Sunday, July 6, 2008

Basic Fruit Pie Protocol and Piemaking Tips

Like I said, it's piemaking* season and I've been getting some questions about recipes and techniques. I'm still in training to become the Queen of Pies, but I'll post here what I've learned so far. I'll try to update this post with any other tips and revelations, so refer back to it whenever you're making a pie.

Before embarking on any piemaking pursuit, remember that most recipes are written for a 9" x 1.5" (usually metal) pie pan. Our family traditionally uses a 10" deep-dish glass pie pan. Glass heats more evenly, slows baking, and reduces browning compared to the metal pan. A 10" deep dish requires around 2 lbs of filling, while the 9" regular will only require 1.5 lbs. Adjust your recipe and pan choice accordingly.

*I hereby declare 'piemaking' to be a real word.

Generic Fruit Pie Recipe

2 Basic Pie Crusts
1 1/2 - 2 lbs. fruit pieces
3/4 - 1 1/2 c. sugar, depending on the sweetness of your fruit
3 Tbsp. - 1/4 c. thickener
1/4 tsp. salt
1 well-chosen seasoning
2 - 3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 egg white + sugar for the crust

Arrange your oven so that one rack is in the vertical center and one is beneath it. Preheat your oven to 425.

Place the chopped fruit in a bowl. Add the sugar, salt, and seasoning, toss, and allow to sit for 15-60 minutes. For non-apple pies, limit yourself to one seasoning, such as vanilla, lemon zest, or cinnamon. For apple pies use brown sugar and more seasonings; I use garam masala, lemon zest, lemon juice, and a dash of sweet sherry. Taste your filling to check the sweetness and flavor.

Meanwhile, roll out your crusts and place the bottom crust in the pie plate. Wrap the top crust in plastic wrap and place the pie plate and top crust in the refrigerator. This allows the bottom crust to relax into the pie plate and keeps the dough from melting in the heat of the kitchen.

Drain the liquid from the bowl of fruit and sugar and place it in a saucepan. Reduce the liquid over high heat until it is thick and syrupy. Take extra care not to let it burn, which can happen very quickly! Reducing the liquids reduces the runny-ness of the filling and concentrates the flavors. For apple pie you can allow this to caramelize for extra tastiness.

Add your thickener to the bowl of fruit pieces and toss them to coat. This will eliminate future lumps. You can use wheat flour, tapioca flour, corn starch, quick-cooking tapioca, or any other starch. They have their pros and cons, which I will discuss later. Corn starch is a good basic one, but it doesn't freeze or refrigerate well. Don't skimp on the thickener, as many fruits contain compounds that interfere with thickening.

Take the dough and pie plate out of the fridge. Place the fruit in the bottom crust and dot with butter. Cover with the top crust and crimp the edges, then cut some vents if it's not a lattice pie. You can also use a crumb topping, if desired.

Bake for 30 minutes in the middle of the oven. If a glazed crust is desired, remove and brush the crust with beaten egg white, then sprinkle with sugar (this can toughen the crust, but it looks nice). Return to the oven, and place a round baking sheet on the lower rack (this will catch any drips). Bake for 20-30 more minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the top is browned. If the crust is browning too quickly, cover it loosely with foil. Allow the pie to cool on a rack completely before serving--if you can wait that long!


Picking a Crust Style:

When making a fruit pie, you are always in danger of having liquid hot magma eruptions while baking. The high sugar content tends to erupt in the second part of the baking and creates a blackened carbon nightmare on the bottom of your oven and sets off the fire alarm. All top crust styles are subject to this gaffe, but lattice is the worst. It looks nice when it works out well, but you're probably better off with a safer option. I will discuss some options here:
  • Fully Covered - A full top crust with only a few slits (possibly decorative) for steam to escape. Results in a nice looking pie with minimal chance of fruit eruptions. Also provides crispiness on the top of the pie.
  • Latticework - Though not as difficult to create as you might think, the true danger lies in the baking. You are likely to wind up with molten fruit on the bottom of your oven and lattice strips sullied with darkened pie filling. This top is best done with apple pies and low-moisture fruits. If you're feeling ambitious, go for it. Otherwise stick with something safer and easier.
  • Crumble Top - This is a good option that I always forget about. It's easy, fast, and is a nice change from the pastry-top crust. Dutch apple pie is made with a large quantity of crumb topping.
  • No Top - Easiest of all and actually looks pretty nice. If you do this, I recommend arranging the fruit nicely first. Once the pie is cool you can sprinkle it with powdered sugar, which looks especially nice if you do it over a doily or cool-shaped leaf. Or just leave it be and eat the damn thing.
  • Cutesy - Can be used in combination with any of the above. Cut remaining crust into cute shapes and glue them onto the top of the pie with egg white. Good for holidays or impressing people who don't cook.
  • Other - This includes glazed tops and meringue, and I'm not going to discuss them here.

