I've been making apple pies for decades, having learned from my Nana--who always baked the family Thanksgiving pies. But, her way (which originally used Spry shortening for the crust and then graduated to margarine) has long needed updating and I've been flailing around for a new mentor for a long time. There's no one way to make pies, no one set of perfect ingredients (although everyone boasts theirs is perfect), no one set-in-stone technique. And that diversity is the beauty of pie. But, as many a failed pie maker knows, it's also the source of a lot of frustration.
But, I may have finally found my mentor in Michele Coulon. Her way is the traditional French way. It's simple and straightforward, relies on just a few quality ingredients, and sticking to formula.
Michele invited me into her bakery kitchen last week to teach me how to make her apple pie--and she didn't just demonstrate. She made me put down my notebook and camera and get my hands dirty. It may be the best gift of the season. (And, if you want her pumpkin pie recipe and techniques, you can find them on her new blog.)
So, here are some basics I learned from her:
- Use the best ingredients possible. Michele uses unsalted European-style butter. I'm going to use Straus Family Creamery's European-style organic butter. Another good choice is Plugra. For the cream, use heavy or whipping cream--not half and half.
- Measure correctly. Weigh apples after peeling and coring. Measure or weigh the ice water for the crust.
- Taste your apples and adjust the amount of sugar based on how sweet or tart they are and the effect you want. Also, blend your apples based on flavor. Michele used Granny Smiths but also added some tiny apples from Crows Pass Farm for additional sweetness.
- Keep the dough chilled. That would seem obvious, but one pastry chef I spoke with last week said she didn't worry about it. However, Michele insists that it affects how the crust turns out. Chill it.
- Pie pans. This is tricky. Michele uses aluminum pie plates for customers but prefers dark metal pans when baking for family to help with browning. She's not fond of ceramic pie plates and is firmly anti-glass (sorry, Pyrex). For this year, I'm sticking with my Emile Henry ceramic pie plates but am researching some cast iron ones I found on Amazon. If anyone has experience with these, please leave a comment.
- Finally, don't over sugar or spice the filling. Apple pies are supposed to play up the flavors of the apples. If you have truly delicious apples, let them shine.
As we got started, instead of using a food processor to pull the dough together, Michele had me use a bowl and very simple tools, including my hands. First, we sliced the butter onto a tray. She already had mixed together the flour and salt. I added the butter to the flour mixture and used two knives to cut the butter into the flour. Don't be shy about it as I was. Go at it with conviction and work the butter down to small pieces about the size of walnut pieces.
Then add your water. It won't look like it will be enough to come together using a mixing spoon, but it will. After a few minutes, once it becomes clear that stirring will no longer do the job, put down the spoon and plunge your hands in to scoop and press together the dough until it just comes together.
Now comes the part we all tend to dread--rolling out the dough. Michele thoroughly flours the board but leaves the rolling pin alone. Her method is to flatten and shape each crust into a disk, roll out from the middle and keep flipping and turning the dough to keep it from sticking. The goal is to form a circle just larger than the pie plate. Once she's ready to move the dough circle from board to pan, she folds it gently in half and then in half again, lifts and centers it on the pie plate, and unfolds it. Into the refrigerator it goes. The second (top) crust is also shaped into a disk and rolled out, then, placed on a small cookie sheet lined with paper and sliced into half-inch strips for the lattice. Then it, too, goes into the fridge for 20 minutes to chill and rest.
While the dough rested, we prepped the filling. Michele peeled the apples and then explained that she finds coring takes too much time, so she just cuts the apples in four pieces around the core (which she nibbles on later). Then she measures out what she needs, and slices the pieces thickly. Again, it's all about the apples here.
The apple slices go into a bowl and are tossed with a mixture of sugar, salt, cinnamon, and flour. Then add a few teaspoons of cream and mix. The cream, Michele, says, adds additional moisture to the filling.
By now, it should be time to bring out the bottom crust. Fill with the apple mixture and gently press the mass down to get it settled into the crust. Top with pieces of butter. The lattice is simple. Instead of weaving the strips, Michele just places half across in one direction and the rest across.
Trim excess and pinch the edges around the pie.
And, as you can see, she turns leftover dough into decorations, cutting out cute little leaves with cookie cutters. She then uses an egg wash (a whole egg and a half a cup of cream) to give the lattice its glow and hold the little leaves in place.
Put the pies on a tray and bake. The results? A crisp, flaky, rich crust enveloping tender, sweet, and bright slices of apple. The best ending I can think of to a holiday meal.
Michele Coulon's Apple Pie
Yield: 1 Pie
1 Southern Pie Pastry (see below)
1 pound, 5 ounces apples (weight after peeling and coring)
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 ounce butter
1 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon (optional)
2 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons plus 1/2 cup cream
Pre-heat conventional oven to 450°.
Make pastry and set aside.
Peel and core apples, placing in a big bowl. Sift dry ingredients together and add to apples, mixing well. Add 3 tablespoons cream and mix with apples.
Roll out pastry and put in pie tin, having edges hanging over the sides loosely. Fill with apples. Dot apples with butter. Put lattice on top. Using a fork, pinch edges but do not go all the way through the dough with the fork. Mix together 1/2 cup cream and the egg. Brush egg wash onto lattice and any dough decorations.
Put on a tray and put in the oven for 10 minutes. Turn down the temperature to 350° and bake until apples are cooked--30 minutes at first, then probably another 15 minutes. Use the tip of a sharp knife to check. If the tip goes into apple slices easily, they're done cooking.
Southern Pastry from Michele Coulon
Yield: 2 pie crusts, top and bottom. Cut recipe in half for 1 pie.
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound cold European-style butter, cut into 1-inch chunky pieces
Mix ingredients until coarse crumbs form. Then add 12 tablespoons or 160 grams of ice water. Mix until just blended.