on, Steve, we haven’t even made our pie dough yet.

After many years of trying to make successful pie dough, I’ve reached the following conclusion: to make a successful pie dough you have to have a successful pie dough personality. What I mean is: there are those of us, like me, who worry and fret as they mix the flour and the butter and the shortening, who plop it on the counter and nervously pound it with the rolling pin, and then freak out as the dough rips and tears and melts in the corners. It’s not a pretty picture.

To see how it’s done right, let’s watch Steve. His pie dough recipe comes from Cook’s Illustrated (the filling, by the way, comes from Betty Crocker) but it’s his technique that’s worth noting. Let’s start with his tools–a rolling pin with a cover and a pie dough mat to roll it out on:

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I’m not sure where one gets this equipment, but after a quick search on Google I found this on Amazon, so it’s not impossible.

Equipment is part of it, but so is confidence. And cold butter. So Steve removes 12 Tablespoons of unsalted butter from the fridge, cuts it into cubes and adds it to a bowl of 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 Tbs sugar. He then adds 8 Tbs all-vegetable shortening and blends it all together with a pastry blender:

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I don’t own a pastry blender, but after watching Steve use his I’m wondering if I should. I’ve used a food processor before, I’ve used two knives dragged across the bowl, but there’s something really visceral and tactile about a pastry blender: Steve really went at it, incorporating the butter and shortening into the flour with reckless abandon. He went for a full minute, way longer than I might have, and when he was done he had an almost homogeneous mixture of buttery shortening-flour chunks. It was to this that he added 6 Tbs of water:

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Now here’s where things get REALLY complicated; once the water was added (the recipe says 6 to 8 Tbs, so add more if it doesn’t come together), Steve stirred it together with a spoon and then brought the whole thing together with his hands:

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I’ve tried to do this before, but I overworked it and my crust came out really tough (I overdeveloped the gluten.) But Steve did it just enough to bring it all together and once it came together he split it in half and plopped one round of dough onto his floured pastry mat:

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Now here’s where things got super intense. I’ve never seen an ax murderer at work, but I wonder if it’d look any different from Steve attacking this pie dough. He was merciless, he was relentless. He just whammed it with the pin and spun the mat a little, then whammed it again and spun again. He rolled, he hit, he spun, it all happened so fast.

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I was in awe: the dough stretched easily–a giant happy, welcome mat of pie dough that was entirely smooth and seamless. Once stretched, Steve flipped it on to the pie plate:

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Now tell me this isn’t the work of an expert:

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The apples were added:

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And then Steve rolled out the top just like he rolled out the bottom. Here’s what kills me: when he finishes, he drapes the top over the bottom and look how much extra dough he has!

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When I roll out pie dough, I can barely stretch it out enough to cover just the apples, let alone the perimeter of the pie plate. Here it’s hanging over the edge like Rapunzel’s hair; again, I’m in awe.

Now for the decorative bit. Steve uses a scissor to cut away all that excess pie dough:

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Then Julee, Craig’s mom, helps crimp the edges:

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They brush the whole surface with egg white:

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Then, to gild the lily, so to speak, they use all that extra dough they cut away and make little stars with a star-shaped cutter to place on top:

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As you can see they put three slits into the pie to let the steam out; they also dusted the whole thing with more sugar.

As for cooking, Steve writes: “425 degrees for 25 minutes with crust edge covered with foil. Turn oven to 375 for 15 minutes. Remove foil and go another 15 minutes at 375 and….booya!….apple pie, man.”

He’s not kidding: here’s the result.

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The dough was flaky and incredibly tender and the filling was intense and aggressive. It was hard not to eat piece after piece; it was, indeed, a work of art.

* * * * *

Naturally, upon coming home, I decided to see how much I absorbed: could I make an apple pie as successful as Steve’s?

I didn’t have a rolling pin cover or a special pie mat, but I had a decent rolling pin and a cloth napkin, so I employed those:

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I also didn’t have a pastry blender, so I decided to use the next best thing: my food processor.

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I’d like to say it all went smoothly, that I was now an apple pie making champ. Instead, I made quite a bit of a mess:

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Oh, and I stupidly rolled out the dough right next to my 425 oven so it was way too hot and the dough was peeling apart and sticking to the rolling pin. I got it just thin enough to line the pie pan (it’s interesting that Steve doesn’t let the dough refrigerate before he rolls it out; clearly, he’s such a champ, it doesn’t matter–but next time I might refrigerate mine for at least 15 minutes before trying to roll it.) Rolling the top was an even uglier process; my disc shattered and slipped apart all over the place, so I just glunked it top of the apples and tried to make it look decent.

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I do like Martha’s egg wash formula: she uses an egg yolk and 1 Tbs cream, so I did that and brushed it all over and sanded it with sugar. And here’s how she emerged:

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This leads to our ultimate conclusion: even if you can’t roll out a pie dough like a “Steve,” as long as you get it decent enough, the pie will still smell and taste amazing.

Because this pie was serious news. The dough flaky, the filling–just like Steve’s–spicy and intense. I mean, let this picture speak for itself:

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The key to it all is just to go for it. Don’t despair. If your dough breaks apart like mine, it doesn’t matter: just don’t roll it out again or it’ll get tough. Press your screwy dough into the pie plate, and it’ll work itself out.

Do it enough, and over time you’ll get better. I’m sure that’ll be true, even for me. One day I’ll be so good, I’ll give someone else an Apple Pie complex. Then they’ll come study at my side, and the cycle will continue. But until then, thanks to Steve for sharing his apple pie secrets; hope we’ve inspired you to give it a go. All you need is some chutzpah and some Granny Smith apples. The rest will take care of itself.

That’ll be $300; please pay my secretary on your way out. Next!

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