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Culinarily Curious: Lessons in apple pie failure

Posted by Alex Pearlman  November 7, 2011 05:20 PM

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IMG_0028.JPGBy Anthony Howard

Thanksgiving is coming up, and I want to contribute something to this year's Turkey Day feast. While I'm not quite ready for the responsibility of roasting the bird -- or for taking the blame if something goes wrong and we all end up eating pizza -- I figured an apple pie might be a good place to start. But after making three different ones in the past month, I've learned something: The pie always wins!

In the interest of full disclosure, I'd never made a homemade pie before and don't necessarily have the best track record when it comes to pastry, so I enlisted my best friend and roommate Ashley's help. I'd strongly suggest you have a friend help you, too -- I might have gone crazy from pie defeat without her.

We made our first pie simply because we had a surplus of apples from a pick-your-own adventure out in Western Mass. At the stand, the clerk told us we'd "have to search to find the good ones. It’s been a bad season this year.” If that’s not an omen, I don’t know what is.

IMG_0023.JPGBut our freshmen adventure in pie-making didn’t turn out so bad: Oh, sure, the apples weren't as good as we'd hoped, and we forgot to put butter in the crust and didn't get that delicious, golden-brown coloring because we didn’t have eggs to brush on it -- but the filling was perfectly gooey.

(Photo: Our first, butter-less crust. It looks good, but it was a little too dry.)

Inspired by that first attempt, we eagerly anticipated making a second pie. We remembered the butter in the crust, used Granny Smith apples instead, and spent so much time preparing the crust, cutting the apples, and getting the filling just right. We really thought this was going to be the one!

IMG_0215.JPGAs we removed the pie from the oven and marveled at the wonderful smells emanating from it, we saw a golden, delicious-looking crust (the recipe is below); it looked like a real winner. We impatiently let it cool -- not for nearly as long as we should have because we were too excited -- and eagerly made the first cut into the flaky crust.

(Photo: A homemade pie crust shouldn't look like you bought it from a store. Appreciate the quirky qualities of your crust -- this one was superb!)

Sadly, the interior was really watery; the pie looked like apple soup in a bread bowl, which meant there wasn’t enough flour to absorb the liquid in the filling. We'd also cubed the apples this time around, so they were all over the place. While the pie didn't slice well, it still tasted good; the Granny Smiths' sourness balanced out the overall sweetness perfectly. But it was still a failure, and I wasn't ready to accept defeat.

IMG_0224.JPGFor our third endeavor, we added more flour in the filling to prevent another pie porridge problem; we also sliced the apples to make it easier to cut the finished product. And then we set the timer and prayed to Martha Stewart that this would be the one, finally.

(Photo: Slices, not cubes, work best for an easy-to-cut pie.)

Nope -- like a slap in the face, we discovered our pie was just as watery as before. I felt anger, defeat, and humiliation all at once...and I finally threw in the dishtowel.

So while I wanted desperately to write about my pie success in this space, I'll instead share the things I learned along the way:

  1. Granny Smith apples are the best apples for a pie. With a sweet filling, you want an apple that has complementing bitter and sour qualities. Grannies also hold up really well in the cooking process and don’t turn into mush.

  2. IMG_0194.JPG
  3. Slice your apples into quarter-inch pieces and layer them. It'll make it easier to cut the pie later. (Photo: That's what not to do!)

  4. Make sure you absolutely have all the ingredients you need. We had to grind cinnamon sticks in a blender because we were out of ground cinnamon. It was quite comical, actually.

  5. Don’t be afraid to add plenty of flour to your filling. It's necessary to soak up the water that the cooking process extracts from the apples. (Photo: More flour than this even!)
  6. IMG_0255.JPG
  7. Don’t have your heart set on a pie that looks like it belongs on the cover of a magazine. A human hand, not a machine, made that crust, so it should have a little bit of character.
The one positive to this whole ordeal is the bit of leftover crust dough sitting in my freezer; it'll make an excellent quiche or cinnamon twist one day. The recipe is largely based on The Joy of Cooking, but we did make a few ingredient and procedural adjustments.

ANTHONY AND ASHLEY'S HOMEMADE CRUST

IMG_0245.JPGIngredients:

4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 cups lard
4 tablespoons chilled butter
About 5 tablespoons cold water
1 egg

(Photo: Mix all that stuff up there together to get this.)

Method:

  1. Mix flour and salt together by hand in a large bowl until salt is fully incorporated into the flour.

  2. In a small bowl, mix together lard and butter until uniform.

  3. If you have a food processor, cut half the butter/lard mixture into the dough and pulse until the flour has the texture of cornmeal. If you don’t have a food processor, you can use your hands to do this just as well. Cut the other half of the butter/lard mixture slowly into the mixture until you have pea-sized pieces. (Photo: This crust mixture has nearly reached pea-sized pieces. A fork makes this process really easy.)
  4. IMG_0170.JPG
  5. Using a fork, incorporate 4 tablespoons of cold water into the mixture until it becomes a dough. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of cold water if necessary.

  6. Form the dough into a ball.
You can now roll out the dough and use this as a crust in whatever recipe you like. Brush the dough with one egg mixed with a dash of water to achieve a golden finish.

Do you have any pie-making tips? Share them in the comments!

'Culinarily Curious' is TNGG Boston's column on all things food, written by Anthony Howard.

About Anthony -- I'm a 22-year-old Massachusetts native -- grew up in the 'burbs and now spend my young adult life in the city. I am passionate about cooking and currently assistant manage a restaurant kitchen in Kendall Square. Let's just say that when I invite friends over for dinner parties, no one ever turns me down.

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This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
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