Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Create the Universe . . . then Bake the Best Apple Pie You've Ever Imagined . . .

Carl Sagan, the late American astronomer, uttered my favorite pie quote of all time. He said, "If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe." That's beautiful, isn't it? Now, I know that Carl wasn't really talking about our kind of pie so much as he was commenting on something esoteric and metaphysical and . . . well . . . cosmic. It seems to me, though, a perfectly fitting quotation with which to begin because a few days ago, somehow or other, I managed to bake the best apple pie that my own small universe has yet encountered. The first and only one I've ever concocted that I've been completely satisfied with, and not just satisfied, but astoundingly pleased.

Yes, fellow bakers, you heard me right. After years of less than stellar results, I finally produced what I consider to be a truly fabulous apple pie. Not so-so, not okay, not pretty good. Incredibly good. And just in time for Turkey Day (how timely, how opportune!). It could hardly have occurred at a better moment.

My measuring-cup runneth over . . .

What, you may ask, brought on this little victory? Well, I feel it's largely attributable to cookbook author Nancy Baggett's recipe for deep dish apple pie, which appears in The All American Dessert Book, with particular credit given to her pastry crust. I'd been casually scouting around for a promising apple pie formula over the last few weeks, thinking maybe I'd make one around Thanksgiving. And though I'd never baked what I felt was a really excellent apple pie before, hope--however poignant and naive--does tend to spring eternal.

Of course, there's nothing at all unusual about 90 percent of the fruit pie recipes one runs across. They typically have more in common than not. But there were a couple of factors about Nancy's pie that struck me as uncustomary and intriguing. The crust, for example, calls for a little baking powder, a meaningful portion of cake flour, and--get this--she tells you to lightly grease your pie pan. I've never seen a fruit pie recipe that directs you to grease the pan, but it makes perfect sense doesn't it? Indeed it does.

The gal just likes to tinker . . .

Because I found her crust recipe so interesting, I followed it by the book with no tinkering (I swear, no tinkering at all . . . I'll testify to that in federal court if you want me to). The pie crust, once baked, was flaky, tender, and firm enough to hold up without crumbling to bits. It wasn't too dry, nor was it at all soggy. The taste was just right--very slightly salty with just the tiniest glimmer of sweetness. It was the crust a serious home-baker dreams about producing. In a nutshell, just yummy.

Regarding the apple filling, I did do some substantial tinkering there, but nothing I'd consider radical. What did I change? Well, instead of following her recommendation to use "at least three different kinds of apples," I used only Galas--very crisp and sweet. This was not so much by design as by necessity since I had only Galas on hand and wasn't in a position to run to the market. I figured I'd just take my chances and that turned out to a lucky choice.

Nancy, then, directs readers to slice the apples thinly. I haven't had happy moments with thinly sliced apples in past pies because, in my experience, they have a tendency to turn to unadulterated mush, and there's nothing I find at all appealing about apple filling that resembles apple sauce. So, I cut my apples into generous bite-sized chunks, figuring I wouldn't risk it.

I also knew at the outset of this particular pie venture that I was going to augment the filling with a few cranberries, either dried or fresh (of course, you can always omit these, but why would you want to go and do that? . . . after all, they're such a pretty color, and they're good for you, so just simmer down and surrender to the moment, okay?). I ended up using dried cranberries that I'd soaked in orange juice for about 20 minutes to brighten their flavor and soften them up; that turned out to be an inspired decision, I am convinced. I also upped the amount of cinnamon in the recipe a little bit, and doubled the amount of lemon juice. All in all, the flavor of the filling was fantastic--just perfect.

You never know until you taste it . . .

The pie baked well, and looked fine out of the oven, but I didn't have a clue as to its success-quotient until I actually tasted it. Doubtful of what my tastebuds were conveying, I tasted again . . . and then one more diminutive bite to seal the deal. By golly it was true. "Holy moly," I thought, "Finally. It's about time."

And so it was, just as now it's about time for me to give you the recipe . . .

Apple Pie with Dried Cranberries

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

To make the pastry dough (enough for one double-crust pie):

8 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/3" chunks
7 Tbsp. solid vegetable shortening, cut or spooned into 14 pieces
2 cups All-Purpose flour
2/3 cup cake flour
1 and 1/2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking powder
6 to 9 Tbsp. ice water

Freeze the butter cubes and shortening pieces for 20 minutes.

To mix the dough by hand (which is what I did, with my faithful pastry blender):
In a large bowl, completely stir together the flours, sugar, salt, and baking powder. Cut in the fat until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs with a few bits the size of small peas remaining. Scrape up the flour mixture on the bottom of the bowl.

