One pie to rule them all
All stressing aside, I really do love the holiday season. I’ve heard people say that you’re either a baker or a cook; I like to think that I’m both, but I certainly enjoy making baked goods for parties or as presents.
As I’m a vegetarian, Thanksgiving is not really about turkey for me. Instead, I fill my plate with a variety of delicious and healthy family specialties: wild rice with mushrooms, green beans, fresh cranberry salsa, and baked sweet potatoes.
My one and only culinary responsibility is The Pie, and I take that very seriously. I have been making a version of this pie (it evolves slightly from year to year) ever since I was 12 and starting to become more comfortable in the kitchen. I asked my mother if I could make something by myself that year; she gave me a copy of the Bon Appetit Thanksgiving issue and told me to call her if I needed any help. The recipe I found was the “Colonial Times Apple-Cranberry Pie With Cornmeal Crust,” a celebration of mingled New World (corn, cranberry) and Old World (apple) ingredients. I liked the idea of cranberries and apples, but wasn’t so keen on cornmeal, so I substituted an all-butter crust recipe from one of my mom’s hand-written index cards and used apple cider instead of cold water. The experiment was a success: at the end of the night, as I was carrying the empty pie plate out the door, my aunt said, “You’ll make that again next year, right?”
Here’s the latest model:
At some point, I want to go back and find pictures of each year’s pie and post a comparison series. I started out with a full top crust. A few years ago, I started using leaf-shaped cookie cutters to cut out the dough and scattering those pieces decoratively over the top. I like how the slices of apple, currants, and bits of cranberry peek through the crust.
Here’s what I’ve learned over the years:
Butter is better
There are several schools of thought as far as pie crusts go. There’s the shortening school, the shortening + butter school, and the lard school. I tried shortening, but it has about as much flavor as paste. Maybe less. Lard is out for a number of reasons. And that leaves us with butter, which is never just a consolation prize. There’s a reason so many chefs cook with butter. It’s full of flavor and makes a tender, flaky crust just as easily as shortening.
Don’t overdo it
As in, don’t overwork your dough. The more you mix and blend, the less likely it is to stand up to your filling. Less work = more successful crust.
Variety is the spice of life
When I make this pie, it never turns out the same way twice. Different apples, slightly different mixture of seasonings, a new ratio of dry to wet ingredients in the pie dough. It doesn’t need to be identical each time: just delicious.
Adapted from Bon Appetit
Crust adapted from Smitten Kitchen
2 1/2 c. flour
1 Tb sugar
1 tsp salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, very cold
1 c. apple cider
In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut the butter into small pieces and work into the dry ingredients with a pastry blender. When the butter pieces are the size of small peas, stop blending. Add cider, a few tablespoons at a time, using a rubber spatula or your hands to gather the dough together. Stop after 1/2 cup and stir well; after that, add cider only a tablespoon at a time. Add a little flour if the dough gets overly wet.
Cut the dough in half, wrap each piece in plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight or at least an hour. The dough can stay wrapped and refrigerated for about a week.
While the dough is chilling, move on to the filling (hey, that rhymes!):
1 c. fresh cranberries
1 c. plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 lbs. assorted apples (I like to use as many varieties as possible: this year’s pie had Mutsu, Empire, Rome, Gala, Fuji, Winesap, Braeburn, and Jonagold)
1/2 c. dried currants
liqueur (cranberry or a good bourbon)
5 Tb all-purpose flour
optional: zest of one orange; fresh ginger juice
In the oven, position rack in the lowest third; preheat to 375°F. Place the currants in a small bowl and add just enough liqueur to cover. Chop cranberries with sugar, using a mezzaluna or food processor. Peel and core the apples, and cut into 1/2-inch thick slices. Combine apples, cranberry/sugar mixture, currants, and flour. (If using, zest orange into bowl; peel an inch-long piece of ginger root and press through a clean garlic press to get the juice.) Toss well.
Roll out 1 of the pieces of dough between waxed paper or plastic wrap to 13-inch round. Gently peel off paper or wrap; fold edges in carefully to transfer into 9 1/2″deep-dish pie dish. I’ve found this is the easiest way to transfer the bottom crust into the pie dish in one piece.
Unfold the dough; roll excess in to form a double-thick edge. Crimp edge. Roll out the remaining dough disk on a lightly floured surface to 1/8″ thick. Using a cookie cutter, cut out leaves, apples, or any other shapes you might like. If using leaves, mark veins with a sharp knife. Add filling to pie dish. Arrange leaves around the edges and top of pie, overlapping in places. Do not cover completely: leave gaps. Brush leaf cutouts and crimped edge with cider.
Place the pie on a baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes, then cover with foil and continue baking for about 35 minutes more, until juices bubble thickly and crust is golden-brown. Transfer pie to rack and cool for 1 hour. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Bon appetit! Or as we say around these parts: OM NOM.