Easy as Pie

Fear not: It’s easier than you think to make delicious pie—we’ll start with apple—and celebrate National Pie Day to boot
Homemade Apple Pie

© Adobe Stock, Brent Hofacker

Is there anything more comforting than homemade pie? The crust can make all the difference, but it is also the component that instills the most fear in would-be pie makers. Made with just three ingredients—flour, butter, and water—pie crusts change from long and flaky to finer textured and crumbly based on the pie maker’s technique, says Twin Cities chef and Saint Paul College Culinary Arts instructor Jason Ross. And, it’s easier than you think, he adds. In the following tips and recipe, which Ross wrote for Real Food, he shares step-by-step instructions, tricks of the trade, and a recipe for classic apple pie to get you started.

With the holidays behind us and plenty of wintry weekends to come, it’s the perfect time to just relax and try your hand at making a pie. Plus, National Pie Day is celebrated every year on January 23.

These made-up food “holidays” are always a fun reason to focus on a certain food. This one is said to have started in Colorado. In about 1975, Boulder school teacher Charlie Papazian declared his birthday, January 23, to be National Pie Day. Evidently Papazian simply liked pie—eating it, baking it, adding candles to it for a birthday pie…  The national celebration of pie was officially registered with Chase’s Book of Events, according to the Denver Post, and events now take place all over the United States on this day. Charlie Papazian is probably better known as America’s home-brew guru and founder of the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The American Pie Council became the official “keeper” of the special day in 1986. This is not to be confused with Pi Day, which is an annual celebration of the mathematical constant observed on March 14, though that is another “holiday” that is often celebrated with pie! By then you will be an expert crust-maker and can celebrate that day with homemade pie, too!

Pie-making Basics

FILLING
Simple is best. Use pies to highlight seasonal fruit at the peak of flavor. Simply toss fruit with sugar and starch to make filling. For drier fruits such as apples, use flour or cornstarch. For wetter fruits such as berries, use tapioca starch, which will absorb more of the liquid. Make sure to fill and cook pies quickly after tossing with sugar and starch to avoid wet fruit and a soggy crust as the sugar pulls moisture out of the fruit.

DOUGH
Easy as 3-2-1. Classic pie dough uses 3 parts flour, 2 parts solid fat (butter, shortening, lard, or a mixture), and 1 part water (plus a little salt for flavor).

Measure all ingredients using a scale to get accurate amounts and the right ratio. (If you don’t have a scale, I offer measurements in the recipe below.) Every inch of pie represents 1 ounce of pie dough, so an 8-inch pie crust will weigh 8 ounces (or 16 ounces, double with a top).

Flaky or Mealy. Pie dough is generally separated into two categories, flaky and mealy. The difference in dough texture comes from how the fat is “cut in,” or mixed with flour.

For flakier dough, cut the butter in less thoroughly, leaving visible chunks of butter, roughly the size of a pea. Flaky dough can be harder to work with than mealy dough, and when paired with wetter fillings, it will more easily absorb liquid and turn soggy. The batter for mealy dough is “cut in” more completely, with a butter and flour mixture that looks like rough cornmeal.

Mealy dough has a more tender bite, finer texture, and works well with custards and pies, where the dough is baked before the filling is added (called “blind baked”). However, it is also more likely to crumble and fall apart.

Cold is key. For any type of pie dough, it’s important to keep the dough cold so the fat doesn’t melt. Cold fat melts during baking, releases steam—which is trapped in the dough—and creates layers and texture. Chill ingredients at nearly every step. Yes, even chill the flour before making the dough. (And when you cut in the fat, use your fingertips instead of your whole hand, rubbing flour into cold fat between thumb and fingertips. Using only the tips of your fingers will help to keep fat cold longer and make flakier pie dough.)

Chill at almost every point possible: after cutting the flour and butter together, after adding the water and forming the dough into a disc, after rolling the dough disc into a thin sheet and forming the pie, and finally re-chill after forming pie, right up until baking.

Tricks of the Trade:

Just the fats: The general thought is that butter adds more flavor and shortening adds more flakiness to pie dough. The truth is, butter can make just as flaky dough, but you have to be more careful with it. Solid fat coated in flour and caught between dough releases steam when it bakes. The steam pushes the dough apart and forms the flakes in the air pockets left behind in the baked crust. Shortening is easier to keep solid than butter because it melts at a higher temperature and is easier to work with and knead. Butter melts more easily in your hands so you have less time to handle it and have to take more care to keep the dough chilled as you work. Is the butter flavor worth the effort? You have to decide, but you can have both flavor and flaky texture.

