Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t purport to be a baker. I am a cook. Anytime I am challenged to try making something that requires precise measuring, an oven, and technique, I am loath to jump in. That said, I have a few recipes in my repertoire that I consider things I can manage reasonably well with little effort or frustration. Mostly, these are items that are either a. incredibly easy, or b. things I’ve messed up enough times to finally know what I am doing. Pie crust is one of the latter.
Something everyone should know: “Easy as pie” is a complete misnomer. It’s not something that I think any amateur cook can just pick up and do and feel confident and successful. My first word of advice in this regard is to avoid any recipes written by Martha Stewart. Her recipes, especially those for baked goods, always seem to be written in a way where she sets you up for failure. I envision her cackling in the corner at my discouragement with every disaster I’ve made using her “guidance.” The only advice I take from her regarding pie crust is, “make it cold, bake it hot.”
Here is a good little list to use in pie making:
– use butter, and freeze it for a half hour before making your crust
– use a food processor, if at all possible
– pie crust is only four ingredients: butter, flour, salt, and water (that doesn’t mean pie crust is all that easy)
– use more fruit than you think you need (it is amazing how much it cooks down)
– make pies in a seasonal manner, ie, apple in the fall, berry in the summer, pecan anytime. =)
– chill the dough for at least a half hour after mixing before rolling it out
Speaking of mixing – I tried to make a video of me making pie crust, but it got a wee bit messed up, so we were only able to salvage the tail end. Regardless, I think it is pretty helpful in showing you what your pie dough should look like by the end of the process.
Basic Top and Bottom Pie Crust Recipe:
First, cut two sticks of chilled unsalted butter into small (half-inch-ish) cubes; place these in a bowl and put them into the freezer for 15-30 minutes. Put 2.5 cups of all-purpose flour in a food processor. Add chilled butter and pulse until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add a few pinches of kosher salt. Then, watch this:
After wrapping and chilling the dough disks for 30 minutes, your dough should be really easy to roll out – just be sure to lightly flour the dough, your rolling pin, and the rolling surface. Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect – do your best to roll it into a uniform layer big enough to fit into your pie dish. Once you have the dough into your baking dish, you can either “blind” bake it (without any filling) for a few minutes (this is good for cream pies and custard-based pies) or you can simply fill it, as I did for this apple pie. Some people put an egg wash or more butter on the bottom crust prior to baking to keep the crust from getting too soggy, but I don’t see the need for that; I like a soggy crust on the bottom and a crunchy crust on top – you get the best of both textures.
For the apples, I used a combination of Granny Smith and Macintosh. Both varieties are more on the tart side than something like a Red Delicious or Honey Crisp, and they both hold up well in baking. For the least sweet version, I would use all Granny Smith apples. Once you peel and slice the fruit, toss in a bowl with some regular sugar, a tablespoon or two of flour, and whatever warm spices you like. I used only cinnamon, but cloves, nutmeg, mace, and allspice would all be equally welcome. It’s best to let the fruit-flour-sugar-spice mixture sit for at least 15 minutes before putting it into the pie crust; this gives the flour a chance tighten up the filling before you bake it. Don’t be afraid to taste-test the mixture – it should be as sweet and spicy as you would like it to be, so use your instinct about how much sugar and spice to use.
Once the bottom crust is in and you’ve filled it with apples, lay your top crust over the top and seal the edges. I did a really simple seam for this pie (see below), but you can make it look fancy, too. Any old cookbook with a pie crust recipe will have some guidance on different ways to make a decorative edge.
The next important step is to cut vents into the top crust, which will ensure a crispy top crust and a caramelized fruit filling. Bake at 425 for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 until the fruit is cooked through (which you can test with paring knife), about another 20-30 minutes, depending on your oven.
I did nothing to promote crust browning for this pie, but you can brush the crust with milk or beaten egg yolk prior to baking. Unfortunately, you really have to let the pie cool completely (at least three hours) before eating. Believe me, it is worth the wait.