What is it about pie that brings out the generosity of people? Or is it the generosity that brings out the pie? Hm. Whichever it is, a dear friend recently demonstrated extraordinary ‘piegivingness’ at a vintage garden picnic held in honour of late-summer birthdays. When asked if he would consider making a pie to contribute, he said yes without hesitation.
On the day of the event he texted me: “Apple pie cooling. Went on a baking jag. I have a chocolate cake with chocolate butter cream icing available if you want it.” I, too, said yes without hesitation. (Surprise!)
He also provided candles, ice cream, whipped cream and the gas doohickey for squirting the whipped cream … and helped serve. Then I asked if he would share the recipe. (I simply do not know when to stop. It’s a flaw.) What follows is his response. Yes, the recipe. And the most delightful context for it.
A big fat Dishing in the Kitchen thank-you to Fred Armstrong, pie-maker extraordinaire and our guest blogger – and to his mom and grandma for producing such fine cooking and such a fine boy. Settle back and indulge.
I learned to make pies watching my mom bake. She was an amazing cook, and at one time ran the cafeteria at Eastglen High School in Edmonton at the peak of her ‘culinary’ career. I baked my first cookies when I was about 7 after forgetting to tell my mom that we had a ‘bake sale’ at school. I woke up at about 5:00 am, went into the kitchen and followed her recipe for molasses cookies. After mixing the ingredients I fired up the oven and started cooking the cookies. While they baked I sat and read a book and when the smell permeated the house my mom stumbled into the kitchen and asked “Freddie, what’s going on?’ I told her about the bake sale, and indicated that I didn’t want to be a bother so I just followed her recipe. The first batch was ready to take out of the oven, so she brewed some coffee and when the cookies cooled she tested them and reported that they tasted good. I was quite ‘chuffed’ at the thumbs up. We sat for a while and chit chatted as the second and final batch cooked.
She knew that I watched her cook all the time and I loved hanging out with mom chatting about whatever subject came up. When grandma came, it was like hanging out on the set of ‘Lidia’s Kitchen’ (even though Grandma was a protestant English/Irish/Scottish mix).Mom didn’t realize that I was actually paying close attention to the ‘process’ of baking and cooking. This is a long-winded introduction, but is necessary, because the assembly of the pie that I do is based very much on my observations, rather than following strict measurements.
And finally, I didn’t know about ‘Dutch’ apple pies. The reason I use the streusel topping is that one day I was making a big batch of pies for an annual Christmas dinner celebration at a friend’s and I miscalculated the amount of pie dough I had and was one ‘top crust’ short with a fully assembled apple pie ready for the oven. On a whim I got an old cookbook out for a coffee cake recipe my mom used to make that has a great cinnamon streusel topping. I made a batch of the streusel and put it on that orphan apple pie. It was the first to go at the dinner the next day, and thereafter I never made a tradition apple pie again. At a subsequent party a foodie friend noted that I brought a ‘Dutch’ Apple Pie, and whaddya know, I had accidentally discovered a traditional recipe. Love the Dutch!
The ‘Dutch’ Apple Pie Recipe
The exception to the ‘improvisation’ of this recipe is both the pie crust and the streusel topping. I learned back then, from observation, that bakers follow recipes and cooks improvise, meaning that people get intimidated when their baking fails, which is usually due to not measuring, missing an ingredient or not following the handling and cooking instructions and temperature. Baking is chemistry, so follow the pie crust recipe closely, as well as the streusel topping recipe, but don’t be afraid to customize the pie filling to your tastes.
The thing that confounds most people is pie crust. You can buy pre-made pie crust in the Pillsbury section of the grocery store if this is what’s holding you back from baking, but it’s not that hard, in this age of food processors, to make a great pie crust.
For many years I used a recipe that was handed down from my grandma to my mom, and was a variation on the ‘Crisco’ pie crust recipe. But one day a few years back I was watching America’s Test Kitchen on PBS and they did a great segment on pie crust and the formation of gluten that caused me to try their recipe. It uses a food processor and the secret ingredient, vodka, allows for a wonderful flaky pie crust that works every time. So here is the America’s test Kitchen recipe, properly credited, that you can use for all pies (and quiche);
Foolproof Pie Dough
- 2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices
- 1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
- 1/4 cup cold vodka
- 1/4 cup cold water
1. FOR THE PIE DOUGH: Process 1 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 (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.
2. 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 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.
3. Remove 1 disk of dough from the refrigerator and roll on generously floured (up to 1/4 cup) work surface to 12-inch circle, about 1/8 inch think. Roll dough loosely and rolling pin and unroll into pie plate, leaving at least 1-inch overhang on each side. Working around 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 while preparing filling until dough is firm, about 30 minutes.
I love America’s test Kitchen and Cook’s Country. Their bi-monthly magazines, cookbooks and the two PBS TV shows, along with their You Tube channels and smart phone and tablet computer apps are worth the money. This personal ad for their products makes me feel less guilty for passing on their recipe!
- 8 Granny smith apples
- Cinnamon powder
- Nutmeg powder or fresh nutmeg
- Ginger powder
- Brown sugar (the darker the better)
- One large navel orange washed and dried.
