Friday, March 14, 2008

Apple Pie for Pi Day

I've been meaning for ages to try out a couple of pie-related recipe bits I saw in Cook's Illustrated a few months ago. One has to do with the crust, the other with the filling. Now, my favorite apple pie recipe is the one I grew up with (from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook), and I didn't want to mess too much with the seasonings. But I felt it might be acceptable to tinker with the crust recipe (apologies to my great-grandmother) and the method of cooking the apples. In the end, the recipe as written here is a slightly tweaked combination of three recipes: the crust from the November/December 2007 Cook's Illustrated, the apple pie method from the Cook's Illustrated special Holiday Baking 2007, and--to a certain extent--the apple pie recipe from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook.

As with all Cook's Illustrated recipes, there is method to whatever madness you might perceive in the recipe. Since it might not be immediately apparent from the recipe itself, I'll summarize some of the key points before diving into the recipe:

1) Liquid. One of the tricky things about pie dough is getting it to come together without encouraging the flour and water to form gluten. But not all liquids are created equal: unlike water, ethanol (i.e. alcohol) doesn't allow gluten to form. Using part water and part alcohol, then, lets you bring the dough together and roll it out easily without having to worry as much about the crust becoming tough. And of course, the alcohol evaporates in the oven.

2) Fat. An all-butter crust tastes great, but contains water (again, the gluten) and can turn leathery. An all-shortening crust is tender, but doesn't taste so good. This recipe uses a 3:2 ratio of butter to shortening for maximum taste and tenderness, and minimal toughness.

3) Flour-fat incorporation method. If you've made pie dough before, you've probably noticed that from crust to crust, the amount of liquid you need to bring the dough together can vary quite a bit. As it turns out, that variability has more to do with the consistency of flour-fat incorporation than the humidity of the kitchen where you're making the crust. The solution: blend only some of the flour with the fat, and then add more flour once you've got the first portion well incorporated.

4) Fill factor and soggy crust. Two problems solved with a single trick. First, the gap between the cooked-down apples and the top crust; second, the sogginess of the bottom crust that results from the liquid released by the apples during the in-oven cooking. By pre-cooking the apples--gently, mind, you don't want the apple slices to lose their shape--you allow them to release their liquid ahead of time and shrink down, so that the filling in the finished pie stays snug up against the top crust.

5) Filling flavor. I am partial to the flavor of Gravenstein apples for baking, but this apple pie recipe recommends a combination of sweet and tart apples for optimum pie flavor. The sweet apples they recommend: Golden Delicious, Braeburn, and Jonagold. The tart ones: Granny Smith, Empire, and Cortland.

A note of caution about these last two points: the recipe's instructions say to cook the apples in one large pot, but depending on the apples you use, I might suggest that you split the filling ingredients and cook the apples separately in two batches. When I was preparing my filling, the sweet apples were on the verge of mushiness before the tart ones had softened appreciably,
and the tart ones didn't soften much more in the oven. As a result, my pie has a frustratingly inconsistent texture. So, while I see the rationale behind using two kinds of apples, I do recommend that when you pre-cook the slices, you cook the two kinds separately.

I'm of two minds about this: I try to be efficient in my cooking, in that I often try to minimize the number of dishes (particularly large pots) I get dirty, and you might feel the same way. I'm going to write the recipe such that the apples are cooked in two separate pots, but if you're confident about the cooking times of the two different apple types, you're welcome to start the longer-cooking ones in the pot (with all of the sugar and other seasonings) and simply add the other ones when you feel that the remaining cooking time will result in evenly textured apples. Personally, I don't have that confidence in my knowledge of apples, so I'm going to go against my usual "don't get a pot dirty if you don't have to" philosophy and write the recipe for two separate pots.

And now, at last, the recipe:

Pi Day Apple Pie
Makes 1 9"-diameter pie, with extra scraps of dough for munching

For the crust:

3 3/4 cups (18 3/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon table salt
3 tablespoons sugar
18 tablespoons (2 1/4 sticks, 9 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4" slices
3/4 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons cold vodka
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons cold water

Measure out 2 1/4 cups flour and set aside remaining 1 1/2 cup flour. Process 2 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds. The dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and should have no uncoated flour. Scrape down bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining 1 1/2 cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and the mass of dough has been broken up, 4-6 quick pulses.

