Make a Better Pie

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The thought of baking pies for Thanksgiving gives countless cooks anxiety. But fear not. Here’s some expert guidance to help you conquer the final dish of the feast.

PIE FAQs

Can I make pies in advance?

There are several ways you can plan ahead when it comes to pie: You can make the dough up to three days ahead and refrigerate, or up to one month ahead and freeze. (If frozen, thaw it in the refrigerator overnight.)

— You can make pumpkin pie and pecan pie fillings up to five days ahead, but don’t mix in the pecans until just before baking. Store in the fridge.

— You can roll out the crust and line your pie plate a day before baking it. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. You can also blind bake your crust a day ahead. Just leave it on the counter and cover it with a clean dish towel once it has cooled. (One idea: Bake the crusts and make the fillings the day before, then assemble and bake the pies before the turkey goes into the oven on Thanksgiving morning.)

— You can freeze a whole unbaked fruit or pumpkin pie for up to a month. Or you can fully bake pies the day before Thanksgiving, though they will be considerably less ethereal when you serve them. Store them at room temperature, not in the fridge.

Do frozen pies need to defrost before they are baked?

Bake them while they are still frozen, adding about 15 minutes to the baking time. Do not thaw them first, or you could lose flakiness in the crust.

Why does my pie crust crumble when I roll it out?

You’re probably not adding enough water. The dough needs to be moist enough to roll out without cracking. Try adding a little more water the next time you make dough. Start with a few drops at a time, and stop when the dough no longer feels crumbly.

If I don’t have pie weights, what else can I use to blind bake the crust?

Use dried beans. If you don’t have those, the most effective weight is another pie dish. And if you don’t have another pie dish, cover the crust and rim with aluminum foil and fill with popcorn kernels, or uncooked rice or even a few handfuls of loose change.

How can I keep my pie crust from shrinking when it’s baked?

Try freezing the crust for 20 minutes before baking. This also helps the crimped crust hold its shape.

How do I use lard in my pie crust?

Lard makes a slightly flakier pie crust that’s a little easier to handle than an all-butter dough. You can substitute lard for other fats in your favorite pie crust recipe. Lard varies in flavor depending on how it’s rendered. Sometimes it’s flavorless, and sometimes it has a slight porky funk to it, which can be part of its appeal. Its mild savoriness goes well with pecan and pumpkin pies, and the gorgeous, airy texture makes apple pies seem lighter.

Make sure to seek out rendered “leaf” lard from a good butcher or specialty market, or try your farmers market. Avoid processed lard from the supermarket; it has been hydrogenated to increase shelf life and can have an off or mildly rancid flavor, not to mention the dangers of hydrogenated fat to your arterial health.

Best Practices for Flaky Crusts

Before You Start

— You’ll need a 9-inch pie pan, a rolling pin and pie weights.

— Your butter must be cold; even frozen butter works as long as it’s cut into cubes before freezing.

— Factor in at least one hour to let the dough chill before rolling it out.

Rolling Out the Dough

— Lightly dust flour onto a clean counter and onto a rolling pin. (Alternatively, you can roll out the dough between two sheets of parchment paper or plastic wrap; no flour required.)

— Put the dough on the floured surface and, using the pin, roll away from you, applying pressure evenly.

— Rotate the dough clockwise as you work so it’s uniformly thin and isn’t rolled irretrievably into the counter. Lightly dust the counter with flour as you work. But don’t overdo it. Too much flour all at once makes a tough crust.

— Roll the dough in all directions until you have a 12-inch circle. (If your rolled dough doesn’t end up in a neat circle, you can trim it, and use the trimmings to patch up any rips, holes or bald spots.)

— Transfer crust to a 9-inch pie pan by gently rolling it up onto the pin, then carefully unfurling it into the pan. Fold over any excess dough. If you’re not making a top crust, crimp the edges now.

— Prick crust all over with a fork, then chill crust for 30 minutes. Your crust is now ready to fill or blind bake.

Blind Baking

Blind baking is partly baking a pie crust before adding the filling, which helps keep the crust crunchy. After filling it, you return the pie to the oven to finish baking. It’s a particularly good method for custard pies, like pumpkin and pecan, which are prone to sogginess.

— Begin with the chilled, rolled-out dough in the pan. Line the dough with parchment paper or foil. Fill it with pie weights. Transfer to a 425-degree oven.

— Bake the crust until it firms up, about 15 minutes. It will be very pale at this point. Remove the parchment or foil and weights, then return crust to the oven.

— Bake the crust 5 to 7 minutes more, until pale golden brown. Let it cool on a rack before filling.

