Some cooks I know are great, improvisational cooks when it comes to savory foods. They can whip up an entree without thinking, throw together a casserole, a soup, an unctuous sauce in a heartbeat. But ask them to do that in a dessert – especially a baked product – and they’re lost without a precise recipe.
Most are so frightened of baking — they call it a science (and cooking’s not??) they won’t even substitute or add ingredients for fear of failure.
I wanna hold your hand!
Ok, if this is your story, let me inspire you to leap into baking with abandon. Find a few basic recipes you like, and then mess with them.
Once you have the basic recipe and understand what’s going on in the mixing bowl and your oven, you, too, can improvise and not be afraid to fail.
Easy as pie – apple pie is the base
The “recipe” for my pie is below. But let’s deconstruct it.
It’s a 2-crust pie. One on the top, and one on the bottom. One crust pies are just as good – I could have made this without a top crust – and added a crumb topping, or dolloped it with biscuits and turned it into a cobbler…the filling would have remained the same for either. The crust would be the only variance.
Basic pie crust
But let’s start with the crusts – they’re a pastry crust.
The recipe is simple – 2 cups all-purpose flour, to 2/3 cup fat of some kind (salted butter, shortening, lard, or a combination of the above – do not use ”tub” butter or margarine, or oil), and approximately 6 tablespoons of ice water. That “approximate” part has you worried already – but don’t be.
Use a tool, not your warm hands, to blend the fat into the flour. That could be a pastry blender - many pros use these and so did your granny, maybe – or a food processor or two forks. Why? The heat from your hands makes the mix too warm, and it will absorb too much flour, and as a result, become tough.
Sprinkle it with 4 tablespoons of ice water and stir with a fork. It should come together, but never be wet. Add more water, a few drips at a time till this happens. Once it’s together enough to form into a ball (which will be crumbly, still), stop adding water. Now, dust your hands with flour and gather the dough into two balls. Don’t knead this dough – it’s not bread. Press the balls into flat discs; wrap in plastic and let it relax 10 minutes. Then, refrigerate. Now, make the filling.
Firm Fruit Fillings
I whip out apple pies more often than not, because I can’t always get nor do I trust berries from the store. Apples are there practically year round; cherries are in now and I’ll go for them. More on cherries in a minute.
For an apple pie, you’ll need about 8 Granny Smith apples. They’re the most reliable for a pie – firm, and tart. Don’t buy Braeburns or MacIntoshs or Red Delicious for pies – they’re eating apples and don’t hold up to baking. You can use Golden Delicious; they’re sweet, though, so take that into account when you’re adding sugar.
You’ll need about 6 cups of sliced fruit – we’ll talk apples. Now here’s where I veer off the page. I have never really measured the apples, so am not sure – I just cut up apples until they stack three-times the top of my 10-inch, deep-dish pie plate. They will cook down, I promise. You can’t have “too many” apples, because they won’t fit in your pie plate. When you can’t mound any more, you’re done. It’s somewhere between 6and 8 cups or so if you measure them, but it’s tough because they’re sliced.
Pro cooks weigh ingredients
If I were a pro, and wanted the exact same results every single time, I’d weigh the apples (and the flour for the pie crust, and so on…). I have a food scale. Weights give you a more clear picture, but even these can vary widely. A magazine writer did a story once, asking five pro bakers to make an angel food cake with the exact same recipe – and it came out five very different ways. Proving my point: There are too many variables – ingredients, oven heat, even timers – for this to be an exact science.
Lemon juice serves two purposes
You’ll need a half lemon, about 1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar (more veering and more on that in a sec), 1/3 cup or so of flour, and some spices.
Peel and core the apples. (That’s where I love my Zyliss peeler – I wrote about it.) Slice them into thickish wedges – or, big chunks if you prefer. No law says they have to be sliced, nor do they have to be the same size. If you like chunky bite to the pie, leave some a lot bigger than others; if you like a smooth filling, each slice should be the same width.
Put them in a bowl and squeeze a tablespoon or so of lemon juice over them. This keeps the apples white, and lends a nice tartness to the pie. I used too much in a recent pie – but it turned out well, all the same.
Seasoning the pie
I make my apple pie filling right in the crust, putting in the apples first, then sugar, spices and butter on top, but you can toss all the ingredients in a bowl if you prefer, and pour them into the pie shell.
We don’t think much measuring salt and pepper added to a savory dish, and that’s how I approach spices and sugar. I sprinkle what I think is “about right” and go from there. I use both light brown and white sugars – I like the combination. It’s a scant 1/2 cup when all is said and done. I don’t like a syrupy sweet pie – I prefer it on the tart side. So go more in the direction you like yours. Remember that the types of apples you used, however, will affect the sweetness of the pie.
Spices are next: I like cinnamon, but also allspice, and a pinch of cloves in my apple pie. So I add about 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon allspice, and 1/8 teaspoon cloves – cloves are the strongest spice on the shelf. I also like ginger, but most people don’t, so I go easy on it – 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon is about right. You need a pinch of salt – but not much. I sprinkle these things over the sugar. Now if I’m doing it this way in the bowl, I toss it all together with the apples, and get back to the crust.
Back to the pie dough
Take the pie crusts from the fridge; let stand for 10 minutes to relax. Sprinkle flour on a flat surface where you can comfortably roll out dough. You can use a pastry cloth, or a mat, or just the clean counter as I do. (Make sure the surface isn’t hot or near heat – cold is your friend when making pie crusts.) Wipe your rolling pin with flour, too. Have extra flour in a bowl to sprinkle more.
