The first time I made an apple pie, its bottom crust was dishearteningly soggy. After some research and experimentation, I discovered that if I baked the pie in the bottom third of the oven on top of a preheated baking sheet, I could avoid that.
The first time I made a pumpkin cheesecake pie, I freaked out when I took it out of the refrigerator on Thanksgiving and saw the surface covered in droplets of water. Now, I know how to carefully pat these droplets away with a paper towel before bringing my pie to the table.
When it comes to pie, practice definitely makes perfect.
If you’re on dessert duty this Thanksgiving, you might want to flex your pie-baking muscles a few weeks in advance. A dry run will get you comfortable with your recipe before debuting it for the family. And no one will complain if you have some pie around the house in advance of the holiday. If you don’t have time to practice, study my mistakes so you can avoid them. Here are some lessons I’ve learned the hard way when baking my Thanksgiving pies:
Problem: Shrunken crust
Next time, make sure you roll your dough into a large circle, at least 13 inches in diameter. If your edge is skimpy, it will disappear as the pie bakes. When you transfer your dough to the pan, take care not to stretch it to fit. If you do, it will just shrink back in the oven.
Baking your fruit pie in the bottom third of the oven will help crisp up the bottom of your pie without over-browning the top. If you are pre-baking your pie shell before adding a wet pecan filling, brush the bottom of the shell with some egg white as soon as it comes out of the oven and before you add the filling. The egg will create a moisture barrier.
A lot of apple pie recipes will instruct you to toss together raw apples and sugar and load them into the pan. This is a mistake. Uncooked apples piled high shrink to nothing as they bake. Worse, they give off a lot of juices, making the pie watery. When I started precooking my apples, I always had a well-filled pie with a crisp crust.
Problem: Lumpy custard
If your pumpkin pie is lumpy, chances are you overbaked it, allowing the eggs in the filling to curdle. Pull your pie out of the oven when the center still jiggles a little. If you are making a pumpkin cheesecake pie, take it from me: Cold cream cheese will not blend smoothly with eggs and other filling ingredients. Let your cream cheese come to room temperature before beating it with the sugar for a smooth result.
Pumpkin cheesecake pie
For the crust:
25 gingersnap cookies (to yield about 11/3 cup crumbs)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
For the filling:
3/4 cup sugar
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 large eggs
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
Make crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place cookies in workbowl of food processor; process till finely ground. Add butter, cinnamon and salt; process until crumbs are moist. Press mixture evenly over bottom of a 9-inch pie plate, all the way up the sides of pan, packing tightly with fingertips so it is even and compact. Bake crust until crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Let cool on wire rack.
Make filling: Combine sugar and cream cheese in large bowl and beat with an electric mixer until fluffy and smooth, scraping down sides of bowl once or twice as necessary. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat until smooth. Add pumpkin, cream, flour, ginger, nutmeg and salt, and beat until smooth.
Scrape filling into cooled pie shell and bake until center is just set, 40 to 45 minutes. Transfer to wire rack to cool completely, then refrigerate until chilled, at least 6 hours and up to 2 days, before serving.
Chocolate coconut pecan pie
1 single-crust pie shell, chilled
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups light corn syrup
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1 large egg white
1 cup (5 1/2 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prick bottom and sides of pie shell all over with fork. Line shell with heavy-duty aluminum foil, pressing it against bottom and sides of shell and letting the foil overhang the edge by one inch. Prick the foil with fork and through the pastry. Bake until crust is set, about 15 minutes. Carefully remove foil and continue to bake until crust is golden, 10 minutes longer.
While crust is baking, prepare filling: Place a few inches of water in a large saucepan and bring to a simmer. Combine butter, sugar, salt, eggs and corn syrup in large bowl and place on top of pot, whisking until butter is melted and ingredients are warm to the touch. Whisk in the vanilla and stir in the pecans and coconut. Remove from the heat.