4 Tips for Baking Better Pies

When cutting the butter into the flour, look for lima-bean-size chunks, not pea-size ones. This ensures a flaky crust.

After crimping the pie crust, chill it for about 10 minutes before baking. This will help the crust retain a pretty edge.

If you don’t have pie weights for blind baking, line the raw crust with parchment or foil and fill it with dried beans or loose change.

Baking pies on rimmed baking sheets helps contain any overflow and makes removing the pie from the oven easier.

4 kinds of top crusts

LATTICE

To make a lattice top, you’ll need to double your pie dough if it’s not a recipe for a double crust. Roll out the chilled dough and cut it into 1-inch-thick strips.

— Place half the strips parallel to one another across the top of the filled pie. (Reserve some of the longer strips for when you weave the lattice.) The longest strip should run along the pie’s center. (You can watch a video of the process at nytcooking.com.)

— Flip up every other strip on the pie. Place another long strip perpendicular to the others across the center of the pie.

— Flip those strips back down, then flip up the other strips. Weave in a second strip of dough. Repeat process on one side, then the other, until you have fully covered the pie with woven strips.

— Gently press lattice strip edges into the bottom crust, then crimp the edges to seal the top and bottom crusts together. Or, if you’ve blind baked the bottom crust, simply tuck in the edges of the lattice so the strips don’t hang over the side of the pan. Brush lattice all over with milk, cream or an egg wash (a mix of egg and water or milk) to encourage browning. You can sprinkle the top with sugar or cinnamon sugar if you like.

WHOLE TOP

As with the lattice top, a whole-top covering needs double the pie dough (unless your recipe already yields a double crust). Roll out the chilled dough, then lay it over the top of the filled pie.

— Crimp the edges to seal the crusts together. If you’ve blind baked the bottom crust, simply tuck in the edges of the top crust so it doesn’t hang over the side of the pan.

— Slash the top of the pie with a knife to allow steam to escape. Brush the top crust with milk, cream or an egg wash to encourage browning. You can sprinkle it with sugar or cinnamon sugar if you like.

CUTOUT TOP

Double your pie dough if it’s not already a recipe for a double crust. Roll out the chilled dough and use decorative cookie cutters to cut out shapes from the dough.

If you haven’t blind baked the crust, use a paring knife or scissors to trim any excess dough, so the dough is flush with the edge of the pan.

— Arrange a ring of cutouts around the outer edge of the filled pie (the cutouts should be touching the crust, coming flush to the edge).

Continue adding cutouts to fully cover the top of the pie. You can overlap the cutouts (or not) as you see fit.

— Brush cutouts with milk, cream or an egg wash to encourage browning. Sprinkle the cutouts with sugar or cinnamon sugar if you like.

CRUMB TOP

To make a simple crumble for a standard 9-inch pie, combine 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup dark brown sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, a large pinch of salt and 5 tablespoons softened butter in a large bowl.

— Use your hands to mix the ingredients together, pinching until large crumbs form. The crumbs should be a bit bigger than lima beans. Avoid small crumbs.

— Scatter crumbs over the pie. It’s nice, but unnecessary, to mound more crumbs in the center and fade them out toward the edges so some filling can show.

Recipe: All-Butter Pie Crust

By MELISSA CLARK

TIME: 15 minutes, plus cooling

YIELD: one 9-inch single pie crust

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into pieces

2 to 4 tablespoons ice water, as needed

1. In a food processor, pulse together the flour and salt. Add butter and pulse until the mixture forms lima-bean-size pieces. Slowly add ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, and pulse until the dough just comes together. It should be moist, not wet.

2. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gather into a ball. Flatten into a disk with the heel of your hand. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 2 days.

NOTE: For the best results, use a high-fat, European-style unsalted butter. You can experiment with textures and flavors by substituting 3 to 4 tablespoons shortening, lard, beef suet, duck fat or an unsweetened nut butter, such as hazelnut butter, almond butter or mixed nut butter, for 3 to 4 tablespoons regular butter. All should be well chilled before using.

Recipe: Brandied Pumpkin and Chestnut Pie

By MELISSA CLARK

TIME: 2 1/4 hours

YIELD: 8 servings

This is possibly the best pumpkin pie recipe I’ve found. Readers have said that people who think they don’t like pumpkin pie love this one.

