Today, 3/14, is Pi Day! It is the day when geeks around the world (myself included), and those who like a good pun, celebrate the mathematical constant Pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter = 3.14159…) with actual pie. Apple, blueberry, banana cream, pizza… the choice is yours!
So while we here in the Northeast are hunkering down in the midst of an only-one-week-from-Spring Nor’easter storm, predicted to deliver 1 to 2 feet of snow, I figured it was a good time to post my Caramel Apple Pie recipe from this past Fall. If you follow our Facebook page, you may have seen that back in October, I entered a pie in The Old Farmers Almanac Apple Pie Baking Contest held as part of the Chamber of Commerce’s Peak Into Peterborough festival… and my pie won the Professional Division! I got some cool swag… including cookbooks, a Peterboro Basket pie basket, and a gift certificate to King Arthur Flour… but I also ended up with a recipe that makes a pretty good apple pie!
If you’ve seen my Cookie Tour blog postings, I rarely just pick a recipe out of a book or the internet and make it. There is usually some “recipe development” involved… and this pie recipe was no exception. So, as usual, I started by browsing the internet for a starting point and came across Chef John’s Caramel Apple Pie posted on Allrecipes. As a sucker for anything “Caramel + Apple”, I was ready to get started. I made the recipe (mostly) as written, including Chef’s John’s Easy Homemade Pie Crust, and thought… “it’s good, but not exactly what I was hoping for”. With regard to the crust (all butter, with some cider vinegar added), it was tender, but not really flaky. And with regard to the overall pie… one of the features of this recipe was that you poured a caramel sauce over the assembled pie (right over the lattice top crust) so that the sauce would caramelize on top of the lattice and become sort of chewy-crisp. Unfortunately, this didn’t appeal to me (or Rob, since he was the main taste-tester), but the caramel apple flavor was still the way I wanted to go.
So my modifications started… I tried an All-Butter Pie Crust recipe from the King Arthur Flour website, but it wasn’t as tender or as flaky as I was hoping for. Many recipes that had shortening in them claimed to be very flaky, but I just didn’t want to go that route. Then, I remembered reading somewhere that the vodka helped reduce gluten formation in the crust making it flakier, so I went looking for that recipe and in the process I stumbled on the Serious Eats website. (For those of you that are baking/food geeks… you NEED to check out this site.) There, I came across the “Easy Pie Dough Recipe” by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. The name of the recipe might be a bit misleading… it was not really all that easy to make (you need to use a food processor to make a butter-flour paste, then transfer the dough to another bowl to add the water, etc.), but the finished dough was incredibly easy to roll out and work with… and the finished pie had the flakiest, most tender crust I had ever made.
As for the filling, I made a bunch of changes… changing sugar and flavorings, adding flour to thicken the sauce, adding a little bit of orange juice to brighten the taste without making it too tart… but the most significant change was to partially cook the apples in the caramel sauce. The reason for this is not because the apples need more time baking than the crust. Instead, it is actually a way to keep the apples from shrinking down and turning to mush when the pie bakes. Partially cooking the apples strengthens the pectin in the apples and allows them to soften and cook, but to still keep their shape when the finished pie is baked. (This also helps avoid getting a gap between the apples and the top pie crust that can happen, especially when making a deep dish pie.) A few other things to note… chilling the filling before adding it to the bottom crust, brushing the bottom crust with an egg white, and baking the pie on a pre-heated baking sheet all help to make sure the bottom crust bakes up nicely and doesn’t get soggy.
As for assembling the actual pie, this was my first time (ever) doing a lattice crust. I guess I always assumed it was too hard… but it isn’t. Although I didn’t take any pictures while I was making my pies, you can find great references with photos or video online. And if you don’t have any coarse sugar crystals to sprinkle on top… go out and get some! They are the magic dust that adds just the right amount of sugary crunch to the top crust. (They also go great on muffins and scones… and last essentially forever in the pantry.)
So here’s the recipe… enjoy!