Remove pie shell from oven and lower temperature to 275 degrees. Brush the bottom of the shell with egg white and let stand 2 minutes to dry. Pour the pecan mixture into the hot shell. Scatter chocolate chips over filling. Bake until center is just barely set, with the slightest wiggle to it, about 55 minutes.
Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before slicing and serving.
Lattice-topped apple pie
Before I had a lot of experience with pie dough, my instinct was to beat and roll it into submission. But the more I worked the dough, the tougher it got.
For a flaky, tender crust, be gentle. Use whatever mixing method works for you — cutting the butter into the flour with an electric mixer, your fingers or a pastry cutter.
I prefer the blade of a food processor because it cuts the butter quickly without warming it up the way a mixer or hands might. Once I add liquid, I try not to overmix, pulsing a few times until the dough holds together when pressed.
When rolling the dough, I’ve learned to be quick. The fewer passes with the rolling pin, the more tender the crust.
For the crust (make two, separately, one for bottom crust, one for the lattice top):
1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling out dough
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening, cut into small pieces and chilled for at least 15 minutes
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into -inch pieces and chilled for at least 15 minutes
1 large egg white
2 tablespoons ice water
1 1/2 teaspoons white vinegar
Combine flour, sugar, and salt in the workbowl of a food processor and pulse several times to blend. Add shortening and pulse 8 to 10 times, until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add butter and pulse another 8 to 10 times, until mixture once again resembles coarse meal.
Beat together egg white, water and vinegar in a small bowl; then pour over flour mixture. Pulse five to seven times, until dough just begins to come together in large clumps. If it doesn’t stick together, sprinkle another tablespoon of water over mixture and pulse again. Remove lid of food processor and press some dough between your fingers. If it is still very crumbly, process once or twice more.
If it holds its shape, press it into a 5-inch disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days. Make second pie crust; refrigerate.
On a lightly floured countertop, press the disk into a rough circle by pushing down on it all over with the rolling pin. When you have a circle measuring 6 or 7 inches in diameter, use a lightly floured rolling pin to roll out the dough, sliding a large metal spatula underneath the dough after every four or five strokes to loosen the dough from the work surface, and rotate the dough 45 degrees. Continue to roll, loosen and turn, until you have a 13-inch circle (smaller than this and you might have trouble creating a nice, thick edge).
Loosely fold your dough circle around the rolling pin, lift the pin and unroll the dough over the 9-inch shallow pie plate.Gently press it into the bottom and sides with your fingertips, taking care not to stretch or thin the dough when you do this, or dimple it with your fingers, which may cause the dough to shrink in the oven.
Use a pair of scissors to trim the crust all around so that it overhangs the edge of the pan by 1 inch. Tuck that extra dough underneath itself to form a double-thick edge that sits on the rim of the pie plate.
Pinch the edge of the crust with the thumb and forefinger of one hand while pressing from the inside with the index finger of the other hand, repeating all the way around the edge. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 30 minutes before using.
For the lattice top: Repeat step 4, and roll dough into a 13-inch circle. Using a ruler and a fluted pastry wheel or sharp paring knife, cut the dough into eight 1-inch-wide strips.
Line up half of the strips vertically, 1 inch apart, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Then gently weave in the horizontal strips. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
For the apple filling:
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 pounds Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into -inch slices
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 egg, lightly beaten
Sanding sugar for sprinkling
Melt the butter over medium heat in a large pot. Add apples, sugar, cinnamon, salt and lemon juice; cook, stirring frequently, until apples are cooked through but still hold their shape, about 15 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the apples to a baking sheet to cool completely. (Filling can be chilled, transferred to an airtight container and refrigerated for up to 1 week.) Spoon the apples into pie shell.
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and place a rimmed baking sheet on rack. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Slide the chilled lattice from the parchment onto the pie, adjusting the strips so they are straight and even. Trim the strips so they overhang the rim of the pie by 1 inch. Pinch the ends of the strips so they form part of the rim.
Brush the lattice and rim with the beaten egg. Place the pie on the preheated baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes. Lower the heat to 375 degrees and continue to bake until the lattice and rim are golden brown, another 30 to 40 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack and serve.