Is there any (non-chocolate) dessert so compelling as a slice of warm apple pie, topped with vanilla ice cream? Is there any baking challenge so daunting, so fraught with anxiety, so filled with high expectations (and so liable to shipwreck on the rocky shores of failure) as apple pie? Methinks not. Mesothinks fear of apple pie is totally unfounded.
I admit, making pie crust isn't nearly as simple as stirring together muffin batter or beating up cookie dough. The ultimate flaky, buttery pie crust is something I've been chasing for years. And haven't yet captured. But after decades of baking pie at Thanksgiving and Christmas; after a trip to the orchard or the berry patch, or simply as the result of finding frozen peaches on sale, I've become an OK crust baker. And OK homemade crust, IMHO, beats frozen supermarket crust hands-down – if not for ease of preparation, then certainly for the list of ingredients. Just take a look at the nutrition panel of a frozen pie crust sometime. Here's a sample: “Enriched Flour Bleached (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Partially Hydrogenated Lard with BHA and BHT Added to Protect Flavor, Wheat Starch, Water, Contains 2% or Less of: Salt, Rice Flour, Xanthan Gum, Potassium Sorbate and Sodium Propionate (Preservatives), Citric Add, Yellow 5 and Red 40.” Compare that to what's in your homemade crust: flour, salt, butter, shortening, and water. Don't like shortening? Make that flour, salt, butter, and water. Thanksgiving's coming. Think what a hero you'll be if you bring The Best Apple Pie Ever to the festivities! If you've got a favorite recipe, dust it off and start thinking about apple varieties. If you've never baked an apple pie – have I got a recipe for you! Come on, take my hand – we'll do this together. First, the apples. Here in Vermont, we're exceedingly privileged to have access to TONS of good apples every fall: crisp, juicy, just-picked gems of every variety imaginable. And here at King Arthur we're right next door to Killdeer Farms' stand, which makes “apple picking” a simple matter of browsing the selection. Hmmm, which should I choose? With 26 varieties, I could bake apple pie every day for weeks, and still not try them all! Well, there're always Cortlands, the old standby of many an apple-pie baker. These crab apples are gorgeous, but way too small; I'd be forever peeling and coring them! After happy minutes spent perusing the selection, and reading the description of each, I finally made my decision. Green Mountain Granny (l), and Northern Spy (r). Next, the crust. Shall I use my favorite flour in the whole world, King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour? Or our Perfect Pastry Blend, a lower-protein flour perfect for pie crust, biscuits, cookies, scones, and other tender baked goods? Today, I'll go with King Arthur AP. Just because I know you all have it in your kitchen (or SHOULD have it, considering it's the world's best flour: no brag, just fact.) Try the Perfect Pastry Blend when you get a chance, though; it's awesome for the tender side of your baking repertoire. Put the following in a bowl: 2 1/2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour or Perfect Pastry Blend 3/4 teaspoon salt* 1/3 cup vegetable shortening *If you plan on using salted butter in the next step, reduce the salt to 1/2 teaspoon. Cut in the shortening until it's in uneven lumps, up to the size of small peas. Dice 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter into 1/2" pieces, and add them to the bowl. Work the butter into the mixture until you have flakes the size of your fingernail. Dribble in 7 to 10 tablespoons ice water, stopping when the dough comes together. When you can squeeze the dough together like this – without any crumbs falling off – it's good to go. Divide the dough into two pieces, one slightly larger than the other. The larger piece will be the bottom crust. When I made this pie, the total weight of the crust was 20 ounces; I divvied the dough into 11-ounce and 9-ounce pieces. Roll each of the disks on its side, like a wheel, to smooth out the edges. This step will ensure your dough will roll out evenly, without a lot of cracks and splits at the edges. