I think I’ve got the perfect pie crust down pat. Even if being a pastry chef weren’t my chosen profession, I would have spent years working on the formula — because my husband (also a chef) loves pie.
Over the past two years alone, I have reworked the dough recipe seven or eight times, which seems crazy when you consider that it calls for so few ingredients. But this year, I really kicked it into gear by arriving at the proper balance of salt and butter. I have about 12 people on staff among the 10 restaurants and bakeries I oversee, yet only four of them are allowed to make pie crust.
And now I’m sharing the particulars with you, along with a recipe for my own obsession: apple pie. Plenty of people learn to fill an unbaked pie shell with uncooked, dressed apples and cover them with a round of raw dough. The result? Too often it’s a pie with a soggy bottom crust and apples that have condensed during baking, leaving a giant air gap between the filling and the top crust.
Here are things to keep in mind:
Ingredients matter. For the dough, use high-fat-content, top-quality butter; a slightly heavy hand with the salt; and high-proof vodka.
Butter with a fat content of 82 or 83 percent, such as Plugra, contains less water and can make the difference between a crisp, flaky crust and a wet, soggy one.
Chances are, you’ll be filling the pie crust with something sweet. Salt will provide balance and enhance the butter flavor. People can be afraid to use salt in dessert recipes, but trust me: It will do wonders. (I rarely list salt in my recipes at work because my staff knows that adding it is automatic.)
Vodka provides moisture to help bind the dough, yet it evaporates quickly, which avoids activating the gluten in the flour, which can toughen. But a little vodka goes a long way: You don’t want to end up with a crust that is so dry, it becomes crumbly or hard to cut through.
The less handling of the dough, the better. For a flaky crust, you want to see thin streaks of butter as you roll out the dough.
Blind-bake the bottom shell first. I do that until the crust is 90 percent done. I like to line my disposable aluminum foil pie pan with dough and then seat a second foil pan, filled with uncooked rice, directly on top of the bottom pie shell. That way, the pie shell is weighted for baking but none of it is exposed, allowing for even browning during the final baking of the pie.
Precook the apples. Peel, core, slice and season as desired. I’m a purist: Gala apples from the farmers market, sugar, cinnamon, cornstarch, a pinch of salt. When the mixture cooks on the stove top, any taste of raw cornstarch disappears.
With this method, you also can taste the apples as they cook, adjusting the sugar/spice and salt as needed.
It’s best to cook the apples a bit longer than you’d think. (Apple pie is often eaten at room temperature, and you don’t want crunchy fruit inside.) The slices should be soft yet hold their shape when they are hot. Refrigerate the filling until it has thoroughly cooled and thickened.
Cut it out. Now for the fun part: Use cookie or biscuit cutters to create beautiful shapes out of the remaining pie dough, then use them to decorate the top crust. Egg-wash the top crust, as well as both sides of the cutouts, so those pieces of dough can be arranged in a way that completely overlaps and adheres to the top crust. That will help keep the apple filling where it belongs and help protect the top crust from over-browning. I sprinkle the cutouts and top crust with turbinado sugar and flaked sea salt.
Speaking of cutouts, either make slits at the center of the top crust or use a very small round cutter to make a hole to allow steam to escape.
Adjust the final bake. Setting the oven at a higher temperature than what might usually be called for in pie recipes will yield a top crust that sets quicker and turns a nice, golden brown without exposing the filling and bottom crust to prolonged heat. I’m used to working with convection ovens; if you have one, bake this apple pie at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes.
If you try pie my way, you’ll have a crust that is as crisp and flaky on the bottom as it is on the top, packed with perfectly cooked apples. And, in my case, a very happy husband.
More Thanksgiving stories from the Food section:
Do you have pie or Thanksgiving dessert questions? MacIsaac, executive pastry chef for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.