In a small bowl, measure 6 Tbsp. of ice water. With a fork, lightly combine the water, bit by bit, with the flour mixture, tossing until the water is evenly incorporated and the dough begins to form clumps (Nancy notes "15 to 20 strokes" at this point; I wouldn't get too anal about this). Reach down to the bottom of the bowl to make sure all the flour is dampened. Pinch a small bit of dough between your fingers; it should hold together smoothly and be moist but not soggy.

If crumbly or dry, sprinkle over more of the ice water, a couple of teaspoons at a time, tossing with the fork. When the dough is moistened enough to hold together when pinched, gather it up, and press it firmly together with your fingers into a smooth mass.

Divide it into two equal portions and shape each into a disk about 5" across. Wrap each disc in plastic and chill in the fridge for an hour. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to two days, or frozen for up to one month; thaw the dough in the fridge before using.)

To make the apple-cranberry filling:

10 and 1/2 cups peeled, cored apples cut into large bite-sized chunks (I used all Galas)
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
3 and 1/2 to 4 and 1/2 Tbsp. cornstarch (use the larger amount if your apples are really juicy; I used 4 Tbsp. in my pie)
3/4 tsp. cinnamon (I used Penzey's Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cassia--it's potent and extremely good)
1 pinch of salt
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/2 cup dried cranberries that have been soaked in a orange juice for 20 minutes or so and then drained
1 Tbsp. half & half for brushing on top of pie dough
1 and 1/2 Tbsp. sanding sugar for sprinkling on top of pie (I prefer the larger sparkly crystals of sanding sugar, but regular granulated sugar will work fine too)

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

In a very large, heavy, nonreactive saucepan (not a copper pan, basically), toss the apple chunks with the lemon juice. In a small bowl, stir together thoroughly the two sugars, the cinnamon, cornstarch, and salt. Add the sugar mixture and the butter bits to the apples; toss until well combined. Bring the whole mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat. Simmer, stirring and scraping the pan bottom, for about 3 minutes, or until the apples cook down slightly; do not let the apples burn.

Remove the pan from the burner.

Add in the cranberries and stir to evenly distribute them. Taste, and add a dab more lemon juice if you feel it's needed. Set aside.

To roll out the pastry dough:

Lightly grease a 9-1/2" deep dish pie plate (if you have a deep dish pie plate you might as well use that, but I just used a regular pie plate that was 9" in circumference and it turned out fine). If the 5" dough disc is cold and stiff, let it warm up until slightly pliable but still cool. Dust it generously with flour on both sides.

Between two sheets of parchment paper, roll out one dough portion into a circle that's about 13 and 1/2" round. Occasionally check the underside of the dough while rolling and smooth out any wrinkles.

If the dough becomes at all sticky or limp, place it on a cookie sheet in the freezer for about five minutes to firm up. When done rolling, gently peel off the top sheet of paper, then pat it lightly back into place. Flip over, and peel the bottom sheet off the dough. Center the round, dough side down, onto your pie plate. Gently peel off the remaining paper. Smooth the dough into place and patch any tears. Using scissors or a paring knife, trim the overhand to about 1/4". Prick the pastry all over with a fork (I didn't do this; your choice if you want to do it). Loosely cover the pastry and place it in the freezer while you roll out the top crust (I didn't do this either, but I was working pretty fast at this point; basically, just don't let the plated dough get warm at all). Roll out the second portion of dough the same way as you just did above. Transfer the round, with paper still attached on both sides, to a baking sheet and place it in the fridge.

To assemble the pie:
Pour the apple-cranberry mixture onto the bottom crust in your pie plate, mounding the fruit in the center.

Take your top crust dough, and remove one sheet of the paper. Flip that over and center the dough onto the mounded fruit. Peel off and discard the remaining paper. Trim the pie's top overhang to about 3/4". Fold the overhang under the bottom pastry edge to form an edge that rests on the lip of the plate. Press the top and bottom edges together firmly, crimping as you like (with your fingers, or with the tines of a fork, etc.) all the way around.

Cut slashes/vents in the top of the crust for steam to escape, using a small sharp knife (grease the knife if it's not super sharp; I cut five vents).

Using a soft pastry brush (I like to use a floppy silicone brush for this kind of thing), brush the half-and-half lightly on the top--not on the edges--of the pie, and sprinkle the top with the sanding (or granulated) sugar.

Put the pie on a baking sheet (I use an old, stained cookie sheet for juicy pies) to catch any drips. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until the crust is lightly browned. Make a large, loose, foil tent over the top of the entire pie. Continue baking for at least 30 minutes more, or until the top is nicely golden-brown and the filling is bubbly.

