By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(From the Nov. 2016 issue of Sensi: sensimag.com/2016/11/01/126387/november-2016-digital-edition
First there is that apple-y cinnamon/caramel steam that grabs you by the nose. Then you see the whole pie emerge from the oven and, finally, a warm apple pie wedge whose juices mingle the melting vanilla bean gelato. You take a bite and smile because you know you crafted the pie yourself.
I know what you’re thinking: “Not me. I’m happy to eat pie. Baking a pie from scratch? Not so much.”
Listen, it’s okay to admit that you’re scared. You may be embarrassed that the dessert that defines America terrifies you. Pie anxiety is a very common affliction replete with nightmares about soggy bottoms, cardboard tops, undercooked fruit and heavy-handed spicing. Many bakers give up in the face of performance pressure and buy their holiday pies at a supermarket.
That is so very sad and unnecessary! If you are open to learning the way of the crust I will share what I have learned about transcending dough-phobia during a long and varied life of pie.
Be present and grin.
The first step is to forget everything you think you know about how to make a pie. Really. How you choose to use to achieve that pleasant, receptive state of mind is up to you, but it is essential. Your real problem with pie is that you think of it as a challenge to overcome. In fact, pie is play and with all kinds of cool ingredients. Remember when you messed around with clay or Playdough as a kid? It’s like that, only actually edible.
Manifest lightness as you make pastry.
Don’t “work” the dough, be gentle on the pastry. Don’t overmix the crust . You’re crafting delicate pastry, not relieving a muscle cramp. Men seem especially prone to overkneading and heavy-handed rolling. Lighten up, dude.
To push everything from your mind is easier thought than done. In my decades as a pie judge I have encountered many terrible pies baked by distracted cooks who don’t organize the ingredients and equipment beforehand. Multi-task at your own pie peril.
Once you are still everything must chill.
The butter, shortening or lard must be near frozen so it won’t melt into the flour to achieve maximum flake. Chill the bowl and even the rolling pin. Naturally, hot hands are a no-no.
You and the pastry need a nap.
The disc of finished dough must rest in the refrigerator before being rolled out, to be at its flaky best. The same holds true for the baker who should either manifest patience or take a snooze.
Barriers to baking bliss.
Frustration can result if you roll out your dough and it sticks to the cutting board and you have to scrape it off and start over. Roll out pie crust between sheets of wax paper or in a gallon freezer bag. That makes it easy to transfer to the pie plate.
Play more than one note.
Granny Smiths are tart and firm but very single note in terms of flavor and texture. Add harmony by mixing in some Jonathans, Braeburns and Macintosh. Never ever bake with mealy Red Delicious.
You deserve the best.
If you only make a few pies a year you might as well use the best ingredients including high butterfat (and flavor) European-style butter. Buy small quantities of spices and fresh flour. The taste might inspire you to bake more often.
Complete the pie cycle.
While the pie bakes, you will want to clean up the mess you made of the kitchen. It will all work out better. Trust me on this one.
Do you want to make a recipe or a pie?
Students sometimes ask for my best pie recipe. I respond: “Who is asking?” I’m sharing my tips and a recipe but you should tweak them. By the way, you can also leave the butter, salt, vanilla, lemon juice and lemon zest out of the filling recipe and it will still be tasty. Experiment and improvise. Repeat. If you wish for a perfect recipe yielding guaranteed success, go buy a pie.
Pie is a process not a dessert.
To master pie you cannot abdicate authority to a cookbook, thermometer or timer. I have at least 100 cookbooks involving pie with thousands of pie recipes and variations. None of them can really tell me how I can make a pie. It’s a recipe, not a sacred text. Recipes are only broad roadmaps because of the many variables such as you oven’s true temperature. That’s why you must maintain attention until the pie emerges from the oven to have success.
There is only one truth: Pie is kindness.
You need to bake a lot of pies to master the art and you don’t want to eat all those pies yourself. Your pie practice will produce something tangible which allows you to bring bliss to others. Give anyone a homemade pie and they will love you. If you are one of those rare pie masters, consider passing along your skills to a new generation in dire need of pastry skills.
John’s Double-Crusted Apple Pie
2½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) chilled unsalted butter
About 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
About ¼ cup ice cold milk, for brushing top
4 tablespoons butter
About 2½ pounds (about 8 cups) peeled apples, chunked and sliced
About 1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
About ½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
1/4 cup cornstarch
To make crust: Combine flour, sugar and salt in bowl. Add chilled or frozen butter in random chunks and blend into flour until crumbly. Do not over mix!. Colorado’s low humidity means your flour is drier than it should be. Mix lemon juice into ice water and sprinkle on as you make the dough pliable. Work the dough gently until it forms a ball. Form into two discs and cover. Let dough rest at least an 90 minutes in refrigerator.
To make the filling: Melt butter in a saucepan, preferably nonstick, over medium heat. Add 4 cups of apples and stir in sugar, lemon juice, vanilla extract, salt, cinnamon and lemon zest. Sprinkle in cornstarch while stirring constantly. Cook until the filling bubbles and thickens. Add more water as needed.
To bake the pie: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Transfer disc to work surface and flatten with a rolling pin. The butter bits will roll out in thin sheets. Work fast so they don’t warm up. Sprinkle with a little flour if it sticks to the pin. Turn and roll only long enough to get a uniform thickness. Roll out bottom crust and place in a 9-inch, deep-dish glass pie pan. Glass cooks more evenly and you can see if the bottom crust is brown. Spread remaining apple chunks and slices evenly across the bottom crust. Top them with the warm apple filling and spread evenly. Add top crust, crimp the edges and cut a few vents in the top crust. Brush top with milk. A sprinkling of cinnamon sugar on top is optional.
Bake on a cookie sheet in the low shelf for 20 minutes. Lower heat to 325 degrees and bake for another 40 to 50 minutes until juice is bubbling up all over. Bottom crust should be light golden brown. Continue baking as needed. Shield the crimp from burning by lowering the heat and adding an aluminum foil covering. Remove from oven and allow to cool for at least an hour before slicing. Makes four to eight slices.
John Lehndorff is the former Chief Judge at the National Pie Championships, executive director of the American Pie Council, director of the Great American Pie Festival and spokesperson for National Pie Day.
Did you know National Pie Day was born in Colorado?
Charlie Papazian is best known as the father of America homebrewing and founder of Denver’s Great American Beer Festival. In 1975, he was a Boulder school teacher. He told his students that he was declaring his birthday, Jan, 23, to be National Pie Day because he liked candles on a birthday pie, not a cake. The holiday is still celebrated across the nation on January 23 every year.
“Don’t get fancy. Have you cooked an apple pie? You don’t know what you did wrong? Do this: Take two or three apples. Put them on a table. Study them.” – Noted Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme