Monday, May 21, 2012


I make lots of pies. I make apple, pumpkin, chicken, beef, and "leftovers for the heck of it" pie. I take the old-fashioned idea of pie. Pie is stuff in a crust.  In the U.S., pie is typically fruit (sometimes chicken or beef), which is where my journey began.

After my husband and I had been in China for a while, I began to crave Real Apple Pie. I grew up in a region with lots of apple farms, so things like apple butter, apple cider (American cider is not necessarily alcoholic in American speech, BTW), apple jam, and apple pies were pretty easy to come by. My mom never made pie, we just got it from time to time.

At my very first job (at a grocery store) was a head baker who aspired to do more than run a small grocery store bakery, and he (er, broke the rules and) tweaked recipes. He made the best pies and cakes, especially angel food cakes. I remember he made a special angel food cake for Christmas for my family one year -- my dad loved angel food cake. Anyway, after that I loved the idea of really good pies and cakes, and got spoiled. (My mom's awesome homemade carrot cake doesn't help... I'll get to that recipe later.)

So while in China, I began to crave pie. Pie pie pie. I wanted apple pie. Bad. Finally, I started digging around on the Internet and found several guides, and one REALLY long recipe.

I printed out this really long recipe from someone on the east coast of the U.S. I wish I remembered their name. I just have the recipe now, complete with all their detailed notes. The web page is long gone, although I have the text saved to my computer. I would give them credit if I could.

I call the recipe "Pedantic Apple Pie" because it was written in such loving detail, by someone who was frustrated with what they called "craptastic store-bought pie".

It goes into tremendous detail on how to make pie crust and what kind of apples to use. It also explained how traditional pies don't use that much sugar. This is important. Really important.

While in China, I did not trust buying apples from the local (open, stinky, old-style) market, peeling, and eating them. I trusted Mandarin oranges because their skin is thick. Apples have thin skin, are more likely to get damaged, and accordingly more likely to get you food poisoned. I once in a while bought apples from the actual supermarket and ate them... and sometimes got sick.

So cooking apples seemed like a good idea.

Apples were cheap in China, but they were almost universally Fuji apples (yes, Japanese Fuji apples, raised in China). Fuji apples are good "eatin' apples", as I like to say, because they are very sweet. In Japan proper, Fuji apples are VERY SWEET, like OMG I'm Eating Candy Sweet. (This is why I find it hilarious when Japanese comment that some or other American food is really sweet and sugary.)
Combine the ultra-sweet Asian apples with a recipe that calls for less sugar in the first place, and I end up making pie without much in the sugar department. A typical eight inch pie (yeah, kinda small) ends up taking about three or four apples and less than a quarter cup of sugar. Yes. Like three tablespoons. Maybe. Often less.

Anyway, moving on.

Traditional Pie Crust

This is the real deal as obtained from the "Pedantic Apple Pie" recipe. This stuff is a PAIN IN THE BUTT. It's also worth it. If you're where I am, it's also the only route, because good luck buying a pre-made pie shell from the store. (I have found they sometimes have tart shells, but the flavor is too buttery.)

This crust takes stupid amounts of practice. I am still not great with it. And my pies look like crap. But they taste awesome, so no one I know cares that they look like crap, least of all my three year old.

1 1/2 cups plain white flour

1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) shortening* (more on this below)

1/2 teaspoon salt

3-4 tablespoons REALLY COLD WATER (sometimes more or less, see below)

This makes one 12 inch crust, which generally means it works out where I only need one batch to make a top and bottom on one of my little pies. (I have to use tart pans and a small oven, y'know.)


Plain white flour.  Not bread flour. Nothing fancy.

Shortening can be safely substituted with unsalted "cake margarine", as the Japanese call it. Note I said unsalted. Lard is not a good substitute (nor is it healthy). I have never tried butter, but you would need unsalted butter, and frankly butter is too melty and you'd have to work with the crust VERY quickly or in a pretty cold environ. (Shortening is stupidly expensive but the cake margarine is cheap at the local supermarket. It's this stuff:

The water needs to be cold. Unless your water comes outta the tap at absolutely ice cold temps like mine does, put a cup of water in the fridge for a while. (I live next to a mountain and get ice cold tap water almost straight from a mountain stream, and can freeze my hand in the middle of August.)  The colder the water, the better, because it lengthens the time you can work with the mess. Cold water makes the crust less sticky and messy. Warm water makes a big mess.

Your goal here is to make the dough workable for as long as possible without the stuff becoming elastic. This stuff is the opposite of bread, where you want to knead it and pull it and all that. You want to do as little as possible with this stuff.

Mix the dry ingredients and then "cut in" the shortening in a big bowl. I use a thick-tined fork for this part. There are fun gadgets that do this faster and easier, but I don't have those. I'm SOL, and a thick tined fork does the job. (Thin forks bend.) You want to make the stuff look like a mess of thick cornmeal or okara (tofu lees, look 'em up).

Then carefully add the water, a tablespoon at a time, getting it all to stick together. Stir as little as possible. You may need more water. I do in winter when I'm running an oil heater and the house is super-dry. I need less in summer when it's super humid.

Once all the stuff is stuck together, you need to roll it out. I use a plastic sheet (to avoid mess) and cover it in flour, and carefully roll the stuff out to about a 1/4 inch thick. Then you roll it up into a big tube. If you've floured it enough, it'll roll up neatly without sticking to itself. Takes a lot of practice, as I said. The original recipe says to roll as little as possible (to avoid that elasticity that kills a flaky crust) and even says to throw out elasticky crusts, but of course I don't throw them out because I'm a cheapskate.

When I make apple pie, I need a top and bottom. For pot pie I also use a top and bottom. (I put leftover chicken stew in pot pie.) For pumpkin pie I only need a bottom.

I often have leftover bits of crust that I use to make what my husband calls "po'boy cookies". That is, I bake the crust in bits with cinnamon sugar on them. Family loves it.

Okay, that's enough for one post. I'll put up more in another post.

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