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes, while you make the filling. Dough can be refrigerated overnight; let it warm at room temperature for 15 minutes or so before rolling. I'll start with the Green Mountain Grannies - between 3 and 4 pounds should do it. And my handy-dandy apple peeler/corer/slicer. Just stick an apple on the prongs, turn the handle, and it's peeled, cored, and sliced – in under 10 seconds. A few quick strokes with a knife... ...yield perfect apple pieces. Your goal: 8 cups sliced apples. Put the apples in a large bowl. Put the following in a bowl: 3/4 cup sugar 2 tablespoons King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour 2 tablespoons cornstarch 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon allspice Whisk to combine. Drizzle the apples with 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Toss to combine. Had I done this sooner, right after the apples were peeled, they wouldn't have browned so much. But I figure, heck, they'll brown anyway as they bake; so why sweat the small stuff? Here it comes, my absolute favorite apple pie secret ingredient: boiled cider. I'm using 1/4 cup boiled cider here to heighten the flavor of the apples. Don't have boiled cider? Use maple syrup, or honey, or undiluted apple juice concentrate. Or nothing at all, if that's your preference. Toss to combine. Add the dry ingredients. Toss to combine. THOROUGHLY combine. The apples will begin to get syrupy. Now, back to the crust. Start with the larger piece of dough. Place it on a well-floured surface; our rolling mat makes rolling and cleanup easy. Roll the dough into an even circle. Pick it up occasionally as you roll, to make sure it isn't sticking. Thank you, giant spatula - my favorite pie buddy. I've rolled the crust into a 12” circle here, but 13” is actually better, especially if you'll be using a 1 1/2”-deep pie pan. Do as I say, not as I do! Lightly grease a 9” pie pan; it should be about 1 1/2” deep, and certainly no shallower than 1 1/4”. Why grease the pan? Doesn't the crust have enough fat in it so it won't stick? Just a little trick I use with apple pie. I've found that apple pies can be VERY juicy, and some of the juice inevitably boils up, over, and down the side of the crust into the bottom of the pan. Greasing the pan makes it easier to get slices out intact. Pick up the crust... ...and place it in the pan. I like to sprinkle some coarse, dry bread crumbs, such as Panko, into the bottom of the crust; they help soak up any excess apple juice, which helps keep the bottom crust nice and crisp. Heap the filling in the crust, and dot with 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces. Roll the top crust into an 11” circle, and gently lay it atop the filling. Press the top and bottom crusts together to seal. Press with a fork... ...or crimp. Like this. Prick or slash the top of the crust. This lets steam escape, hopefully preventing the dreaded “filling sunken far below the crust” effect. If desired, brush the crust with milk or cream... ...and sprinkle with coarse sparkling sugar. Time to start heating the oven to 425°F. I like to give the pie a good chill in the freezer for 30 minutes before baking. This helps solidify the butter and fat in the crust, which encourages flakiness. Place the pie on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake the pie for 20 minutes at 425°F, then reduce the oven temperature to 375°F and bake for 40 minutes more, until you see the filling bubbling. This is exactly why you bake pie on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Imagine scraping that mess off the floor of your oven! Remove the pie from the oven, leaving it right on the baking sheet, to catch any further drips. Boy, the “A” for apple looks really lame. Next time I'll just cut some plain old slashes. But never minds its looks. This pie is flat-out tasty. Dig in! But please, not until it's completely cool. It's far better to let the pie cool completely, then rewarm individual slices briefly in the microwave; than to cut into a hot pie, remove one slice, and see half the filling flow into the breach. Apple pie really isn't the most distinguished or handsome pie out there; I mean, if lemon meringue is regal, apple is the embodiment of humble. But oh, the tangy-sweet apple flavor, touched with cinnamon... the tender crust flaking into shards under its burden of filling... Doesn't this just invite you to pick up a fork and have at it? OK, let's wrap up that apple experiment we started with. I made this same recipe with Northern Spy apples - and it was wonderful, superior to the Green Mountain Grannies. The folks on our Facebook page told me Northern Spies were awesome; guys, you were right! Oh, and one more thing: I wanted to test assembling the pie ahead (but not baking it); freezing it, then baking it later. Here's what I found: it's much better to thaw a frozen pie in the fridge overnight, then bake; than to bake it straight from the freezer. The bake time for a frozen pie is so long, the crust dries out before the filling is cooked. Read, rate, and review (please) our recipe for Guaranteed Apple Pie.