How To Make An Apple Pie

January 9, 2009 | By | COMMENTS

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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!

Tags: , , ,

Categories: Cobblers/Pies/Tarts, Cooking, Desserts, How-To, Recipes

  • http://www.gastronomersguide.com Joseph

    Wow! Now I need to get a pastry cutter and pastry mat. Steve makes it look so easy! I, too, Adam use Martha’s recipe, but my pie dough still comes out hard and unappetizing.

  • http://www.gastronomersguide.com Joseph

    Actually, I did successfully make an apple pie once. It only came out well that one time.

    http://www.gastronomersguide.com/2008/10/perfect-apple-pie.html

  • http://www.mashedpotatoesandmerlot.blogspot.com Kristin

    I love the pastry cutter! They are really inexpensive, too. This pie looks delicious and I enjoyed the story. Can’t wait to try it out.

  • cybercita

    i notice that he uses a wire pastry blender. in my experience, it’s better to use one that has solid blades. here’s a link for a pic: http://www.crateandbarrel.com/family.aspx?c=744&f=14139

    but two knives work really well, too. i don’t like the food processor for crust. not as much fun and too easy to overwork the dough.

    you can also get fancy and do fraisage — after the dough is mixed, you smear it with the heel of your hand. it makes the crust extra flaky by distributing the fat in such a way that the steam makes layers.

    yours was beautiful!

  • Margaret

    You know, I have had apple pie issues myself–bland and gummy. I will employ “Steve”‘s method this weekend to see if *anyone* can become and Apple Pie Superstar!!!!

  • http://expiring.blogspot.com selena

    I love my pastry blender. I got a sturdy one at a dollar store and it’s great. Makes a world of difference for pastry, is much faster than two knives (I remember doing that, ugh), and adds much less heat to the dough than either a food processor or hands.

  • morgan

    Seriously? No pastry blender?! How do you bake? You and I clearly different people Mr. Roberts. I think a pastry blender was the first piece of kitchen equipment I ever purchased. Pies are the easiest thing in the world to bake, and too much time is wasted fretting over them (which you are starting to realize). And don’t waste money on a pastry mat. Just refrigerate your dough overnight, use plenty of flour, and it won’t stick.

  • mary

    I also love my pastry cutter! I use it whenever I use it for lots of baking (dough, toppings for fruit crisps/crumbles, shortbread cookies, etc.). It’s an inexpensive priceless tool.

  • kevin

    Loved the story. You should take a look at Alton Brown’s Super Apple Pie recipe. It took me a week to find a pie bird, but it was worth it

  • Lito

    Keep practicing Adam, if you want to be as big a pro as your in-law, you got a long way to go… Steve seems to have it down to instinct at this point.

    The key to a perfect pie crust is speed and temperature. Other than a bowl and a rolling pin, the utensils don’t matter much. You can even use your hands, but that’s even harder as they are warm and cause the butter to melt even further. A perfect pie crust made w/ your own hands is the ultimate test for a pro.

    If you have time, it helps to put the dough in the refrigerator for 1 hour between adding the water and rolling out the dough. It makes the dough easier to roll w/out working the butter/shortening into the flour. Remember, the more you work the dough the more gluten strands you develop, the doughier/tougher your dough will become. See this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastry#Physics_and_Chemistry_of_a_Pastry.

  • http://smallkitchenbigideas.wordpress.com Sara

    Your pie looks great.

    I generally use my great-grandmother’s pie crust recipe which uses oil instead of butter or shortening. It’s very simple to make and much less stressful although I do like a flaky pie crust made with butter.

  • Bob

    Good story and the pie looks amazing, but that sure is a lot of cinnamon. Can you taste the apples through all the spice? I prefer a tsp at most but also add some cardamon and allspice. Nothing better than apple pie.

  • Ray O, Chef Oy Har Dee

    Didn’t your whole building smell like Kansas, and apple pie, and Toto? Well, maybe not the doggie part!

    It looked (and I bet) tasted AMAZING! But, no one has mentioned the TYPE of flour to use. Being a chef/writer from the south if you use a soft winter wheat flour as opposed to a national brand all-purpose one, your result will be tender, soft, flaky, light and perfect. White Lily All-Purpose Flour is lower in protein thus lower in gluten when you combine the water to mix. Gluten (your enemy) in pie crusts (or any pastries really; that is why we “wrap in plastic and let it rest”)is the EXACT opposite in breadmaking. You need that gluten, thus a higher protein (bread) flour or hard winter wheat flour should be used, for the gluten (or now structure).

  • Ray O, Chef Oy Har Dee

    So, I ramble…just make sure EVERYTHING is COLD. Your butter (flavor), shortening (flakiness), ice water – but not your heart. For some reason a great apple pie never comes from a cold heart.

    Love your blog!

  • Elsbeth

    Like “Steve”, my dad is the master pie maker of the family!

