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Practicing the basics: apple pie

Few dishes are as quintessentially American as apple pie, and yet surprisingly there are endless variations on the recipe (both the crust and the filling). Of course, it goes without saying that Mom’s apple pie is the best one.

Below is a recipe for a basic, yummy apple pie, that will serve as a great jumping-off point for you to experiment and make your own family recipe. Before we dive in, there are a few important things to know about making an apple pie:

  • You can make it using only one type of apple if you like (and there is no consensus on the best apple to use), but most of the pie experts I’ve spoken with agree that you get a much better pie, with more complexity in flavor, from combining two different kinds of apples, one tart (like granny smith) and one sweet (like red delicious or honeycrisp).
  • As apples cook, they release a lot of their water (and apples are mostly water, so it’s potentially a lot). To deal with this we do two things. First, we coat the apple pieces in a flour mixture to absorb the water. Second, we cut vent holes in the top crust before baking to allow steam to escape.
  • We bake the pie in two stages: first a quick 10 minutes at 425 degrees to harden up the crust. Second, a longer bake at 350 degrees to more slowly cook the apples. 350 is still hot enough to brown the crust, so we have to pay close attention to the crust at the end of the bake so that we remove our pie when it browns exactly as much as we want (and no more).
  • For many people, much of the magic of flavor in an apple pie is the mix of spices. Cinnamon and nutmeg are the classic spices and are great pairings with apple. Not only can you vary the amounts for those two spices to your liking, but you can also experiment with a wide range of other spices. Just start with small amounts; cooked apple doesn’t have an overpowering flavor other than sweetness and it’s easy to overwhelm it.

Suggested reading:

Ingredients

  • 2-layer pie crust for a 9-inch pie pan (store-bought, or make your own)
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 3 pounds apples, peeled, cored, and cut into chunks 3/4 to 1 inch thick. Peeling is optional but very common. Check out this video for how to chop up an apple; it’s easier and faster than you think.
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tbsp. water

Prepare the pie crusts. Lay the lower crust into a 9-inch pie pan. Using kitchen shears, trim the crust so that it overhangs the edge of the pie pan rim by about 1/4 inch. Keep the upper crust in the refrigerator. Place the pie pan on a 1/2 sheet pan.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a small bowl and stir to mix. A classic recipe step: combine all the dry ingredients together first, so you can ensure that they are evenly distributed.

Prepare the apple chunks and place in a large bowl. Add the lemon juice and toss the apples to coat with lemon juice. The lemon juice prevents the apples from turning brown when exposed to air.

Sprinkle the flour mixture over the apples and toss to thoroughly coat the apple pieces. The flour will absorb excess liquid released by the apples as they cook, so we want it spread over all the filling.

Carefully pile the coated apple pieces into the pie pan on top of the lower crust. The apple will shrink as it cooks, so start with a pile that is at least an inch above the top of the pie pan in the center and tapers down to the pie pan height at the edge.

Lay the top layer of pie dough over the top of the filling, overhanging the edge of the rim all the way around. Using kitchen shears, trim the excess dough so that the overhang is approximately the width of the pie pan rim. Then fold the overhanging dough from the top crust underneath the lower crust all the way around the edge of the pie pan. This will give you a nice rounded edge, a thick crust along the rim, and a sealed-up crust.

If you want, you can add traditional notching along the edge of the crust. Stick your index finger underneath the edge of the crust, and with the tips of your thumb and index finger on the other hand, press down on either side of where your index finger is pushing up on the crust to create indentations. Work your way around the edge of the rim making a row of alternating notches and indentations.

Egg wash: combine the egg and water in a small bowl and beat for 1 minute. Brush a light coating of the egg mixture over the top of the crust. This is optional, but it will give the top crust a nice shine and help it to brown.

Using a paring knife, make a series of half-inch slits in the top crust to allow steam to vent. You can make a nice pattern, just make sure the distribute the slits around the top crust so it vents evenly.

Place the pie pan (still on a half-sheet) in the oven and bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature setting to 350 degrees, and bake until the top crust is golden brown, around 45 minutes. The exact time will vary based on a wide variety of factors — including how quickly your oven cools down from 450 to 350. Start checking on the pie after 30 minutes, and at more frequent intervals as it begins to brown.

Remove pie from oven and allow it to cool on a rack. Serve hot or cold.

Tips and suggestions:

  • Apple pie takes a long time to cool. Even if you want to serve it hot, let it cool for at least 30 minutes. The cooling time will also allow additional liquid still inside the pan to either be absorbed by the flour or be vented out as steam.
  • Fruit combinations are great. Berries complement apple well, but some (like blackberries) will release even more liquid, so you might need to vary the amount of flour you use.
  • Feel free to mess with the spices, changing their quantities and/or adding different ones like ginger, cardamom, allspice, cumin, or cloves.
  • You could also try adding spiced rum or other types of alcohol. Add them the same time as the lemon juice.
  • Don’t be surprised if it takes a few tries to build up an intuition for how high to pile the fruit when making your pie to account for the amount that it will shrink when cooking. There is no magic formula.