The other aspect of crust style is the edge. This gives added crunch and by jutting over the edge of the pan, also keeps the filling from sucking the crust into the depths of the pan. There are many ways to do this, but here are some ideas:
  • Fluted - The classic style. If you're not sure how to do it, I'm sure you can find instructional videos or diagrams online. Basically you pinch the crust between your thumb and first knuckle with one hand and your first knuckle with the other hand. Make sure this extends over the edge of the pie plate.
  • Fork - Squish the edges of the crust down with a fork. Easy and looks cool.
  • Free-style - In France I had pies where people just folded the edges of the pastry over haphazardly (usually in a very shallow pie plate). This gives a fun, funky look.
  • Braided - For overachievers only. Braid together three strands of pastry dough and squish this across the edge. Looks cool, but probably not worth the effort.
Note: you don't always have to brush the crust with egg wash. It looks cool but detracts from the flakiness of the crust. Decide whether you want a hard, dark brown crust or a light flaky one. If you do decide on an egg wash topping, note that you can use a paintbrush to draw a design with the egg wash for added flair.

Crumb Topping:

Fruit pies can also be topped with a crumb (aka streusel) topping. Simply soften 3 Tbsp. butter and mix it with 1/3 c. white or brown sugar and 2-3 Tbsp. flour or rolled oats using a fork. You can mix in chopped nuts and/or spices if you like. Sprinkle this over the top of the fruit before baking. (If you're making a Dutch apple pie, double this recipe).


I'm still experimenting with thickeners, but here's a good site to check out when deciding what to use: The Cooks Thesaurus - Starch Thickeners. I find that wheat flour works well with blueberry pies and I like good ol' corn starch for apple pie. Potato starch has gotten very popular, but I tried it in a strawberry pie and wasn't very impressed (I think I need to get more experience with it). I've never had luck with quick-cooking tapioca--I usually wind up with it too noticeable in the finished pie. Tapioca starch has worked well for me in the past, though.

Pre-baking Crust:

Some pies require a pre-baked pie crust. Place the rolled-out dough in your pie pan and preheat the oven to 425. Form the edge of the dough as desired and prick the bottom of the crust with a knife or fork several times. Weigh the bottom crust down with one of the following methods: a handful of dry beans, 3-4 all-metal pieces of cutlery, or another pie plate that nests within the first (this may mash down your fluted edge). If the pie will be baked a second time, loosely cover the fluted edge with foil to prevent excessive browning. The edge can be glazed with egg white and sugar if desired.

Bake 15 minutes. Remove weights and foil and then bake for 5-10 minutes until lightly golden. Cool before filling.

Notes on Apple Pie:

Most fruit fillings are uncooked before the pie is baked. One exception is with apple pie, which comes in two basic styles: pre-cooked and baked raw. The pre-cooked style has a denser filling that is more uniform in texture, and is typically shorter in stature. The baked raw style retains more of the crunch and texture of the original apple pieces, and is generally deeper, often with a large gap between the top crust and the apples. Both pie styles have devotees and their own set of pros and cons:
  • When you pre-cook an apple pie you can depend on the pie keeping its thickness and depth, because most of the moisture has been cooked out of the apples beforehand. This makes for a picture-perfect pie that doesn't have a gap under the top crust, or that works well with a crumb topping. You can also caramelize the apples in a skillet for a deeper flavor. However, this style doesn't showcase the crisp freshness of the apples, and it adds another cooking step.
  • Baking an apple pie raw results in an iconic pie with lots of apple flavor, texture, and crunch. You can pile the crust high with apples and make the pie in just a few easy steps. On the other hand, the moisture in the apples escapes when you bake it, leading to shrinkage beneath the crust and often a runnier pie. Though this pie is what most people think of when they picture apple pie, it is fraught with more pitfalls that the pre-cooked style.
In the end, you should pick which style works best with your preferences and vision. I've had good luck with combining the techniques, but sometimes I prefer one style or the other.


When picking apples to use for your apple pie, a combination of sweetness and tartness, and crispness and softness is best. I like combining Granny Smith with a sweeter variety. McIntosh apples have super apple-y flavor, but can get a little mushy by themselves. If you can find Rome Beauties, consider yourself lucky--these have supreme apple flavor and retain their shape better than any other variety. They store well, so buy a bunch, give me some, and keep the rest in your crisper ;)

Other Pies:

These recommendations are strictly for baked, pastry crust fruit pies. Chilled pies, pies with crumb or shortcake crusts, cream pies, and meringue pies are another story for another time!

1 comment:

Marjorie Magidow Schalles said...

Where were you when I advised my children to ALWAYS put a cookie sheet on the bottom rack of the oven! I love your descriptions.