Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Apple Pie

First I must disclose: I have decided I am utterly in love with Cooks Illustrated (and their TV show, America's Test Kitchen).  Any time I want to try a new recipe or am having trouble deciding what variation to choose, I just use theirs.  As yet, I have not been disappointed.

That being said, now onto the business at hand: Pie.  Pie makes me anxious.  Every year I attempt it, with varying degrees of success.  Sometimes the crust is too tough, sometimes the pie has soggy bottom syndrome, sometimes the fruit is underdone or sometimes it doesn't set...the list goes on and on.  It is for this reason that I reserve pie almost exclusively for special circumstances during the fall season.  There is just something so tricky about the balance between structure and tender flakiness combined with a juicy, heavy fruit filling---- I simply cannot seem to master it.

I love pie.  For that reason I soldier on, year after year, in my (often vain) attempts at getting it right.  I use a shortening "water barrier" on the bottom crust to insure against soggy bottoms, add extra starch to help the juices set, work the crust as little as possible to prevent toughness, and constantly second-guess the doneness inside that golden top crust.  But somehow it always eludes me-- that perfect piece of pie.  I speak, of course, of the double-crust fruit pie.  Other pie variations I can handle without losing too much sleep.

One of my "special occasion" pies every year is a fresh apple pie made from apples obtained from the orchard itself.  Usually this is a pick-them-myself venture, but this year was apparently a bad apple year so I had to settle for a farm stand on the orchard property instead.  It is one of the things that symbolizes the essence of fall for me. 

This year, I tried a new crust recipe from (lo and behold!) Cooks Illustrated.  It is unique because it calls for vodka (or other 80 proof alcohol).  I just happened to have AppleJack on hand (from my last apple pie attempt), which is a brandy made from apples and which also happens to be 80 proof.  I used that instead of the vodka.  This recipe was purported to produce an extremely flaky crust, due to baking science I will not go into except to say that the vodka does not interact with the starch in the flour to produce gluten (which makes dough tough when you work it too much).  It also evaporates at a lower temperature than water, meaning the crust will dry out faster, thus not getting soggy.

I am quite pleased with the texture of the crust, although I wish I had used an egg wash since it is a little bit too pale for my liking.  I attempted to fix that with a short stay under the broiler, but the stay was just a hair too long and the top got a little too brown:

It still tastes fine, but next time I will just use an egg wash and be done with it.  The crust is quite flaky and very structurally sound, both of which are very good things.  Overall, I think this will be my go-to pie crust recipe (unless I find something better).

As for the filling...I'm not quite sure where I got the recipe, or if I just jumbled bits and pieces from a bunch of them, but I am not sure how I feel about it.  I used Jonagold and Ida Red apples for this pie, and I guess they were not particularly juicy because the recipe I had called for 5 pounds of apples, but even mounded up I could only fit 3 pounds' worth in there.  Perhaps my recipe was for a deep dish pie and I did not notice.  Anyway, that is why this pie is a little...bulgy.  For the filling recipe I was not as careful as I normally am-- I believe I put in about 2/3 cup of sugar and one heaping 1/2 teaspoon of apple pie spice in there along with the apples.  I wish I had added more of everything!  The tart Ida Reds were a little too tart, and while the appley flavor of this pie is nice, I miss the notes of flavor contributed by the cinnamon and nutmeg-- they were just overshadowed by the apples, somehow.  I also drained some of the liquid (concern for soggy bottoms), which I will not do next time, as the pie could benefit from some juicy goodness.  I think next time I will experiment with using some brown sugar instead of all white-- I think the molasses will contribute nicely to the flavors.

 It's not a bad pie-- in fact, all of the things I was worried about turned out just fine!  The crust was easy to work with and in many ways perfect, the apples were done enough and it wasn't soggy or drippy or anything like that.  But, what I didn't worry about I played a little too loosely, because the flavor of the filling I expected to pretty much take care of itself, and next time I know to pay more attention to that.

Perhaps the perfect apple pie is within reach after all?  I will try this crust recipe again at the other special fall occasion: Thanksgiving.  If it turns out as well then, I will definitely keep this recipe in my repertoire for the future. 

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