Uncommon Pie Tricks

It seems lately I've been defending/championing a few techniques used in pie making.  These techniques are very easy to achieve, and make the pie baking process so much more easy and consistant. 

The apples that you choose are very important.  Most people think apples are apples, but this is far from the case.  Picture potatoes: some potatoes are great for mashing, but make terrible fries, and some make great baked potatoes, but are mealy and crumbly as potato salad.  Much like how potatoes have vastly different starch/water/sugar content, so too do apples.

When it comes to apples, Granny Smiths are delicious raw, but are almost the worst apples to cook, due to their high acidity and water content.  I selected a trio of apples for their individual attributes.  This is a risky maneuver as well, and I might not recommend it.  The different apples cook at different speeds, so while one cooks to mush, yet another varietal will still barely be tender.  I chose Honeycrisps for their apple-y flavor, golden delicious for their moisture (which did not work out), and Fuji's for a starchiness, which makes a really nice creamy tender texture.

(Note: its also very important to pick apples at the height of their season, so try for a varietal which is local and ripe and in season.  Otherwise the water content, starch and sugar could be way off)

Ingredients for Filling:

9 each Apples (about 5 pounds)

1 pound Sugar

1 Tbs Cornstarch

1 ounce Butter

1 pinch Salt

2 Vanilla Beans, split

Interesting trick 1: most pie recipes call for a tremendoes amount of cinnamon.  I've subbed vanilla beans, which makes for very nice flavor, and doesn't overpower the apples.

First, toss the apples in half of the sugar and the salt and allow to sit for at least 20 minutes.  This will draw the water out of the apples so that they cook quickly and evenly from the inside-out.

When the apples are shiny and most of their moisture has come to the surface, place them in a wide pot with the 2 vanilla beans and bring to a simmer over medium heat.

Cook until the apples become just tender.

(you can tell this by eating them.  Stop cooking when they have a nice pie-like consistency.  Some people like it more al dente.  I like it very soft)

Mix the cornstarch and just enough water to create a smooth slurry.

Drizzle into the liquid of the apples, keep heat high and stir constantly to prevent clumping.

If you are satisfied with the thickness, set the filling aside to cool completely.  If you'd like it thicker, feel free to drizzle more slurry.  (Aim thick, the apples will continue to release moisture)

Its very important that the filling be completely cool. Reserve the 1 ounce of butter for the final assembly.

Now onto the important stuff: LARD!!!

I have a high sensitivity to vegetable shortening.  I understand this is not an uncommon affliction.  Shortening can be quite hard to digest for most people.  However, butter and margarine are both unsuitable ingredients, due to their water content.  This leaves good old, traditional, extremely natural, essentially healthy (in moderation) delicious lard.  Lard is rendered pork fat, essentially the stuff that comes out when you cook bacon.  (another cool trick, try to save that bacon lard and make a pie crust from that for quiches...or even apple pie - why not!?)

Lard is nothing to be afraid of, and once you see how flakey, crispy, yet tender a crust it makes.  Despite being essentially a meat product, one detects nothing but a nutty richness in the flavor and smell of the crust.  Go ahead, give it a try, you won't be sorry.

Ingredients for Crust:

- 3 cups All Purpose flour

- 1 pound Lard

- 7 ounces Water, cold

- 1 Tbs Salt

- 1 ounce Sugar

Start by slowly cutting the lard into the flour by hand.  Do not overwork, you only need to reduce the size of the lumps of lard to that of hazelnuts or peas, as in the picture on the left.

Mix the water with the salt and sugar.

Add to the mixture of lard and flour (in the picture you can see vanilla beans, it was worth a try, but I wouldn't recommend it, the flavor of the filling is sufficient.)

Very gently bring the dough together.

When the dough is combined, but still slightly crumbly, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for a half hour.

After the dough has chilled, split in half and sprinkle both halves liberally with flour.  Gently roll each half out to 1/8 ".

Lay the first half of the dough over the pie pan, cut off extra trim and make sure it conforms to the pan perfectly, without air bubbles.

(Note, cast iron, enamel, etc is far better for pie baking than aluminum.  Aluminum will give you a crappy bottom crust 10/10 times.  Next time I will not repeat this mistake.)

Poke holes to allow excess air to escape.

Fill with chilled pie filling from before, dot with the 1 ounce butter.

Cut the other half of the pie into leaf shapes.  This can definitely be done with a special cookie cutter.

Lay the leaves out over the filling.  Make sure the seal near the edge of the pie is as tight as possible, this is where the filling will most want to leak out, the further you can push this towards the center of the pie, the browner and crispier the crusts you will be able to get.

Crack and scramble an egg and paint over top crust, this will give a nice golden finish.

Sprinkle entire crust lightly with granulated sugar to give an extra crunch.

Bake pie at 375 - 400 degrees F until well browned and bubbly, at least 30-40 minutes.

Remove pie from oven and allow to cool completely before slicing.  This allows the starches to firm up and keep the juice in place.

The pie turned out pretty well, but it was far from perfect.  Next time, I will seal the outside of the crust more completely and use a cast iron pan.  Along with those two tips, try the following next time you  make a pie:

- Look for a few specific characteristics when choosing your fruits!

- Macerate fruits before cooking to break down for quick cooking.

- Pre-cook the filling for evenness and consistency

- Try vanilla or another spice to change things up from cinnamon.

- Allow the filling to cool completely before baking.

- Lard ROCKS!!

- Chill the crust before rolling it out.

- Eggwash and sprinkle granulated sugar for a beautiful golden crust.

Cool beans.

Ryan Shelton