I am not much for desserts nowadays – too rich, too sweet, too many calories I’d rather spend on something else. But a little corner of my heart still loves a fruit pie. I grew up eating them and making them, as a child at my grandmother’s side. In New England tradition, pies are simple and not too sweet, with just a rumor of cinnamon in an all-butter crust. Eat a leftover slice for breakfast with a steaming mug of creamy coffee.
My minimalist pie starts with the right kind of apples: either Baldwins or Cortlands.
Cortlands are commonly found all over the place, but Baldwins are the apples to score if you’re lucky enough to have a diverse orchard nearby. Baldwins used to be everywhere years ago, but they’re rare find today. I drive to Guilford, Conn to get some at Bishop’s Orchards.
My family grew two varieties of apples when I was growing up: McIntosh for eating and Baldwins for keeping. They’re a hard winter apple, not too sweet or too starchy. You can safely store them in newspaper in a cool place until spring.
I cut the apples with one of those eight-slice apple coring and slicing gizmos. Leave the slices whole – you want a bite of apple, not mush – and toss with the juice of a lemon to keep them from browning.
To the apples, I add a half cup of white sugar (again, not too sweet is the rule), 1 teaspoon of cinnamon (you want to taste apple primarily, with just enough cinnamon to perfume the pie juices) and a tablespoon of potato starch for thickening. You can find potato starch in the kosher section of your supermarket. It’s better than cornstarch because it keeps the pie juices clear, while cornstarch clouds the juices.
Then there’s the crust. That’s simple:
- 3 cups of all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out (get King Arthur, a New England brand, if you can swing it)
- Pinch of salt
- 1/2 pound of cold sweet butter (two sticks – I like Kate’s Homemade Butter from Vermont)
- 8-10 tablespoons of ice water
An all-butter crust is crumbly and hard to work with, so if you’re not a pie doyenne, sub out half the butter for Crisco and you’ll have an easier time and a pretty good crust. I make my crust by hand, cutting chunks of the cold butter into the flour-salt mixture with a pastry blender in a big bowl. Sure, use a food processor if you’d rather.
Once the butter’s cut in to the flour into tiny pieces (no larger than a grain of raw rice) sprinkle in the ice water 1 tablespoon at a time. If it’s humid, 8 tablespoons of water will do. If it’s dry, you may need up to 10. Err on the “less is more” side – you can always add water if you need it, but you sure can’t take it out. You’ll know it’s done when it just holds together if you give a chunk of the mixture a good squeeze.
Rolling out the pastry is another “less is more” exercise. Sprinkle flour onto your counter and onto a rolling pin, Flatten the pastry with your hands into a disc and roll, center out, then lift from the counter, turn 90 degrees, flip over and roll again. Got that? It’s roll, lift, turn, flip. Roll, lift, turn, flip. A scraper helps with the “lift” part. You shouldn’t need to roll that much – 8 or 10 turns should do it. If the pastry is not cooperating, wrap it in plastic and let it rest in the fridge for a bit, then try again.
To transfer rolled pastry into the pie plate, wrap an edge of the pastry around the rolling pin and coil the rest of the pastry around, then unroll it right where you want it. (I can’t think of a better way to explain this – I imagine there are 100 videos on YouTube if you don’t understand.) If there are little holes or tears in the crust, just patch them as best you can. It’s homemade, after all. Don’t sweat it.
To get a good seal on the crust, wrap the overhanging bits of top crust under the overhanging bits of bottom crust and crimp them together with your fingers or a fork. Cut a couple of vents in the top crust so steam can escape. Brush the top crust with an egg wash (an egg beaten with a little water).
I use a clear Pyrex pie plate so I can see what’s going on as the pie cooks. I bake it at 400 degrees on a pizza stone to get a good crisp bottom crust. It’s done when the juices bubble thickly. Some may spill out – don’t worry about it.
Cool completely, or as completely as you can stand before eating.