We cleared the dinner plates from our holiday dinner. A break would be essential before dessert. The centerpiece was now an array of freshly baked pies: apple, pumpkin, and lemon meringue. Percolated coffee and steeped tea would be ready as soon as dessert forks and plates were stacked next to my mother, who would serve the pies. This was our family tradition for Thanksgiving. But throughout the year, my mother baked pies for other holidays or simply because it was a Sunday. When extended family members joined us, there might be a fourth type of pie on the table. With this abundance of pies, we knew we could look forward to another slice later in the evening, once our guests were gone and our tummies could be persuaded to have just one more slice.
My mother’s pie-making fame came primarily from the exceptional quality of her pie crusts. She paid meticulous attention to the method she used at each step of the pie dough process.
If your pie crust recipe already yields heavenly results, please feel free to skip directly to the recipe for Your Delicious Apple Pie. What follows here is what I mean by “meticulous attention.” If you read through my mother’s guidance even once, you’re bound to remember some of Mom’s lessons and to have greater success in your future pie-making efforts!
My mother allowed me to apprentice with her when it became obvious that I loved to cook. I was eleven years old. If you have avoided making pie crust from scratch, you could apprentice to no one better than my mother. And this is what she taught me:
- It’s time to bring together the ingredients for the pie crust for your delicious apple pie. You’ll need to gather all-purpose flour, shortening (or slightly softened butter), salt, and ice water. As with any recipe, measure and prepare all the ingredients before starting. Be careful not to pack the measuring cup when measuring the flour. Spoon the flour into the cup and level the top with the straight edge of a blade. While measurements for most dishes don’t need to be exact, baking generally requires exact measurements. Place the two cups of flour in a flour sifter with ¾ teaspoon of salt. Sift into a medium-size mixing bowl. Sifting will result in a flakier, lighter pie crust.
- Measure the amount of shortening (or slightly softened butter) using the displacement method. A double-crust pie takes ⅔ cup of shortening. In a onecup measuring cup with a flat edge, you will add ⅓ cup of ice water. Add the shortening one rounded tablespoon at a time, carefully pushing it down so that no air bubbles are beneath the shortening and water. You’ll have exactly ⅔ cup of shortening when the water is flat across the top of the cup and none has spilled over. Now it’s time to drain the water.
- With a wire pastry cutter, cut the shortening into the flour, scraping the wires with a long-tined fork. These two tools make it much easier to complete this step for the pie crust dough. Be careful that you work with a minimum of handling. This will help the pie crust to be light and flaky in texture. Only mix until the dough has begun to form into pea-sized clumps.
- The ice water you’ll add is a mixture of cold water and ice cubes. Be sure it has stayed “ice cold” up to this step. Pie dough comes together differently depending on room temperature and humidity as well as the age of the flour. So, sprinkle in the ice water one tablespoon at a time, then stir with the long-tined fork to mix thoroughly. After mixing in about 5 tablespoons of water, decide whether the dough has the right consistency: not too wet, not too dry. Be patient. It takes time to develop an accurate sense of the right consistency for the dough. The dough has to stick to itself well enough that it can be rolled out without tearing, but not so wet that it sticks to a flour-dusted rolling pin. Take a small amount to pinch gently before deciding whether the consistency is right.
While these first four steps require attention to the method used, it is acquiring the skill needed to roll out pie dough into an even circle that is going to make you proud! Keep in mind my mother’s lesson about minimum handling!
- Scoop a bit of flour from the flour jar and sprinkle that over a linen pastry cloth on a flat work surface. Split the dough into two equal-sized pieces. Form an even disk with one of the pieces and place on the floured surface. Cover the other piece so that it does not begin to dry. For the first dough, lift from the pastry cloth, dust the pastry cloth lightly again, and flip the dough disc over. This way, both the top and bottom are slightly dusted with flour, reducing the chance of the dough sticking to the floured rolling pin.
