Here is the secret to avoiding the dreaded seasonal disorder, crustophobia, the extreme fear of making pie crust:
Don’t make pie crust. Avoid the agonizing, measuring, mixing, rolling and cleanup, especially if you don’t make a lot of pies.
The solution is to use refrigerated pre-rolled crusts.
I know that sounds weird coming from a pie expert who preaches scratch cooking, but the truth is that I’ve used store-bought crusts to make some highly praised “homemade” pies.
Better a crust that you know works than a crapshoot on a major holiday.
When you buy refrigerated pie crusts, it pays to pay more. Never use the tired tasteless frozen crusts pressed into aluminum pans. Upgrade beyond Pillsbury and the store brands and choose any of the organic crusts available at natural foods supermarkets. Good, ready-to-use, gluten-free variations are available.
The point is to just bake a great-tasting pie. By deleting the stress and performance pressure that comes with crust, you can concentrate on the fun stuff—the sugar, spice and flavors in the filling and tweaks that uplift that crust. There’s nothing better than infusing your home with the perfume of baking apple pie.
When an apple pie is right, it is an exceptional dessert, but success depends largely on the quality of the ingredients you use.
First, seek out great fresh apples—preferably local—with a mix of hard tart and sweeter varieties. Tart Granny Smiths are boring by themselves. Add some Northern Spy, Empire, Rome, Jonathans, Braeburns, and Macintosh. Never use mealy Delicious apples. Thin-slice the hard ones, chunk and chop the other apples. To peel, or not to peel?—That’s up to you. I leave them on because peels have a lot of flavor and nutrition.
For cinnamon, use the more fragrant Vietnamese variety. You can buy just a little from a bulk spice area at natural foods markets. Use dark real maple syrup and high-fat European-style butter.
The following recipe is a variation on a recipe I’ve been making for years.
Thanksgiving Apple Pie
4 tablespoons butter
About 2½ pounds (about 8 cups) apples: chunked, sliced and chopped
3/4 cup brown sugar
¼ cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
About ½ to 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup cornstarch (or powdered tapioca)
½ teaspoon fresh lemon zest
About ¼ cup ice cold milk, for brushing top
Directions: Melt butter in a saucepan, preferably nonstick, over medium heat. Add about 4 cups of apples and stir in sugar, maple syrup, lemon juice and cinnamon. Cook until the filling bubbles and starts to thicken. Turn heat to low. Stir in vanilla extract and lemon zest. Mix cornstarch on a little water and add gradually while stirring so it doesn’t lump up. If filling is too thick, add just a little water.
Unroll a room temperature crust and press into a glass deep-dish pie pan. Glass cooks evenly and it’s clear when the bottom crust is baked.
Press remaining apple slices and chunks across the entire bottom crust and spread warm apple filling evenly over them leaving a one-inch edge for crimping. Brush that edge with milk. Top with the second crust. Press it down gently all over so there are no air pockets. Press edges together to seal, then twist to make a decorative crimp. Cut a few vents in the top to allow steam to escape.
If, because of pan size, the top crust is too small, do a lattice on top weaving strips of dough instead. If you have leftover filling, turn it into apple sauce.
Press the top and bottom crusts together and trim the top crust. Refrigerate the pie for about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Brush top crust with milk. Sprinkle with a little sugar, cinnamon and flaked salt, if desired.
Place pie on a baking sheet (in case the juices runneth over) and bake until the crust begins to turn golden, about 20 to 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking another 40 minutes until the top and bottom crust are golden brown and juices bubble through the vents. Cool for at least two hours before slicing and serving.
Note; All oven and pies behave differently. You have to keep an eye on your pie. If your pie is getting scorched, turn down the heat and cover the edges in foil.
John Lehndorff is the former Chief Judge at the National Pie Championships in Boulder. He hosts a pie-centric Facebook page—Global Pie Society: facebook.com/groups/piekind