Be gone, Mrs. Smith! A frozen pie may fill your pie-hole any other day of the year. But for Thanksgiving, on this celebratory day of gratitude, as close as we get to a ritual harvest festival, make a real pie. Yes, from scratch. Because, with our step-by-step approach, you can turn apples, sugar, flour, butter, and spices into a better pie that you or your friends have ever tasted, much less made.
So, let us begin. The first step, before you pick up a measuring cup, is to clear your mind. Are you stressed out by family demands? Worried about getting it all right? Put all this out of your head. A perfect turkey, a perfect pie, the most splendid gravy in the universe cannot ensure family harmony, just as even a sorry stuffing won't, by its underseasoned blandness or wayward lumpiness, ruin the day. (Not that you should settle for bad stuffing, not with Kim Laidlaw's fine Sage and Chestnut Stuffing recipe available here on this very blog.)
All too often, it seems, we placate our fears by obsessing over the minutia of kitchen work. Brine or dry rub? Breast up, breast down? Deep-fried or smoked? Should there been mac and cheese, and is adding brown butter and pumpkin brilliance or heresy? Here's what I can tell you, courtesy of years of writing Thanksgiving cooking advice: it is easier to worry about turkey, or cranberry sauce, or the flakiness of your pie crust than it is to be in the moment, with no distractions from the clamor of your own emotions, the ringing of your own wishful, overflowing, bruised or fearful heart.
Keep it in mind, then, as you seek to control in the kitchen what you may not be able to conquer in the dining room. More to the point, take heed of Fergus Henderson, chef and author of The Complete Nose to Tail, who advises, “Do not be afraid of cooking, as your ingredients will know, and misbehave." So, now that you're happy, and focused, and not leaning all the weight of your perfect-holiday expectations on one frangible crust, let's bake!
First, the apples. I like farmers' market apples, where you can be sure of getting this season's fruit, still tangy and snappy-crunchy. You want apples with some complexity and density to them. Fujis and Galas are too sweet and too full of juice--they'll make a wet pie that's closer to applesauce. Granny Smiths are the opposite: too hard, too tart. I like to use a mix of whatever looks good. This pie was made with a combination of Black Twig and Pink Ladies, but Pippins, Jonagolds, Russets, Romes, and/or Braeburns would also work well.
The crust is easiest to handle if you let it chill before rolling, so it's wise to get your dough mixed before you start on the filling. Put your butter--preferably, a high-fat, European-style butter like Straus Family Creamery European-Style Organic Butter or Plugra--in the freezer to chill. You want it very cold and firm but not actually frozen.
Measure the full amount of cold water and vinegar into a glass (or see-through plastic) wet measuring cup. Add a handful of ice cubes. Measure your flour by dipping a dry-measure cup into the flour, then sweeping off the excess with the flat side of a knife. Don't pack it, don't shake it! Whisk the sugar and salt into the flour.
Using the coarse holes on a box grater, grate in the butter. Grating transforms the butter into thin, near-translucent curls. Once you've lightly but thoroughly mixed them into the flour, carefully breaking up any butter clumps, you're almost done. The texture will be nubbly-perfect, and you'll hardly have touched it.
Quickly pour in about half your ice water (not including the cubes). Using a wooden spoon or a large fork, gently and quickly mix the water into the flour. Drizzle in remaining water as needed over any dry patches, about a tablespoon at a time. If you are using high-fat butter, which has a lower water content, you'll probably need more water than if you're using a regular supermarket brand. Stop when a handful of dough will just hold together when squeezed. A little crumbly is fine; it will get moister as it chills.
If you have time, it's a good idea to chill your dough before you roll it out. It's not crucial; I've gone straight from mixing to rolling to baking on occasion, and it worked just fine. However, chilling lets the butter firm up again before you roll, and cold butter leads to a flakier crust. Also, cold dough is less likely to turn into a a sticky, recalcitrant dough-child that flings itself face down onto the counter and refuses to come up without tearing once you start rolling.
Divide your dough into equal parts. Scoop the dough into two resealable plastic bags. Flatten each into a round, squeezing out any remaining air from the bag, and seal. Chill the dough for an hour in the freezer or 2 hours in the refrigerator. The dough can also be refrigerated for 1-2 days ahead of baking.
Lightly sprinkle a large, clean work surface with flour. Rub a light coating of flour on your rolling pin. Take 1 bag of dough out the freezer or fridge, remove its bag, and pat the dough into a roughly symmetrical round. Roll from the middle out to the edges, using the equal amounts of pressure as you go. After every few rolls, pick the dough up from the counter and revolve it a quarter turn. This helps keep the dough from sticking to your work surface. If it seems like it's sticking, loosen with a spatula, then sprinkle a little more flour underneath. Imagine you're rolling sun rays all the way around from the center of the dough.
If the dough keeps sticking to the rolling pin and/or counter, try rolling it out between two sheets of plastic wrap, waxed paper, or parchment paper. You can also sprinkle a small amount of flour over the dough, but be stingy.
Once you’ve got a nice, more-or-less round of evenly rolled dough, lift it into your pie pan. Press it gently into the pan. You should have about an inch of dough hanging over the edge; trim off any excess. Fold the extra dough inwards (towards the middle of the pie) to make a sort of flattened mesa or bulwark. Wrap the whole crust loosely in plastic wrap or waxed paper and return it to the fridge to chill while you make the filling.
Peel, core, and slice your apples. Toss with sugar, salt, and spices. Let stand for about 10 minutes, until there is a puddle of liquid at the bottom of the bowl. Pour the liquid into a small pan and boil, watching carefully, until it has cooked down to the consistency of maple syrup. Pour back into the bowl of apples. Sprinkle with flour and mix thoroughly.
Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Take the second bag out of the fridge, remove and roll like you did the first crust. When your large round of top crust is ready, take the bottom-crust-lined pie pan out of the fridge. Scoop your filling into the bottom crust. Drape the top crust over the filling, and trim off any extra so you have about 1/2 inch hanging over the edges. Tuck the excess crust under, pressing to join it to the bottom crust, making a thicker mesa/ridge this time.
You're almost done, but not yet. Crimping--making a decorative edge around the crust--is the artistic part of pie-shaping, and there are many, many ways to do this. I like to gently pinch the edge between the thumb and forefinger of each hand. You move up with the left hand, down with the right, going neatly all the way around the pie until the whole thing has been crimped. The main thing is do something, even if it’s just a plain or rolled ridge of dough along the edge. A good crimp will both keep any excess filling from spilling out and to make the pie look nice and finished. Too many pies just sort of peter out at the edges, with no definition--no, no, no. Define your boundaries, even if you're just flattening the two layers of dough together with fork tines.
To make the pastry leaves shown here, gather together your extra pastry scraps and roll out. Using a small, sharp knife, cut 4 or 5 leaf-shaped ovals. To make the leaf "veins," use the knife to mark a line down the center of each oval, then mark matching diagonal lines on either side. Be careful not to cut all the way through the pastry. Arrange the pastry leaves on the center of the top crust. You can also add "berries" by rolling a few small balls of dough and adding them where the leaves come together at the center. Using a sharp knife, slash top crust in several places to let steam escape.
If you want a little shine on your crust, brush with milk or half-and-half. Use a clean pastry brush if you have one (i.e., not the one you use to baste the turkey, which will be all clotted and stuck together with grease). If you're light-handed and very quick, you can dip your fingertips in the cream and brush it like that. You don't need to get into every crimp; just concentrate on the top dome.
Place your pie on a baking sheet. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes. Cover the edges with foil or a pie shield if they seem to getting too brown. The filling should be bubbling gently; sticky pie juices may drip out (hence the baking sheet). The apples within should be tender but not cooked to mush, and most importantly, the crust must be brown--distinctly golden on top, toasty around the edges. Having recently been a judge at CUESA's Pie Contest, sharing the duties at my table with professional bakers from Knead Patisserie and 3 Babes Bakeshop, we saw, with disappointment, so many sadly underbaked crusts. If you're using a clear Pyrex pan, look at that bottom crust, and look for gold, not platinum. A pallid crust is a soft, dull crust. Don't be nervous.
Take it out, put it on a cooling rack, and walk away. It may seem lovely to launch right into your hot-from-the-oven pie, but like turkey, pie needs time to collect itself. A hot pie is a runny, runny pie. You will cut the first piece and wonder how you went so wrong as all the juices in the pie gush to fill the slice-shaped hole. But, let the pie sit for a couple of hours, til it's on the room temperature side of warm, and your patience will be rewarded: crisp, almost-shattering crust, melting apples, just enough cinnamon-fragrant juice to prove that no gelatinous glop went into the making of your perfect pie.
Recipe: Classic Apple Pie
Personally, I love an apple pie with raisins in it, but I know this is a minority view. You could add dried cranberries, though, or even a handful of fresh ones, in which case you may want to bump up the sugar a little, since fresh cranberries are quite sour.
Makes 1 pie
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 oz (16 tablespoons/2 sticks) butter, preferably a high-fat, European style butter, chilled until very cold
6-8 tablespoons ice water
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
3 lbs apples, 8-10 apples, depending on size
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
generous pinch of allspice
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
For Shine on Crust:
1 tbsp milk or half-or-half, optional
1. To make the pie crust, pour water and vinegar into a glass measuring cup. Add a handful of ice cubes, and set aside.
2. Mix flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Using the large holes on a box grater, grate the butter into the flour. Toss lightly to coat butter curls with flour.
3. Pour half the water (not the cubes) into flour mixture. Stir gently with a wooden spoon to moisten the flour. Drizzle in remaining water (you may not need all of it) a tablespoon at a time, stirring gently, until you can just squeeze together a handful of dough. Stop adding water while dough is still slightly crumbly.
4. Flatten dough into two rounds and seal in a resealable plastic bag. Chill in freezer for 1 hour or in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
5. Sprinkle a work surface with flour. Using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the first dough round, moving from the center to the edges. After every 2-3 rolls, pick up the dough and rotate it a quarter turn to keep it from sticking to the counter.
6. Once dough is rolled evenly into a round about 2″ bigger than your pie plate, lift it up and drape it over the pie plate. Press gently into the pan.
7. Fold excess dough inwards to make an even ridge. Wrap loosely in plastic wrap and chill until needed.
8. To make the filling, peel, core, and slice the apples. Toss with sugar, spices, and salt. Let sit for 10 minutes.
9. Pour accumulated liquid from apples into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook, watching carefully, until liquid has reduced down to the consistency of maple syrup. Remove from heat and pour over apples. Sprinkle on flour and mix thoroughly.
10. Preheat oven to 400ºF. Remove second dough round from the fridge and roll out as above. Remove crust-lined pan from the fridge. Scoop filling into pan. Drape top crust over filling. Fold extra dough under to form a ridge around the edge of the pan. Crimp edges together. Brush lightly with milk or half-and-half, if desired. Using a sharp knife, slash top crust in several places to let steam escape.
11. Place pie on a baking sheet and bake for 45-60 minutes, covering edges with foil if they brown too fast.
12. When pie is done, remove from oven and let cool on a rack for at least 2 hours before cutting.