Sunday, September 25, 2011

Doing Battle: Apple Pie

Dear Pie Eating World,
I [expletive] hate making pies. I’ve always hated making them. They’re difficult to make, and start to finish, they take about five frigging hours to complete.  The dough is finicky, the finished product can basically go south at any moment, and they’re only really best a short while after they’re out of the oven, which means if you’re bringing that sweet old apple pie to somebody’s house for the Fourth, you’re probably battling potential heat, probable humidity, and if you’ve got travel time, you’re getting up at dawn to maybe make a decent pie.
I understand that people who have spent decades baking pies scoff at store bought crusts. Why? Because Pillsbury crusts suck compared to grandma crusts. I also totally get why people scoff at somebody that buys a pie from Stop and Shop and schleps it over to Christmas dinner or so and so’s summer barbecue. Why? Because that’s a cop out, and you know it. You also basically just summed it up and insulted your host: “Your event is only worth a $4.99 Market Basket pie.” Shame on you, sir. Shame on you. Betty Sue is in the corner crying.
Pick your own at Brooskby Farm
In addition to the guilt factor that comes with not baking your own pie, the most crushing thing about pie baking is that I know in my heart that everybody loves these damn things. The sweat, blood and tears that go into every flaky speck of that crust are genuinely desired and appreciated and almost universally loved by all. Today, after a fun filled afternoon of apple picking at Brooksby Farms in Peabody, MA, with an anime-like glimmer in his eye, the bigger half turned to me and said, “So, are you going to make your pie?” Ughhhhhh. How can you say no to that?
And so, it is time to do battle, friends. Battle on one of the most humid days we’ve had so far this month. Seriously, it sucks, and the crust is going to use every ounce of sweaty moisture in the air as a kryptonite to my patience as in its tender dough stage it decides to stick to my cutting board like paper-mache. In preparation for dealing with the doughy SOB, I knowingly like to march off into the pie battle with every instrument cleaned and ready to go. Cutting board, rolling pin, food processor, glass pie plate, pennies, tin foil, solo cups and paper plates for a proper mise en place: all clean and lined up in a little row. All ingredients out, distributed and ready. Vodka, both for the crust and my own sipping sanity, in the freezer and ice cold. Butter and shortening, in the freezer and cut into the proper distribution. I will not be defeated by this pie or ANY PIE.
Alright, enough drama. I’ve got a few tips to really help you along in your pie baking quest.
Kidney-size clumpage = better
than cottage cheese sized clumps
THE CRUST: First, this is the best crust recipe that I've found thus far from the New York Times. If making an apple pie, double the portions, because you’re going to be making both a bottom and a top crust. Also note, though it may sound strange, don’t turn your nose up at the vodka. It has no flavor, and evaporates quickly, creating an extra flaky crust. Second, when processing your ingredients, you want the little clumps of butter and fat to be about the size of kidney beans, not cottage cheese. The bigger the clumps, the flakier, more flavorful the crust with those little pockets of fat. Third, when you’re rolling your bottom or top crust out, it’s going to want to stick, and you’re going to want to add all too much flour (don’t be afraid of sprinkling flour, but don’t go dumping a half cup every time you think something’s going to stick, capiche?). So here’s the trick: roll with a pin, once, twice, three times across. Add a pinch of flour. Lift up dough, add a pinch of flour underneath. Turn dough a quarter turn. Roll one, two, three times across, pinch of flour, pinch of flour, turn it over. Repeat until the dough is about 1/8” thick. By turning and turning over, you can check on whether your dough is holding together, and make sure it’s not sticking on the surface. Fourth, prep your apple filling as the bottom crust prebakes. You should have enough time, and then the bottom will still be toasty when it's time to add the filling and that extra "oh shit" moment top crust. Fifth, no panicking. Talk yourself off the ledge at all times. You can do this.
McIntosh! Optimal Freshness!
THE PIE FILLING: For the pie filling, use any apples but Red Delicious or Cortlands. I find both varieties turn into mush, completely negating all your previous efforts with that bloody dough. (Note: These two varieties are great for apple sauce, but no place in apple pie.) I love using Honey Crisps and McIntosh apples, which seem to become available at about the same time. Later in the season, it’s all about those Granny Smith tart beauties. Use about eight or nine plump, freshly pickled apples. Peel, core, and slice about a 1/3 inch thick pieces. Throw all slices into a large mixing bowl, and every so often sprinkle with lime juice (adds another nice flavor note, and prevents the apples from turning brown). Then, I use a quarter cup of sugar, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, a teaspoon and a half of ground cinnamon, a half teaspoon of ground clove, and about a half teaspoon of fresh ground nutmeg. Toss everything with your hands, and get ready to put them into the pie. Your filling you can also make your own. Like things sweeter, add a bit more sugar. Like things less spicy? Skip the nutmeg and clove. You get the idea.
Sealed and ready for the oven
Finished product
THE MOST LIKELY OH SHIT MOMENT: After you prebake your crust, and your filling is ready, you’re going to have to add a little filling to the pie, dot with a little butter, add a little more, dot with a little more butter until it's all secured into the bottom pie crust. Then you're going to have to scramble like a crack head and pull your second crust out of the fridge (remember, if it stays colder longer before you leave it to the high heat of the oven, you'll have a flakier, more delicate result). Run baby run, get your top crust rolled, placed neatly on top of all the filling. Use scissors and cut about a half inch of dough overhang around the plate, and then fold the bit of overhang over itself to make a nice pie lip decoration, sealing in all of the filling. Next, have an egg white mixed with a tiny bit of water ready to go to brush the entire top of the pie, ensuring that photogenic shine that everybody oohs and ahhs at. And since this thing has basically sucked the life force out of you for the past five hours, the final step will be slightly rewarding. Grab a sharp knife and reenact that famous scene from Psycho. Four or five puncture wounds should be enough to allow steam to escape, and to let the pie know how you really feel about it.  Into the oven, still at 400 degrees from the bottom prebake, and now you’re going to turn it down to 375. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the top looks Donatella Versace tan.
A proper slice of apple pie
When you’re done, if you’ve taken the right attitude and gone into pie battle with all the right tools, and some patience, I bid you well. As for me? I still hate making pie. But, yeah, I’m pretty much the queen of the universe at making a flaky crust. I win again, pie. A crust that’s as buttery as it is flaky and tender. A filling that’s still a little tart, and an aroma that fills a warm kitchen of the smell of McIntosh apples. I know that nobody's supposed to give out all their secrets, but we must all band together in the fight against shitty pies. 

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