- Robin Hood flour (pre-sifted flour in the cardboard tube that’s great for gravies and soups – easy blend)
Years ago I bought one of those apple peelers from Starfrit this is a link to the item http://www.starfrit.net/apple-pro-peeler.html. I love it, it works great and the box comes with a ‘bonus’ apple slicer/corer. So you need the apple peeler, the apple slicer/corer, a cutting board and a good sharp paring knife and a micro-plane grater (I got mine at Lee Valley Tools because tool shops charge less than gourmet shops for exactly the same thing). Here’s the link for that http://www.leevalley.com/en/garden/page.aspx?cat=2,40733,44734&p=32458.
I use either a deep dish 9 inch glass or ceramic pie tin at home, and deep dish 9 inch aluminum disposable pans for taking to parties where I intend to leave the leftovers.
Then get yourself about 8 granny smith apples, the greener the better. Granny Smith apples work very nicely against the spices and sweetness of this recipe. If you use another apple, with more sugar content, or more water content, the recipe will not work as well. These apples are tart, which is a key part of the overall taste.
I first peel the apples, and then cut a slice off the bottom to flatten the apple so the corer/slice does its job perfectly on the cutting board. Going through the eight apples is a snap. The pieces go in a bowl for the next step of the processing.
Then I cut each of the segments from the corer slicer into three thin slices. The smaller, thinner, pieces make a huge difference compared to using giant apple wedges. I find that if you have big apple chunks the centre of each wedge doesn’t cook through. Additionally, I can pack a lot more apples into the pie, so there are not huge gaps. Once I have all the apples ready I begin the assembly.
I take the pie crust out of the fridge and then start to build a layer of apple slices on the bottom, trying to neatly fill in all the holes. When I have about 2 layers of the thin slices I wipe my hands off and then lightly dust the apples with the flour. Then I dust the layer with cinnamon powder. I like lots of cinnamon, but the fresher your spices, the more you need to be careful. Then I use a pinch of nutmeg and ginger on this layer. This is the last time I use the nutmeg and ginger, so you need to use what you feel comfortable using for your taste. Then I put a light dusting of the brown sugar. Again, to taste, but remember that the streusel topping is sweet, so be a bit conservative unless you like sweet. Finally, and this is the secret ingredient, you zest some orange rind over this layer. I tend to use about a quarter of the orange’s surface area for the first layer.
Now you go back and place another two layers of the apples in the pie plate. Lightly dust the flour, cinnamon, brown sugar and orange zest. You keep repeating this until you have a heaping pie that mounds up in the centre as much as an inch or inch and a half above the crust. Do not put anything on the top layer. At this point I trim the excess pie crust around the edge, and you can ‘flute ’ the edge or cut it right back flush with the pie plate. It’s up to you. Then put the pie in the fridge for the final part of the recipe.
At this point you can preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Streusel Topping
- ¾ cup of flour (I’ve used whole wheat, unbleached… you go for what you like)
- ½ cup of brown sugar
- ½ cup of salted butter
- A couple of tablespoons of water
- Two teaspoons of cinnamon
Get out your food processor again.
I buy my butter in the one pound box that has individual sticks that are conveniently ½ cup each. They are great for baking. I cut the butter into slices or cubes and place it in the food processor. The slices can be about ¼ inch thick or you can do it in cubes of about half an inch. Basically, you get the idea that you don’t want a giant lump of butter or it won’t mix well.
Now add the flour, sugar and cinnamon and pulse the processor until the ingredients mix well. Then when they are well mixed I drizzle a bit of cold water into the mix until it starts to get kind of clumpy or oat meal looking. Then I stop. Don’t over mix this, I find that I can get the fist mix with 5 or 6 pulses and two or three pulses with the water and it’s good to go. Then I remove the blade from the food processor and the mixing bowl from the processor motor and clear a spot on the counter for the final assembly.
I place one hand, cupped, at the edge of the pie and then start adding a layer of the streusel topping, turning the pie plate until the edges have a nice layer of topping, then I move upwards until the whole pie has a half inch (one centimeter0 layer of the streusel. Now it goes in the centre of the oven and I set the timer for about 20 minutes.
I clean up my mess, and usually the counters are clear when the 20 minute beeping starts. I turn the pie in the oven so the back is now facing the front and set the timer for another 20 minutes. Now I get a cold beverage and enjoy the smell of the cinnamon that permeates the house.
At this point, the moisture in the apples is started to cook out, and the flour acts as a bit of a thickener. The thin slices make the layers cook well, but they don’t disintegrate. After 40 minutes I do another turn and set the timer for 15 minutes. At this point I’ start looking to see if the pie is starting to bubble up on the edges. I also start testing with a bamboo skewer to see if the apples allow the skewer to slide in easily. The total baking time often depends on the ambient temperature and how fresh the apples are, but I’ve never had one take more than 65 minutes. Once the pie is bubbling at the edges, and the skewer doesn’t meet much resistance (don’t wait until the apples turn to mush) then take it out and let it cool. You can serve it within a half hour, but I would wait for at least an hour.
Serve with some nice vanilla ice cream or whipped cream and enjoy.
I hope you enjoy the pie, and that you cook with your kids. This recipe comes from my grandma and mother, and the smell takes me back to hanging out in the kitchen talking with my mom and not having a care in the world.
Needless to say, Fred’s pie was a hit, with many requests for the recipe (which he so generously shares here) along with a couple of declarations of undying love and offers of marriage from picnic guests. You can see why, right? As icing on the cake (ahem), when I offered to return his beautiful fluted pyrex pie dish (after licking it clean) he told me I could keep it. (Okay, it MIGHT have been the licking, but I’m pretty sure it was the bigheartedness).