Empty mixture into medium bowl. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 6" disk. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes and up to 2 days.

For the filling:

1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) + 1 teaspooon granulated sugar
1/4 cup (1 3/4 ounces) packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon juice and 1/2 teaspoon grated zest from 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 1/2 pounds tart apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/4"-thick slices
2 1/2 pounds sweet apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/4"-thick slices
1 egg white, lightly beaten

While the dough chills, place tart apples in one bowl and sweet apples in another. Combine 1/2 cup granulated sugar, brown sugar, zest, salt, and spices in a small bowl. Sprinkle half of mixture over one bowl of apples, stir to combine, and dump into a large pot; repeat for other bowl of apples and another pot. (Don't worry too much about dividing the mixture evenly between the bowls--it will all get tossed together in the end.) Do not wash either bowl just yet. Cover both pots and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until apples are tender when poked with a fork but still hold their shape, 15-20 minutes, or longer for very firm apples. (Apples and juices should simmer gently during cooking.) When tender, remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. While apples cool, adjust oven racks so that you have one in the lowest position, and another one right above it. Place an empty rimmed baking sheet on the lowest rack, and preheat oven to 425F.

Remove 1 disk of dough from refrigerator and roll out between two large sheets of parchment paper (or plastic wrap) to a circle about 1/8" thick. If dough becomes too soft or sticky, return it to the fridge to firm up again. Remove one sheet of parchment and roll the crust up on your rolling pin while removing the other parchment sheet, then unroll crust into pie plate (or use your preferred method of placing dough into plate). Working around plate circumference, ease dough into plate by gently lifting edge of dough with one hand while pressing into plate bottom with other hand. Leave dough that overhangs plate in place; refrigerate crust until firm, about 30 minutes. Roll second disk of dough between two sheets of parchment (or plastic) until ~1/8" thick. Refrigerate, leaving dough between parchment sheets, until firm, about 30 minutes.

Set a large colander over one of the bowls used to mix the apples with the sugars and spices. Transfer cooled apples (from both pots) to colander. Shake colander to drain off as much juice as possible; discard juice. Transfer drained apples to other apple mixing bowl and stir to mix the two apple varieties together. Mound apples carefully in dough-lined pie plate and sprinkle with lemon juice. Brush edge of crust with beaten egg white.

Remove one parchment sheet from one side of dough circle, roll dough onto rolling pin while removing remaining parchment sheet, and unroll crust over the top of the pie. Press down firmly on edges of pie crust, trim excess crust, and crimp/flute edges as desired. Cut four 2" slits in top of dough. Brush surface of pie with beaten egg white and sprinkle evenly with remaining teaspoon sugar. Place pie in preheated oven on rack set over baking sheet; bake until crust is dark golden brown, 45-55 minutes. Transfer pie to wire rack and cool at least 1 1/2 hours. Cut into wedges and serve with ice cream or cheese, or other preferred accompaniment.


Bee said...

I'm going to have to read this again when I'm fresher -- not only is it 1 am here, but I've also just used my last active brain cells to talk about potatoes.
There is just so much great info here to absorb! I've never heard of vodka in pie crust, for one.

I can tell you are a scientist; you must write a great lab report.

Do you know about Heston Blumenthal?

Are there Bramley apples in the Bay Area? All English apples pies seem to ask for Bramleys.

Believe it or not, I found some Libby's pumpkin. While you are feasting on apple, we will be having pumpkin pie tomorrow. Also bulgur with apricots; decided to go with pork chops as accompaniment.

It is nice to get some inspiration for dinner!

Anne said...

Funny you should mention lab reports, as I am putting the finishing touches on the 100-page "report" that is my master's thesis.

Heston Blumenthal. The Fat Duck! Of course! Have you ever eaten there? I have not, but I recently ate at the restaurant that usurped its "Best Restaurant in the World" title for the last two years (El Bulli).

I'm not familiar with Bramley apples, but I just googled them. They look a lot like a mystery variety that a good friend's mom is growing. She doesn't know what they are, but she says they're good for baking. I wonder if they are related.

Pumpkin pie sounds SO good. Do you have a favorite recipe? Believe it or not, the apple pie is nearly gone. I just got word that the portion that I took to my parents' house this morning (a little over half of the pie) has vanished, and there's only a single slice of the rest left over here.

Ooh, I bet pork chops will be great with the bulgur. Enjoy!