Fixing cracks: If the dough cracks during rolling, try fixing it with a small piece of extra dough, simply pushing the piece into the crack, and rolling it into the broken area. If the dough cracks during baking, make a slurry with water and flour and rub the mixture onto the crack. Then continue baking until the slurry hardens and the pie is finished cooking.

Basic 3-2-1 Pie Dough

Makes enough dough for a 9-inch pie with top

Here is the classic pie dough. The results depend on how you handle the dough and how far you rub the butter into the flour. Use these same ingredients to make either flaky or mealy dough.

9 ounces (2 cups) pastry or all-purpose flour
6 ounces (1½ sticks butter/12 tablespoons), cut into ½ inch cubes
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) water
1 teaspoon salt

  1. After weighing or measuring all ingredients, mix flour and salt together in bowl with a whisk. Chill 10 minutes or until cold.
  2. Cut flour and butter together using your fingertips to rub the flour into the butter. Remember, for flakier dough, cut the butter into the flour until the chunks of butter are the size of peas and, for mealy dough, take it farther until the dough resembles cornmeal. Refrigerate butter and flour dough 10 minutes or until chilled.
  3. Pour in the cold water, mixing briefly, but incorporating the water completely with your hands. Form the dough into two discs, roughly 2 inches thick, and wrap the dough disc in plastic wrap. Chill the discs completely at least 1 hour.

Note: Dough discs can be made up to three days in advance or frozen, wrapped and stored in zip-lock bags, for weeks.

Flaky (left) and mealy dough examples

Photo by Terry Brennan; Food Styled by Lara Miklasevics

Flaky & Mealy: Two doughs, one pie

Try flaky (left) and mealy (right) dough for the same pie. Split the dough recipe in half, using mealy dough for the bottom crust and flaky dough for the top. Mealy dough better withstands excess moisture from fruit fillings and forms a tender base, while flaky dough makes a crisp and flaky top.

Classic Apple Pie

Makes a 9-inch pie with top

Use your favorite apple, or for a great go-to pie apple, try Golden Delicious. It balances acidity, sweetness, and texture and caramelizes well during baking.

2 chilled 3-2-1 pie dough discs from recipe above
¾ cups sugar
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 pinch ground cinnamon
1 pinch ground ginger
1 pinch ground cloves
1 tablespoon lemon juice
5 Golden Delicious apples
1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
pinch sugar for coating the crust

 

2. Rolled pie dough

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. Use a rolling pin dusted with flour to roll one dough disc on a lightly floured surface, leaving the second dough disc chilling in the refrigerator. Turn dough 45 degrees with each roll, so dough doesn’t stick to board and forms a rough circle, ¼ inch thick. Lay rolled dough into a pie tin, and push it into the sides, avoiding stretching or tearing the dough. Chill rolled dough in pie tin.
3. In small bowl, mix together sugar, flour, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves with a whisk and set aside.
4. Pour lemon juice in bowl big enough to hold apples.
5. Peel, core, and slice apples into 1/3-inch slices and toss in bowl with lemon juice, coating slices well.
6. Pour dry sugar mixture into apple slices and toss, coating well.
7. Use a rolling pin and roll second dough disc. Repeat rolling procedure from first dough disc forming a rough circle, ¼ inch thick, to be used as pie top.

8. Sliced apples in pie dough-lined tin

Photo by Terry Brennan; Food Styled by Lara Miklasevics

8. Pour apples into pie tin lined with pie dough. Using a pastry brush, brush edges with egg wash. Lay second rolled dough on top and seal edges, crimping with thumb and fingertips or using fork tines to make a decorative edge, and trim excess dough with kitchen scissors. Cut small slits in dough or hole in center to help vent steam during cooking.
9. Chill pie in freezer for 10 minutes.
10. Brush pie top with egg wash, and coat with light sprinkling of sugar.
11. Bake until apple filling bubbles and crust turns deep golden brown, roughly 50 to 55 minutes. Rotate in oven after 25 minutes.
12. Allow to cool and serve still slightly warm or at room temperature.

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Mary Subialka
Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her school-age son, who used to eat beets and Indian food, will one day again think of real food as more than a means to a treat—and later share this with his younger brother.