We please our fancy with ideal webs/Of innovation, but our life meanwhile/Is in the loom, where busy passion plies/The shuttle to and fro, and gives our deeds/The accustomed pattern. -Shakespeare (Henry VIII), qtd. in Eliot’s Daniel Deronda
If I told you that I had spent the last three weeks, in between yoga and pottery and the general business of living, hiding in my kitchen rolling out pie dough and peeling, slicing, and macerating apples, would you blame me? From tales of assault to amendments to the tax bill, every day has brought some new and terrible revelation. Dough itself, it is true, can also be a little terrifying—rolling anything into a circle has got to be one of the hardest things there is, save for actually making sure you are properly hydrating your dough (if you fear pie dough, this video is one of the most helpful I’ve seen)—but it pales in comparison to anything the news cycle has to offer. And even if it can be a little fussy and inspire a combination of fear and respect, dough, most importantly, is non-partisan and apolitical. Think about it; how many things can you really say that about these days?
I wish I could tell you that my recent obsession with apple pie stemmed from my desire to embrace an emblem of Americana that I can both understand and be proud of, but nothing in life is ever that simple.
Back in October, when I was rather desperate to rediscover some of life’s sweetness, I ended up buying a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi’s and Helen Goh’s Sweet. The book is a real beauty, worth its weight in gold for the Tahini and Halva Brownie recipe alone, although I could easily see myself baking through every recipe and never becoming bored. While the brownies were the first recipe to catch my eye, I soon found myself lingering on the page with the towering photo of an Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting. And, after the Greek and I did our yearly round of apple picking (20 pounds!), it practically seemed obligatory that I bake this very cake. But when the Greek, looking at me with his big eyes and fluttering his (enviably) long lashes, asked how about apple pie, the fate of those 20 pounds of apples was changed forevermore.
Since this request was made, I have baked not one, but three apple pies. The first, which followed the recipe for the “No-Fuss Apple Pie”—a misnomer if I ever saw one—in BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts was a disaster in texture, although the apples themselves were warmly spiced and sweet. Given my general fears about making pie and my penchant for not following a recipe’s directions to the letter, I’m willing to take some credit for the pie’s failure; I do think I rolled the all-butter dough out too thin and also used a ceramic, rather than a Pyrex, pie plate when baking it. All of that aside, however, I still don’t know how you can preheat an oven to 400 F and, upon putting the pie in the oven, immediately lower the temperature to 195 F and expect the pie to bake. My base completely dissolved and, while the difference in the ceramic might have been partly to blame, at 195 F, the top crust remained completely anemic, only crisping and turning golden when I put it under the broiler in the hopes of salvaging the whole thing. I refused to be fazed by the experience, however. There are certain things in life you simply cannot control; let it be said that pie dough is not one of them.
I decided that I had to regroup and experiment. BraveTart, though an informative and well researched book with many fine recipes, was simply not going to yield my perfect apple pie. Nor, I started to think, would an all-butter pie crust. While this dough may be the darling of today’s pastry world, I decided that, for my next pie, I would go back to my grandma’s crust, which is made of 100% shortening; it rolled like a dream, didn’t require resting or refrigeration, and created a fine base for a quiche. My next experiment was with half-butter and half-shortening; it too was easy to work with, although it required more chilling time than dough made solely with shortening; it did, however, bake to perfection and had a nice texture, both crisp and flaky. Finally, I decided to return to the all-butter dough, which had seemed the most insurmountable of the bunch, but, lo and behold, I suddenly encountered no problems with the rolling, the lifting, or the shaping. Of course, it may also be that practice, as my high school history teacher used to say, really did lead to permanence, and my pie skills were simply improving. I now knew more about myself as a pie baker: that I preferred an old-fashioned rolling pin with handles, that (amply) flouring and rotating the dough to prevent sticking were mandatory, and that freezing the dough before baking is essential, especially if you like using dough cutters to decorate your pie (freezing helps to maintain the shape of the cutouts, although using shortening rather than butter does too). And let’s not forget the importance of trimming and tucking, which I, with the last pie, didn’t do as well as I ought to have, which is why the sides, in a few places, got a little droopy. You live, you learn, and, more importantly, perfection is overrated.
Along the way on the Great Pie Adventure of 2017, I also found myself veering into unchartered territory. In part, I was inspired by how, in the heyday of food blogs, The Wednesday Chef (aka Luisa Weiss), when writing about an apple cake she discovered in Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table, had asked who will free apples from the tyranny of cinnamon; I also felt that, since it was the Greek who wanted apple pie, what if we could somehow make the apple pie more Greek? Driven by these two factors—no cinnamon and Greek flavors—I began to craft an apple pie that took as its inspiration the famous Greek Easter bread, tsoureki, a buttery brioche typically flavored with orange zest, bracing mastic (resin) from Chios, and mahlepi (ground cherry kernels that taste of bitter almond; in Middle Eastern cooking, this is called mahlab). But as I read more about tsoureki, it seemed that the northern Greek version of this bread deviated a bit from the traditional recipes, relying instead on both mahlepi and cardamom and holding the mastic and orange. It took a few attempts to balance the flavors, but the result is everything any apple pie, Greek-inspired or not, could ever hope to be: fragrant and abundantly spiced, with hints of surprising citrus and plenty of warmth. I’m sure there are purists out there who are balking at the addition of orange zest to apple pie, but, believe me, not only have stranger things happened, especially in 2017, but this one, unlike so much of what we’ve experienced this year, also just so happens to lead to something light and toothsome.