Let the pie cool on a wire rack for at least 1 and 1/2 hours, and a few hours longer if at all possible. The cooler the pie is, the neater the slices will be.

* * * * * * *
Wonderful on its own, but also delicious served with a little vanilla ice cream on the side. Hope yours turns out as well as mine did!

Recipe full disclosure! The recipes in this post come from The All-American Dessert Book by Nancy Baggett (2005, Houghton Mifflin). The recipes I used appear on pages 18 - 21, for her "Favorite Deep Dish Apple Pie," and on pages 90 - 91, for "All-Purpose Pie Pastry Dough." As noted above, I adapted the filling recipe. Also, I reworded her instructions slightly, here and there. This is a very good book and I highly recommend it.

(If you'd like to comment on this post or to read any existing comments, just click on the purple COMMENTS below!)


Marysol said...

Ok, I like Sagan's quote, but really, the logistics of it all!

Carl Sagan must not know I already have enough on my plate to attempt to create the universe before I can make a pie! The apples would be fossilized by the time I got around to it.

...and the universe wouldn't be much better off either.

Seriously Jane, that is one beautiful pie; you can even see how flaky the crust is. Deliciously comforting!

Sophie said...

I love the step-by-step photos. The crust looks fantastic, I would've followed the recipe exactly, too, sounds like a yummy one. I love the cranberries!

Barbara said...

That is one gorgeous pie!

Xiaolu @ 6 Bittersweets said...

Thanks for all the tips! My last pie dough melted into a gross puddle during the prebake, so I may want to do all the chilling steps recommended.

Nic said...

Oh gosh, that does look good! I love those dried cranberries too.

Memória said...

Your pie looks perfect. I love the crust. I must use this recipe, since I prefer the ones with a combo of shortening and butter.

Jane said...

Hi Marysol-
Yes, I know what you mean. I barely have time to clean my house let alone assemble a solar system. Thanks for those nice comments about the pie!


Dear Sophie-
I'm glad you like those step by step photos. It's kind of fun taking pictures as I go along. Makes you more aware of what you're doing!

:) Visit again soon,

Hi Barba--
Thank you very much! I am flattered you think so.

Keep on bakin',

Hello Xiaolu--
I'm happy to be of help in your crust-making efforts. I've never been extremely confident with crust, but I am much more comfortable with it than I used to be. Thanks very much for visiting!


Hi Nicisme--
Many thanks! Dried cranberries really are a nice addition to so many recipes, both sweet and savory. Yum!

Thanks again,

Dear Memoria,
I agree with you--I prefer crusts that use a combo of shortening and butter too. The all-butters taste fabulous but can be so hard to work with since they just don't want to stay cold. Thanks so much!


My Casa Bella said...

I just LOVE pie, especially apple and like you I spent years finding the right one and I did as well. I also altered it to my liking and I am in LOVE. But just this once I will try another one since your post has intrigued me....LOL. BTW it looks beautiful.

Jane said...

Hi there Arlene (MyCasaBella),

Isn't it a nice relief to finally zero in on a certain basic recipe that really works well for you? I am praying that this particular pie recipe was not a fluke. I need to retest it to make sure (oh, what a hardship!) LOL!

I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Are you the founder of the feast this year? I get to go to my in-laws and just bring desserts; that's a fun assignment that I'll accept anytime.


Allison said...

I love your addition of the cranberries! I'm so glad you had such success!

I'm making my first apple pie this week for Thanksgiving. I haven't had a chance to get really nervous about it yet as I've had so much else going on. The one trick for crusts that I have heard and that has stuck with me is to substitute some of the ice water with vodka. The alcohol will bake off making for a flakier crust. I'm going back and forth with trying this for the first time. But I might just go for it!

faithy said...

I've always wanted to try making apple pie, yours looks so good, i'm gonna try and make it one of these days!

peasepudding said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I love the idea of cranberries with the apples. Great instructions too, very useful.

Unknown said...

The pie looks soo good! You have me totally convinced. However, I simply can't bring myself to use shortening. I'll try this with all butter soon, and see how it turns out!

john said...

Jane, if I prefer to thinly slice the apples, do I still need to simmer the apples? Thanks!

Jane said...

Hi John,
Well, I think that depends on how juicy you like your pie. The purpose of the simmering is to remove some of the excess moisture from the apples before they go into the pie. I don't think the thickness of the slices really matters in this regard. You can still simmer thin slices if you want to try and ensure that your pie won't be overly juicy, but you won't need to simmer them as long as you would if they were thick. I hope info that helps. Thanks very much for asking, and I hope your pie turns out great!
:) Jane

Anonymous said...

Looks Yummy! Never had cranberries with Apple pie but sure looks tasty.