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Caramel Apple Pie
By Paula Fox, Little River Bed and Breakfast, Peterborough, NH
This recipe uses a few less-than-common techniques, but the results are worth it! The unusual pie crust recipe results in the flakiest, easiest to roll dough I have ever worked with. Pre-cooking the apples in the caramel sauce keeps the filling from shrinking down as the pie bakes. Refrigerating the filling before adding it to the crust (along with the egg white wash) helps to ensure that the bottom crust doesn’t get soggy.
2 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
2 1⁄2 sticks cold salted butter (1 1/4 cups), cut into 1/4″ pats
6 Tablespoons cold water
4 to 5 large apples (about 6 cups), peeled, cored, and sliced, about 1/4″ thick
6 Tablespoons salted butter
1⁄4 cup all-purpose flour
1⁄2 cup brown sugar
1⁄4 cup granulated sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 Tablespoon orange juice
1 Tablespoon milk (or half & half, or heavy cream)
coarse granulated sugar crystals, for sprinkling
1. For the crust, place 1 1/2 cups flour, 2 Tablespoons sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse once or twice to combine. Distribute butter pieces over the top of the flour mixture and pulse until the flour is fully incorporated and the dough begins to collect in soft clumps (about 25 two- second pulses, but more or less if needed – my food processor is on the small side so it generally takes around 40 pulses for the dough to clump). Use a rubber spatula to evenly spread the dough clumps back around the bowl of the food processor. Distribute the remaining 1 cup flour over the dough and pulse about 5 or so times, until the dough is broken up, leaving a mixture of large and small buttery clumps. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and sprinkle it with the cold water. Using a large rubber spatula, fold the dough over and press it together with the spatula to incorporate the water and bring the dough together into a cohesive ball. Divide the dough roughly in half, form each half into a disk about 4 to 5 inches in diameter, and wrap each disk in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before rolling and continuing. If desired, the dough can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days before finishing up the pie, just let it sit out at room temperature for 30 minutes or so before rolling.
2. For filling, melt 6 Tablespoons butter in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add flour to melted butter and stir to make a smooth paste. Continue cooking and stirring the butter-flour mixture for an additional 30 seconds. Add granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, vanilla and orange juice and mix until smooth. Continue cooking and stirring until the mixture comes to a boil, then turn heat down to low and add sliced apples, stirring to coat with caramel mixture. Continue simmering and stirring the apples in the caramel mixture for 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer apples and caramel mixture to a clean bowl or large baking dish and place in refrigerator to cool completely, about 1 hour.
3. To assemble the pie, preheat oven to 400F and place a large baking sheet on a lower rack to heat up. Remove pie crust dough disks from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for several minutes. Using a rolling pin on a lightly floured surface, roll one disk to fit a 9-inch pie pan with about 1-inch overhang. (I like to roll to about 14 inches, then trim the extra.) Trim any excess dough. Optional: Brush bottom and sides of crust with a beaten egg white (this helps keep the bottom crust from getting soggy). Roll the second disk into a 12-inch circle and cut 10 to 12 strips, about 3/4-inch wide.
4. Pour the chilled filling (apples with caramel sauce) into the prepared bottom pie crust. (If there seems to be too much caramel liquid in the filling and it looks like it might overflow the pie plate, it is OK to leave some of the liquid out and not transfer it all into the bottom crust.) Weave the top crust strips into a lattice pattern over top of the filling and cut off any excess dough. Brush a little water under the edges of the lattice strips to help them stick to the bottom crust. Fold and crimp the excess crust to create a nice outside edge for the pie. Brush the top crust with milk (or half & half, or heavy cream) and sprinkle with coarse sugar.
5. Bake the pie at 400F for 15 minutes, then turn heat down to 350F and continue baking for another 40 to 45 minutes. Check the pie every 15 minutes or so and if the outside edges start to get too dark, cover the outside edge of the pie with foil and continue baking until the overall crust is golden brown. Allow to cool completely before slicing.
Note: The pie crust follows the ingredients and general technique of the recipe “Easy Pie Dough Recipe”by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt posted on the Serious Eats website. The pie filling was inspired by “Chef John’s Caramel Apple Pie” from the AllRecipes website, but was reworked considerably to achieve the final result.
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Happy Pi(e) Day!