    Dutch apple pie is very different from the American version, but the filling is similar. I love to add walnuts and dark raisins, sometimes some lemon zest, or I make an apple pear pie, with hard pears, apples and some ground ginger and cinnamon.

    Instead of flour we always use custard powder, which brings sweetness and binds the moisture. Try it!

    Happy anniversary by the way! Love the blog.

    Greetings from Amsterdam

  • http://www.kittalog.com Kitt

    Hooray (chooray?) for chutzpah! Your pie looks awesome. Thanks, “Steve”!

  • Joan

    Twenty five years ago, I found that the food processor gave me the confidence to make biscuits and pie crusts. But I occasionally tried the pastry cutter like my mom did (because I was too lazy to get out and clean the machine). It didn’t take long to develop the touch. So, for me one great advantage to owning and using a pastry cutter is that you remove a baking barrier. Who really wants to clean that Cuisinart bowl on a Sunday morning?

    Morning biscuits are a snap with a pastry cutter and by eliminating that equipment from your counter, you have more space to roll out your dough (away from the heat of your oven).

    Conquering pie crust also opens up the world of savory pies and tatins.

  • Anonymous

    I also have a pie complex. My mom and grandma are both fabulous pie makers. Their filling is always delicious and the crust flaky and light. I’ve tried a few different recipes and a lot of techniques (two knives, pastry blender, kitchen aid mixer, and food processor). After all of that, I found that chilling the dough before rolling it out and lots of practice are the only way my pies will ever be great.

  • zeep

    Thanks for sharing the recipe “Steve” and thanks to AG for great documenting of the process – it looks absolutely amazing. I’m not much of a baker in the traditional sense, but that pie is inspiring!

  • http://clothesaholic.blogspot.com/ gidgetbananas

    Funny, I’m a convert from the pastry cutter to the food processor, but I absolutely believe that successful dough depends a lot on the baker’s touch and instinct, so whatever tool s/he likes is the right tool.

    However, it’s vital that the ingredients be cold, cold, cold. Some bakers I know use butter straight from the freezer. I put ice cubes in the water I’m going to add.

    In my experience, I’ve had trouble rolling out dough when I haven’t added enough water, and that’s the tricky part, because the amount of water you have to add at any one time depends on the weather as much as the recipe. That’s where Steve’s experience (and Washington humidity) helps him.

    Both pies look greeeeeeeat. I wish I had a slice of each right now.

  • http://bearcuisine.com Anne Ritchings

    If you love butter, you should read jennifer Mclagen’s newest–Fat.

    It’s a great book.

    Your pie looks fabulous.

  • http://kitchengraffiti.blogspot.com/ margaux

    Your pastry looks flaky and delicious! I usually make my pastry only using shortening, but my mom recently replaced half of it with butter, similar to Steve’s recipe, and it brought her pastry up a notch. Serious deliciousness. Also, if you have time, put your mixing bowl in the fridge for about 20 minutes before you start (but not the freezer-you’ll end up with condensation) to help keep everything cold.

    You’ll figure out the rolling with a little practice! Parchment paper works well, too.

  • mel

    i made it sunday– the best. i never had crust come out so well. it was not soggy and uncooked on the bottom, like it usually is. great! thank you!!!

  • http://google.com Charlie

    I love apple pie.

  • http://google.com Charlie

    I love apple pie.

  • Tia

    Perfect post for me- my New Year’s resolution -make more pie (I too am a bit afraid of the pie dough thing). Also just finished your book… I loved it and am suggesting it to my friends. Thanks!

  • amy

    I love making pies but would rather eat cake. I’m a food processor convert as well but like my pastry cutter, too. I learned from watching my mom make pies – she made mistakes all the time but just laughed it off and kept going – patching together the crust regardless. She makes fabulous pies and not always perfectly. It’s like frosting cakes, go at it with a confident air and the skill follows! (Oh, and having lots of frosting on hand or the ingredients to make more crust helps, too.)

    Minimizing mess with the food processor. I overlap two pieces of plastic wrap on the counter, then dump the dough on top. Then, I use the plastic to draw the dough bits together and mush it into a ball. Anal? No. I’m too lazy to clean up the floor.

    Congrats on your pie. People really love apple pie!

  • Sharon

    Just made this pie for Valentine’s Day. Delicious. One comment: the dough would be much better if refrigerated for a bit. My dough was soooo sticky I couldn’t even roll it – I just pressed it out with my hands. And if making this a second time I would probably lay off the cinnamon a tad. Maybe 1 tsp for a more subtle flavor. But ultimately, an ungodly and devastatingly delicious apple pie. Thanks, Adam!!!

  • Anonymous

    After years of trying, and failing, with an all butter crust, I went back to my grandma’s butter and shortening recipe. It’s easier to work with, is flakier and tastes better! I do use a pastry cutter and chill it before rolling because I’m not as good as Steve either. Excellent recipe.