Put a dough disk in the center of the surface and sprinkle lightly with flour. Working from the center of the dough, roll the dough, pressing lightly on the pin, away from you. Then pull the pin toward you from the center. Press evenly as possible. Turn the dough 1/4 turn to the left, and repeat these two rolls – away from you, and toward you. Now keep doing this till the dough is a circle about 13 inches in diameter and about 1/8-inch thickness. A goal isn’t as thin as possible; you have to have some structure to lift the crust and support the apples, too. Sprinkle flour on it as you need to – but not too much, and don’t worry if the outer edges aren’t perfectly round.
Lifting the pie crust into the plate
First, sprinkle a teaspoon or so of flour into the pie plate.
Moving the pie crust off the counter and into the plate is a tricky part, because you don’t want to tear it. You can do it two ways: Wrap it carefully around your rolling pin (tricky, since most pins are shorter than the width of the crust), and unrolling it over the plate, or folding it and placing in the crust, then unfolding.
To roll it up, put the pin on one edge of the crust, and roll the crust onto itself. Put the pin on one edge of the pie plate and unroll it, letting it fall gently into the plate. Now press it into place.
To fold it, fold it into thirds – bring the far edge over close to the edge nearest you. Lift the edge nearest you to fold over to the opposite side. Now lift the whole crust over the pie plate and set inside; unfold.
If any cracks appear, no worries. It’s easily repaired. Simply dip your fingers into a little water and smooth the crack. Trust me that no one will see it. Don’t worry about jagged edges. Smooth the crust into the pie plate so it’s fairly evenly distributed in the plate.
Fill the pie and top it
Pour the apples into the pie. Add the spices and sugar if you haven’t already. Sprinkle it with 1/3 (about) cup of flour. Now add some pats of butter all around – sides and on top of apples. Don’t obsess about making them even. Use about 1/2 a stick of butter – 1/4 cup or so.
Roll out the top crust as you did for the bottom and cover the apples and edges of the pan. Use a sharp knife to trim the crusts 1/2 inch below the edge of the plate overhang. Now, crimp the edges so the pie crusts are sealed together. Use your finger to do make a pretty pattern (look up the phrase “crimp pie crust edge” to see how it’s done if you need help.
Now, cut vents into the crust to let the steam escape. Use a sharp knive to make slits, or decorative shapes in the top crust near the edges and at the crown of the pie. I cut Xs into the crust when I’m in a hurry, or use a tiny heart cookie cutter to make it fancier. Note, however, the crust will “wrinkle” as it settles, and your cut-out shapes won’t hold up all that well.
Options: For a pretty, shiny pie crust, brush the top of the crust with milk or an egg yolk mixed with water, and/or sprinkle some coarse sugar on top.
Finishing and baking
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and set the pie plate on a thin cookie sheet lined with foil or parchment, or alternately, place a sheet of aluminum foil on the bottom rack under the pie (NOT on the oven floor) to catch any drips from the pie. The drips will be sugary and create a carbon, smoky mess in the oven.
Bake the pie on a center rack at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Without removing the pie from the oven, turn the oven down to 350 and continue to bake for another 25 minutes. Test the pie by sliding a knife into one of the vents, if you like, to determine whether the apples are soft.
The crust should be beautifully browned; not burned. If your oven is too hot, and the crust’s edges are browning too quickly, use aluminum foil strips to crimp around the edges of the pie. If the whole pie is getting too brown too quickly, tent the pie totally with heavy foil, but do not seal it tightly around edges.
Resist that urge to dig in
Hot pie is wonderful, but if you want hot pie, go for a cobbler or apple Betty instead. A pie has to cool properly to cut properly. It’s a major mess when it’s hot.
Set the pie on a cooling rack so the bottom of the pie cools evenly. If you’re taking the pie elsewhere, don’t put it in a basket and cover it; the steam will soften the crust. Lightly tent the pie with foil to cover it.
Allow to cool at least 20 minutes, then chill completely if desired, or serve slightly warm, with ice cream or whipped cream (add a sprinkle of cinnamon to it) or on a puddle of rich cream right out of the pitcher. Some friends like a wedge of cheddar cheese with theirs – this is pretty good, too.
So there you have it. Easy and once you have the knack for it, just do it – don’t worry so much about the science. Make a peach pie, or a pear pie or a quince pie the same way.
Cherries and berries
Once you have these basics, you can make a berry or cherry – or combo – pie with just a few variations.
Pit the cherries, or clean and slice berries, and throw them in a bowl. You’ll only need 4 to 5 cups of berries or cherries – they will make a mess if you overload these crusts unlike the other fruits.
Add sugar, seasonings (with cherries, add a dash of almond extract or cherry liqueur; with blackberries, use blackberry liqueur or cassis) and in the case of these fruits, for thickening, use cornstarch or tapioca - not flour. (About 1/4 cup to 4 cups of fruit).
If the berries are tart (tart cherries, or blueberries), use a bit more sugar than in the apple pie - maybe 3/4 cup. If sweet, keep it to 1/2 to 3/4 cup; stick with white sugar and no brown for berries.) Don’t forget the lemon juice and dash of salt. Dot the pie with butter as before.
Put it all in the pie crust as you did the apple. But now, this pie bakes entirely at 400 degrees.