- Roll out the bottom sheet of dough.
- Dust the rolling pin to ensure the dough rolls out evenly into a circle.
- Roll out the dough with a light touch in one direction, starting at the center. Continue with this process going around the flattening sheet of dough, making sure that the thickness of the dough is even at the end of each cycle. Don’t overwork the dough. The sheet of dough should remain close to the shape of a circle.
- Continue gently rolling out the dough until it has a diameter of about 13-14 inches (for a 9.5-inch deep-dish pie pan). Be sure that the dough will be easy to remove from the pastry cloth. If it seems like it is sticking while you are still rolling out the dough, lift the sheet of dough gently and dust the pastry cloth with a little more flour.
- If a crack begins to appear, moisten the top of one side of the crust near the crack and moisten the bottom of the other side. Gently press the two sides together. Dust lightly with flour and roll just enough to ensure the two pieces are joined.
It takes practice for most people to master rolling out a pie crust, but—like riding a bicycle—once you get it right, you’ll get it right in the future. Be patient with yourself and comforted by the knowledge that the pie will be delicious even if it isn’t beautiful.
That said, this was my mother’s cardinal rule: If the dough doesn’t come together or roll out well, throw it away and start again. A pie maker has to be comfortable with this imperative. It should be a relief to know this rather than to consider the effort to be a “failure”: You can always try again; these ingredients are not expensive. (I learned on my own over the decade following my apprenticeship that when the dough doesn’t roll out well—too many cracks or too sticky—the problem occurred because I misjudged the amount of ice water to add.)
It’s time to move the bottom sheet of pie dough to the pie plate.
- Use the pastry cloth to gently fold the dough in half but do not allow the dough to crack. Gently lift the dough so that you can place the fold at the middle of the plate. Open the sheet of dough and gently lay it out so that it fits smoothly against the bottom and side of the plate, using only slight pressure. Trim the excess dough so that it hangs over the sides by only 1 inch.
- Repeat the step of rolling out the pie crust with the remaining dough. Once the pie filling is placed over the bottom pie crust, gently lay the folded top sheet of dough over the filling. Trim the excess dough to 1 inch, then gently press the pieces together. Fold the lightly pressed dough lip under and crimp or flute the edge.
Okay. Crimping or fluting is not that hard. One easy method just requires the thumb and first finger on both hands. With a double-crusted fruit pie, the crimping is mostly decorative, but it does ensure that no pie filling will leak out along the edge, which would make the crust stick to the pie plate when you’re ready to serve slices of pie. To crimp, place the thumb of one hand so that it will press a little of the dough to the outer edge while placing the finger of the other hand so that it will pull a little of the dough toward the inner edge in the space next to where the thumb is. Repeat this until you’ve gone entirely around the pie edge.
- When fruit pies are baking, they let off some steam and the inner temperature and moisture level must be controlled. So, you need some cuts in the top pie crust dough to help with that. Use a very sharp knife, such as a paring knife. Here’s what I do: Make a few short cuts in a straight line through the midline (diameter). Turn the pie plate and repeat with a few short cuts in a straight line that is perpendicular to the first short cuts. You now have four equal-size sections in the pie crust dough. Repeat the same process so that you have a total of eight equal-size sections. Now your pie is ready to bake!
I believe each of these skills falls in the category of “implicit knowledge”—a condition in which you know how to do something but can’t imagine how to explain it adequately. An apprenticeship is an ideal way to share implicit knowledge. The best alternative most of us have today is to practice what we’ve learned by reading and practicing. The story goes that my mother’s pies were not very good at first. But after a while of paying close attention to the dough at each step, my mother enjoyed many decades of offering a legendary pie experience.
When you’ve mastered Mom’s techniques, you can offer her a silent thank-you.
Your Delicious Apple Pie
Apples are sweet, so add just enough sugar to the apples to help the juices thicken and to balance the lemon juice. You can make the filling with no sugar at all if you are careful not to pour juices into the crust when transferring the apples.