Bee said...

Heston Blumenthal: I've never eaten at The Fat Duck, but Bray is never near to where my husband works so I'm sure we will make it someday. We went to Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir quat'Saison a couples of weeks ago -- it was one of my birthday presents from Sigmund. It was exquisite, but I drank way too much and ended up in a food/drink coma. One of my friends ate at the Duck recently, and I made her describe the meal to meal in elaborate detail. It was fascinating. His "chips" are the thing I most want to try. They are one of his signature dishes, and are subject to some incredibly elaborate 3 (or more) part process. I glanced at one of his cookbooks once and basically thought: NO WAY! I am not a scientific cook at all; more an intuitive (ie, sloppy) one. I sucked at science reports, too. I am generally very slapdash, but despite that usually have good results with baking.

Pie crust: I'm always on a quest for the perfect crust. Tried a new one from the Williams-Sonoma Thanksgivng book and it was darn good. All butter; you do it in the food processor; super easy. The one you describe is definitely more of a palaver, but the explanation was interesting. My Mom is a Cook's Illustrated fanatic, too. I'm going to tell her about your site.

By the way, my daughter's face just lit up when I told her I was making pumpkin pie. Pumpkin and apple are her absolute favorites. (I'm sure she would have loved yours, too.) I bet you anything she will want some for breakfast; but then, so will I! I just used the recipe on the back of the Libby's can. Like the Tollhouse cookie recipe, I just don't think you can beat it. That's not to say I haven't tried others -- because I have; I really have. But at the end of the day, most people tart up pumpkin pie too much -- with alcohol, nut streusels, cream, etc. My family likes a simple pie that lets the pumpkin show itself a little more. A pie that you can eat for breakfast!

Anne said...

What a wonderful birthday present! It seems that outings to fabulous restaurants inevitably involve copious amounts of wine, at least in my experience.

I know what you mean about looking through some of these chefs' cookbooks. I believe Ferran Adria puts out a cookbook every year, but based on what we ate that afternoon at El Bulli, most of his dishes are way beyond me. Even some of Thomas Keller's recipes (in Bouchon, let alone in The French Laundry Cookbook), while not molecular gastronomy, seem more complicated and precision-oriented than I have the time, resources, or skill to manage. Maybe someday!

How is the Williams-Sonoma Thanksgiving cookbook? I have their French cookbook, which is pretty good, but not fantastic. I enjoy perusing the other cookbooks when I'm in their stores, though.

I shall have to revisit the Libby's pumpkin pie recipe. For last year's Thanksgiving feast I made a pumpkin mascarpone pie, and it went over very well. The mascarpone mostly contributed to a silkier texture--the flavor was pure pumpkin and spices.

Bee said...

Now you are giving me cookbook envy! My proportion of English to American cooksbooks is heavily weighted to the English side, and I have never seen Keller or Adria's work. You can have my Daniel Boulud (signed) book, though. I am very clear on my limitations: I am a home cook, not a restaurant cook. Have you ever read Laurie Colwin's wonderful books? Titled "Home Cooking" and "More Home Cooking." Colwin and I really see things culinary eye to eye.

Re Bramleys: they are strictly a cooking apple. They are bright green, like a Granny Smith, but somewhat bulbous and misshapen looking.

The W-S "Thanksgiving" book was a gift; I wouldn't have bought it for myself as it is a bit specialist! However, I have made several things from it -- with good luck. It gives the full Martha treatment: place settings, flowers, "style." It does several themed Thanksgivings: New England, California, Southern.

One more thing: try Libby's recipe again and see what you think. It only takes 5 minutes -- and it is low-fat, which is always a plus. My mom made two p'kin pies this year -- one new fancy one, and one trad. Libby's one. The fancy one was rich, suave and complex; but the Libby's one got polished off first. But that's just us!

And yes, we did have pie for breakfast!

Anne said...

Adria's work is certainly not for the home cook. Keller's is more accessible, particularly the dishes in Bouchon, but many of them are more time consuming than is practical for the home cook. Still, Bouchon is a gorgeous book.

For an introduction to some of Adria's creations, see here (the "general catalogue" has images of their dishes from year to year) and here (for my own experience at El Bulli).

I will definitely try the Libby's pumpkin pie recipe! In fact, I'm tempted to run out to the store and make it today... pumpkin pie is surely good for a sore throat!