1 small sugar pumpkin or medium butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled, seeded and cut into 2-inch chunks; or 1 cup canned pumpkin purée

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

3 eggs

1/2 cup light brown sugar

3 tablespoons good brandy, such as cognac

1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Pinch ground cloves

3/4 cup sweetened chestnut paste (such as crème de marrons)

1 prebaked 9-inch pie crust

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl, toss pumpkin with butter and granulated sugar. Arrange on a baking sheet. Roast, tossing occasionally, until caramelized and very soft, 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool. (This can be done up to 5 days ahead.)

2. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees. Purée pumpkin in a food processor or blender. In a bowl, combine 1 cup purée with 1 cup cream. Save any leftover purée for another use: It freezes well. Whisk together eggs, brown sugar, brandy, ginger, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg and cloves. Stir in pumpkin mixture.

3. In a separate bowl, combine chestnut paste with remaining 1/4 cup cream. Spread chestnut mixture in pie crust. Top with pumpkin filling.

4. Transfer pie to a rimmed baking sheet and bake until pie is firm to the touch but jiggles slightly when moved, about 1 hour. Let cool to room temperature before slicing.

Recipe: Apple Pie

By SAM SIFTON

TIME: 1 1/2 hours

YIELD: 8 servings

In 2013, at least, one of the great pie makers in New York City was Kierin Baldwin, the pastry chef at the Dutch in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. This recipe is adapted from hers, for a plain apple pie. It’s much better than a plain apple pie.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 1/2 pounds apples, peeled and cored, then cut into wedges (5 large honeycrisps will do it)

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 recipe all-butter pie crust

1 egg, lightly beaten

1. Melt butter in a large saute pan set over medium-high heat and add apples. Stir to coat fruit with butter and cook, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, whisk together spices, salt and 3/4 cup sugar, and sprinkle this over pan, stirring to combine. Lower heat and cook until apples have started to soften, about 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle flour and cornstarch over apples and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, another 3 to 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat, add cider vinegar, stir and scrape fruit mixture into a bowl and allow to cool completely. (It will cool faster if spread on a rimmed baking sheet.)

2. Place a large baking sheet on middle rack of oven and heat to 425 degrees. Remove one disc of dough from the refrigerator and, using a pin, roll it out on a lightly floured surface until it is roughly 12 inches in diameter. Fit this crust into a 9-inch pie plate, trimming it to leave a 1/2-inch overhang. Place this plate, with the dough, in the freezer.

3. Roll out the remaining dough on a lightly floured surface until it is roughly 10 or 11 inches in diameter.

4. Remove pie crust from freezer and put cooled pie filling into it. Cover with remaining dough. Press edges together, trim excess, then crimp edges with tines of a fork. Using a sharp knife, cut 3 or 4 steam vents in the top of the crust. Lightly brush the top of the pie with egg wash and sprinkle with remaining tablespoon of sugar.

5. Place pie in oven and bake on hot baking sheet for 20 minutes, then reduce temperature to 375. Continue to cook until interior is bubbling and crust is golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes more. Remove and allow to cool on a windowsill or kitchen rack, about 2 hours.

Recipe: Pear-Pomegranate Pie

By MELISSA CLARK

TIME: 1 1/2 hours

YIELD: 8 servings

In this welcome departure from the traditional apple pie, a combination of Anjou and Bosc pears are caramelized in a mixture of pomegranate molasses and butter, then combined with a smaller portion of fresh, uncooked pears. The whole glorious mess is then dumped into an all-butter crust and baked until tender. The happy result is a pie that’s soft and sweet, tangy and really good.

4 Bosc pears (about 2 pounds), peeled and cored

4 Anjou pears (about 2 pounds), peeled and cored

6 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

3 tablespoons tapioca

3/4 cup light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon salt

Flour, for dusting

Dough for two 9-inch pie crusts

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Quarter 6 pears. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, bring 3 tablespoons molasses to a boil. Let simmer about 2 minutes, until molasses thickens. Arrange half the quartered pears in a single layer in skillet. Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons butter over pears. Cook, turning occasionally, until pears are well caramelized on all sides (but not cooked through), about 5 minutes.

2. Scrape pears and molasses into a bowl. Add tapioca and toss to combine. Repeat cooking process with remaining molasses, butter and quartered pears. Add second batch of pears to bowl; combine.

3. Thinly slice remaining pears and add to bowl. Stir in sugar, ginger and salt. On a lightly floured surface, roll out both crusts to 12-inch circles. Place one crust in 9-inch pie plate. Scrape pear filling into crust.

4. Cut remaining dough into strips about 1 inch thick. Top pie with strips, weaving them into a lattice. Crimp edges to seal. Place pie on a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet.

5. Bake for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking until crust is dark golden and pears are tender when pricked with a fork, about 45 minutes more. Let cool for 30 minutes before slicing.


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