The Perfect Apple Pie
The late, great Carl Sagan once said “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe”. Within context, it’s a comment on how the constituent particles that make up the world around us all had to have come from somewhere else, and we’re just kind of rearranging things that are already here. Out of context, it seems like the most complex recipe ever written. Inventing an entire universe for the sake of a dessert might be bit out of the question, but whether you’re a home cook or a professional, like myself, a few tips and tricks can certainly bring your apple pie to a whole new level.
Any good pie starts with the crust. I don’t care how great your filling is or if the recipe is your grandmother's grandmother's; If the crust doesn’t stack up, the pie becomes lesser as a whole. Thankfully, only a handful of ingredients separate you from pie crust glory: flour, fat, salt and liquid (maybe some sugar if you’re feeling frisky).
Flour isn’t something you have to mess around with much, if at all. All-purpose works fine; if you prefer unbleached, whole grain, etc. that’s really up to you. I recently experimented with grinding my own flour, which I really don’t suggest for this kind of application
For fats, the usual go-to is shortening. Widely available, cheap, and easy to work with, shortening makes for a very serviceable pie crust. Are you really going for serviceable though? We want the best of the best. Butter gives the best flavor and also contributes more to the texture than shortening ever could. If you’re like me and want to take it a step further, using 50% butter and 50% pork lard is the way to go.
Mixing of the crust may be the most crucial step. An underworked dough will simply fall apart, but an overworked dough will be too tough and difficult to bite through. Balance is key here. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Food Lab fame suggests processing just a portion of the flour with the butter initially before adding the remainder in a second phase. Glutenin and gliadin are the two proteins that interact to form gluten, but they can only do so in certain conditions; Processing the flour with fat is one way to limit their ability to form gluten, making your crust more flaky and less dense. Alcohol also limits the formation of gluten, so for an ultra-flaky crust I swap out water with vodka. Alton Brown suggests applejack for a more apple-y flavor in the crust, but I like the crust to be the crust and the filling to be the filling.
Speaking of filling, we wouldn’t be here without the apples themselves. Apple season is coming into full swing here in the Green Mountain state, and we’re lucky to have a wealth of orchards to pick from. Traditionally, you’d only use one variety of apple, and that variety would depend on who taught you the recipe and at what time of year. However, mixing a few different types of apples to balance the flavor is now fairly common practice. About 50% of your apples should be a sweet variety, such as Golden & Red Delicious, Gala or or Fuji. Personally, I use about 25% Gala and 25% Pink Lady. The next 35% should be tart, like Northern Spy or McIntosh. For me, nothing beats Granny Smith for tartness. The last portion can fall into one of two categories: Bitter-Sweet or Bitter-Tart. Apples of these varieties will add a bit more sweetness or tartness, but also have plenty of tannin to balance those flavors. Those two categories cover a lot of ground as far as particular varietals, but I always like a good Cortland or Macoun.
The final piece of the puzzle is the seasoning. Cinnamon,nutmeg, allspice and even star anise have all played their parts over the years, and while they’re certainly not anything to turn your nose up at, I prefer an apple pie that tastes like apples. Weird, right? Alton Brown’s Super Apple Pie recipe calls for an unusual mix that I have come to love more and more as I keep making it: apple butter, apple cider, lime juice and a little salt. The kicker is Grains of Paradise, a spice commonly used in beer brewing and once used as a substitute for black pepper.
Now, with all this knowledge at your disposal, you could feel free to pick and choose what you like to make your go-to recipe a bit better. But much like Voltron, all the parts can come together to form something greater than their sum.
Perfect Apple Pie
makes 1 pie
For the Crust
All-Purpose Flour, 350g
Granulated Sugar, 25g
Kosher Salt, 5g
Butter Unsalted, cut to ¼” cubes, 140g
Pork Lard, cut to ¼” cubes, 140g
Vodka, cold, 3floz
Combine 231g flour with sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse twice to incorporate. Spread butter chunks evenly over surface. Pulse until no dry flour remains and dough just begins to collect in clumps, about 25 short pulses. Use a rubber spatula to spread the dough evenly around the bowl of the food processor. Sprinkle with remaining flour and pulse until dough is just barely broken up, about 5 short pulses. Transfer dough to a large bowl. Sprinkle with water then using a rubber spatula, fold and press dough until it comes together into a ball. Divide ball in half. Form each half into a 4-inch disk. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
For the Filling
Gala or Pink Lady Apple, 3 each
Granny Smith Apple, 2 each
Cortland or Macoun Apple, 1 each
Granulated Sugar, 100g
Tapioca Flour, Arrowroot, or Cornstarch, 24g
Apple Butter, 28g
Apple Cider, ½floz (1 tablespoon)
Juice of 1 Lime (about 2 teaspoons)
Kosher Salt, 2g
Grains of Paradise or Black Pepper, freshly ground, 1g
Set one rack in the oven to the lowest position, one rack above that and preheat oven to 425℉. Peel and core apples and cut into ½ wedges. Toss with sugar, starch, apple butter, cider, lime juice, salt and grains of paradise. Remove one disk of dough from the refrigerator. Place the dough onto a lightly floured piece of wax paper. Lightly flour the top of the dough and roll out into a 12” circle. Place into a 9½-10” pie plate or tart pan. Gently press the dough into the sides of the pan, crimping and trimming the edges as needed. Add seasoned apples to bottom crust, reserving any remaining liquid. Roll out the second disk of dough the same as the first, and top pie with second crust. Press edges of dough together to seal, crimping and trimming as needed. Brush top crust with reserved liquid from apples. Cut four slits in the center of the crust to vent steam. Place pie plate on a parchment-lined sheet tray and place onto lowest position in oven. Bake for 30 minutes, transfer to next highest rack and continue baking for 20 minutes. Allow pie to cool to almost room temperature before slicing and serving.
As you may or may not know, there’s an old English saying that “an apple pie without the cheese is like a kiss without the squeeze”, so it seems almost a tragedy to serve such a great pie without a nice hunk of cheese on the side. If you can get it, I really like the Original from Plymouth Artisan Cheese in Plymouth, Vermont; Butter and nutty, the flavors compliment the sweetness of the pie really well. Your favorite sharp cheddar will have some of the same flavors, and will work just as well.