There are two things I love about pie – the pastry and the filling.
Ok, so I love everything about pies! After all, what’s not to love? What could be better than a warm, flakey crust that breaks gently under your fork paired with a warm sweet fruit filling? It’s a dessert that pleases your heart as much as your taste buds. It’s sort of the chicken noodle soup of the dessert world.
If I had to choose which is more important to me in a pie, the pastry or the filling, I’d probably be forced to go with the pastry (although the two components truly are inseparable). I like a pastry made of butter, rather than shortening. The butter gives the pastry great flavor and a crisp texture. Shortening does make a flakey crust, but I can’t go without the flavor of butter. Sometimes I do compromise, however, and accept a pastry made of both.
The rule to making pastry is simple – keep everything cold. The goal is to work butter into the dough without completely blending it into the flour. In a finished pastry, you should still be able to see chunks of butter. Those patches of butter will separate the proteins in the flour when baked, making it more like flaky pastry than chewy bread. By keeping the butter cold, you run less risk of blending it into the flour. By using ice-cold water, you also increase your chances of keeping the butter in small chunks.
How the pastry is baked is critical. It’s easy to get the top crust to look perfectly golden brown, but it’s the bottom crust that needs help cooking through and crisping up. It is the bottom crust after all that is sitting at the bottom of a pie pan with moist fruit filling piled on top. You can see how it would be a challenge to ensure the bottom crust is cooked through and has that prized pie texture. There are a few things a home baker can do to get the pastry cooked properly on the bottom of a pie.
First of all, you can partially blind-bake the bottom crust. This simply means to partially bake the bottom crust, alone with no filling inside. When blind baking, you’ll need to weigh down the dough in the pie plate to stop it from rising up and doming in the center. You can use a variety of objects to weigh the pastry down. Ceramic pie weights can be found in gourmet stores. Ceramic distributes the heat evenly, helping to conduct heat to the pastry underneath. Dried beans or uncooked rice can also be used, but be sure to discard them afterwards. Copper pennies work effectively as well, but remember they will be super hot when they come out of the oven, so handle them carefully. Whatever you choose to use, line your pastry with some parchment paper first and then weigh it down.
Another way to help the bottom crust bake, brown and cook through properly is to use a mesh pie pan. These are relatively new on the market, but I’ll be featuring a set of 2 mesh pie pans on QVC tonight (Wednesday, November 28th) at 9pm. The great thing about a mesh pie pan is that the very bottom of it is almost open to the hot dry oven air. That allows the pastry to evaporate some of its moisture rather than being trapped in a closed ceramic, glass or metal pan. The result is that it is able to brown and crisp up faster. Of course, the top crust will still cook faster than the bottom, but pies like everything else need to bake all the way through, so just cover the top with aluminum foil while the bottom crust and the filling continues to cook.
If you follow the simple rules for making pastry and throw in a couple of tricks to crisp the bottom crust up properly, making a pie can really give you a sense of satisfaction. There are hundreds of recipes for pie pastry and for pies in general – enough to keep a home baker busy for a lifetime of pie baking. But that’s the double beauty to pies – a pie can be just as fulfilling and enjoyable to the baker, as it is to the eater!
Mile High Apple Pie
Apples shrink down when baked in an apple pie, so to make this pie a “mile” high, you’ll need more apples than you think. Straining the juice from the apples and simmering it before returning it to the apples produces a thicker pie filling without losing any of the great apple flavor.
- Basic Pie Dough for a 2 (9-inch) circles
- 9 cups peeled, cored and sliced apples (about 3 pounds; ½-inch slices)
- cup brown sugar
- cup granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling on top
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg (or preferably freshly grated nutmeg)
- ¼ teaspoon allspice
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 4 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1 to 2 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- Pre-heat the oven to 425˚ F.
- Roll out the pastry circles on a floured surface until they are about ¼-inch thick. Place one circle of rolled out dough into the pie dish and gently press the dough into the edges of the dish. Trim the edges of the pastry and refrigerate the pie shell for 30 minutes. Place the other circle of dough in the refrigerator, either rolling it up in parchment paper or a silicone baking sheet.
- Combine the apples, sugars and spices in a large bowl and toss together. Let this sit and macerate for at least 30 minutes. Strain the apples through a colander into a bowl, reserving the liquid. Bring this liquid to a simmer in a small saucepan on the stove and reduce it almost by half.
- Toss the apples with the cornstarch and then return the reduced liquid to the mix. Transfer the apples to the pie dish with the rolled out pastry. Pile the apples high in the dish and dot the apples with the butter. Drape the remaining rolled out pastry circle over the top.
- Brush the lower edge of the pastry with water, and seal the top edge of the pastry down on the bottom edge. Once sealed together, trim the pastry around the dish. Make 5 or so slits or cut outs in the pastry to allow steam to escape during cooking. Brush the surface of the pie with the lightly beaten egg, and sprinkle the surface with sugar.
- Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350˚ F and continue to bake for another 20 to 25 minutes. If at any point the edges of the crust are getting too dark, cover the edges with aluminum foil. The pie is finished when nicely browned on top and the apples inside are tender and soft when pierced with a paring knife through one of the vent slits.
Good apple varieties for apple pie are: Cortland, Jonathan, Baldwin, Golden Delicious, Pink Lady, Pippin or Granny Smith.