For the apple filling
- 6 cups peeled, cored, and sliced baking apples, such as Granny Smith
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (a little more if you want a tarter apple pie)
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon allspice
- ⅛ teaspoon cardamom
- ⅛ teaspoon salt (or ¼ teaspoon if you are not watching sodium intake)
For the pie crust
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pastry cloth
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ⅔ cup unflavored vegetable shortening or slightly softened unsalted butter
- ¾ cup cold water plus ice (in a 1 cup measuring cup) plus ⅓ cup for measuring shortening
- 1 tablespoon milk (optional)
For the apple filling
- Place prepared apple slices in a very large mixing bowl. Sprinkle lemon juice over the apples and toss to evenly dthe lemon juice.
- Combine sugar, flour, spices, and salt in a small bowl.
- Sprinkle a tablespoon of this dry mixture over the apples and toss to distribute. Continue this process until all of the dry mixture evenly coats the apples. Put aside.
- This is a good time to preheat the oven to 425° F. if you’re going to make the crust immediately. The oven should be at temperature for at least 15 minutes before baking the pie.
For the pie crust
- Have ready a 9.5” deep-dish pie plate.
- Sift together flour and salt in a medium-size mixing bowl.
- Using a hand-held wire- or blade-style pastry cutter, cut the shortening into the flour. Continue cutting just until dough forms pea-sized clumps.
- Add 1 tablespoon at a time of ice water, mixing to distribute evenly in the dough. Continue to add and mix in ice water 1 tablespoon at a time until the dough is soft and smooth.
- On a flat surface, dust pastry cloth with flour.
- Cut dough into two equal-size pieces. Cover one piece in the mixing bowl and transfer the other to the dusted pastry cloth.
- Shape dough into a disk, being sure that dough sticks together uniformly. Flatten slightly on the pastry cloth. Lift, dust the pastry cloth a little more, flip the dough disk over, and place back on the pastry cloth.
- Roll out the dough to a 13” diameter. Lift one edge of the pastry cloth and gently lay one half of the dough over the other half.
- Lift the dough from the pastry cloth and lay evenly over the pie plate, lightly smoothing the dough to fit the shape of the plate, with a 1” lip beyond the top of the plate.
- Roll out the other piece of dough in the same way and place aside (unfolded).
For assembling and baking
- Once the bottom layer of pie dough is laid out in the pie plate, toss the apples again. With a slotted spoon, add apples and spread evenly. Some of the juices will remain in the mixing bowl.
- Lay the other sheet of dough over the apples, with a 1” lip over the rim of the pie plate. Gently press together the top and bottom dough around the rim. Fold the edge under all around the rim to seal. Crimp/flute the pie dough along the rim decoratively.
- With a very sharp knife, make a few short cuts into the top layer of dough. Optionally, brush lightly with milk to obtain a more golden crust.
- Place pie on the middle shelf of the preheated oven for 40-45 minutes. After 25 minutes, place a pie rim protector over the rim to control the amount of browning. When the filling’s juices begin to bubble and the crust is golden, the pie will be baked. Remove the rim protector and move the pie to a cooling rack. Serve slightly warm or chilled.
This reminded me so much of my Mother trying to teach me how to make her fabulous pie crusts. Her pies were legendary also. And it started with her light flaky crust. I had to smile when I read the importance of “pea sized” as that’s exactly what my Mother had me aim for. She used Crisco and her hands but it all came out delicious. She had so many specialty pies. Coconut banana cream. Raisin. Mincemeat. Lemon meringue. She always did the best meringue. So tricky I found. Fresh Strawberry. Of course Apple and Pumpkin. Chocolate pudding pie. Never ever used a box mix for anything ever. On our birthdays we got to pick out the pie we wanted. We could of had cake which she also made well. But we always chose pie. I dithered for days over what I wanted when it was my birthday.