As for me, while I have enjoyed this foray into the world of pie, it has convinced me all the more that nothing quite beats a slice of cake. What can I say? Leopards can acquire new skills, but they can’t just change their spots.
Tsoureki-Inspired Apple Pie
You can use any crust for this pie, but, as I was trying to approximate tsoureki, I opted to use all butter and good-quality European butter at that. I also did something that really surprised me; I have always blindly believed the bags of flour when they say that 1/4 cup of their products equals 30 grams (this is the case for both King Arthur and Gold Medal), but this was clearly a mistake on my part. In really trying to get this right, I weighed the flour with my scale and, to my surprise, I got 22 grams in 1/4 cup, rather than the expected 30. Similarly, whereas I anticipated 120 grams in 1 full cup, the scale instead showed 129 grams. The moral of the story? Weigh your ingredients and don’t trust what it says on the bag. I suspect that this may have been part of my pie troubles in the past, which I have now corrected. Also, I cannot stress enough the importance of letting things rest and chilling everything.
If you want to try cooking with mahelpi, you can find it at your local Middle Eastern or Greek grocery store, or can order it online at either Kalyustan’s or Amazon.
For the crust:
302 g (2 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
4 g (1 tsp) kosher salt
226 g (1 cup) butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup ice water + more for sprinkling in if the dough is dry
For the apple filling:
1100 g (2.5 pounds) apples (I used a mix of Granny Smith, Sweet Zoey, and Red Crimson)
133 g (2/3 cup) granulated sugar
juice of half a lemon
1 tablespoon mahlepi
1 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (if you want to play up the almond flavor of the mahlepi, you could try almond extract)
zest of one orange
25 g (1/4 cup) tapioca starch
1 tablespoon butter, cut into fourths
For the egg wash:
1 egg, lightly beaten
15 g (1 tablespoon) of heavy cream
two tablespoons of turbinado sugar, for sprinkling
Add the flour and salt to a medium-sized bowl and whisk together with a fork. Add half of the cut-up butter and toss lightly with your fingers to coat it in the flour, then add the remaining butter and, again toss to coat. At this stage, you can either switch to a pastry blender and begin working the butter into the flour or you can use your hands, flattening the cubes of butter. Once the mixture is generally mealy, but with some thicker bits of butter still visible (this is what creates optimal flakiness), create a well in its center. Then, add the water, starting with 6 tablespoons. Using your finger or a fork, begin to mix the flour and butter mixture into the water, working from the center outwards. The mixture will most likely still be dry (the fancier the butter, the more water you will need), so continue to add it, tablespoon by tablespoon, until the mixture comes together to form a dough. Knead lightly and, if it starts to crumble, sprinkle in a little bit more cold water (however, if you’ve added so much water that the dough becomes tacky or sticky, add a little more flour and lightly knead it in).
Once the dough has come together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and form the dough into a ball. Cut the ball in half and pat the dough into discs. Wrap with plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or for up to 2 days.
If baking your pie on the same day, prepare your apples while the dough is chilling, peeling, coring and cutting them into thin slivers. Add the sugar and the lemon juice and toss, then add the additional spices and tapioca starch and stir well. Cover the apples and let sit for at least an hour.
While the apples are macerating, remove the dough discs from the refrigerator. Let sit for 5-10 minutes, then take one, removing it from the plastic wrap, and set on a lightly floured counter. Also, lightly flour the top of the disc and your rolling pin, then begin rolling out the dough, rotating and re-flouring the counter and dough as you roll. Continue to roll until the disc is 11 or 12 inches or 1/4-inch thick. Roll the dough up onto the rolling pin and transfer to a pie plate. Trim the dough so that there is an overhang of 1/2 inch. Cover with plastic and place back in the refrigerator.
Place the second disc of dough on a lightly floured countertop, sprinkle it with flour, and again roll and rotate until the dough is about 11-12 inches or 1/4-inch thick. Using a dough cutter or a ruler and a ravioli cutter or knife, cut the dough into 2-inch wide strips (you should get 6 or 7 strips and have a little extra to cut into shapes to decorate the pie with if you like). Place the strips on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and refrigerate.
Remove the pie plate from the fridge and fill it with the macerated apples, creating a mound in the center. Pour the juice on top, then add the quartered tablespoon of butter, tucking a bit into each quadrant of the pie.
Remove the lattice strips from the fridge and place the longest strip horizontally across the middle of the pie. Place one strip on both sides, then fold those two strips back on themselves. Add a strip vertically, then fold the horizontal strips back over this strip. Continue to add the remaining vertical strips, folding and unfolding the horizontal strips (The Kitchn has a handy visual).
Trim the overhang to one half inch, then tucking the excess dough under or rolling it up, so that it creates a strong and secure border around the pie for any escaping juices. Crimp the edges or press with a fork and place, if using, your decorative dough cut-outs around the edges or on the top. Push against the dough to make sure it is sitting firmly on the rim of the pan or your pie, like mine, might get a little droopy.
Place the pie in the freezer for at least 15-20 minutes; adjust a rack to the lower third of the oven, place a cookie sheet there, and, while the dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 400 F.
Remove the pie from the freezer, then brush it with the egg wash and sprinkle it with the turbinado sugar. Once ready, place the pie on the baking sheet in the oven. Let cook at 400 F for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350 F. Bake for an additional 45 minutes, or until the top is golden and the juices are bubbling.
Let the pie cool for at least an hour, basking in the smell of freshly baked pie and knowing that good things will be yours as soon as it has cooled. Serve with ice cream or Greek yogurt and enjoy.