Happy Pi Day! I hope everyone got to celebrate this very special occasion last week; acceptable methods of honoring the day include both doing some calculations and eating delicious pie. For anyone who has not yet added this holiday to their calendar, all the cool people celebrate March 14 in honor of the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, 3.14159265… So of course I had to bake it in this very appropriate pi(e) dish.
It’s also a great excuse to eat pie. So to celebrate the wonderful day, I consulted my Science of Good Cooking book and found a deep dish apple pie recipe that looked tempting. It didn’t disappoint. The crust was rich and flaky, the apples were juicy and sweet, the whole thing was pretty ridiculously good. My office of four people may or may not have devoured the whole thing in two sittings. We’re not commenting on the matter.
Before I talk more about the pie, you have to understand something about my family. My mother’s pie is legendary and could probably be counted among the reasons that my father proposed. She’s the one who taught me how to make pies, passing her technique and her recipe on to the next generation. So straying from the crust that’s always been there for me was not an easy decision, and if anyone in my family asks, it was in the interest of science.
But seriously, guys, this crust is amazing.
And yes, it does have a secret ingredient: vodka. No, it’s not because everything is yummier when tipsy–the alcohol evaporates in the oven and you can neither taste it in nor get buzzed off of the final product. It did, however, keep me from snitching the pie dough as I rolled it out, which was sad for me but did mean more baked pie crust eventually.
The trick with pie dough is to strike the perfect balance between texture and strength. You want something tender for good eating, but you also need a dough that you’re able to work with if you want to serve the pie with any hair left in your head. As usual, it comes down to the development of a gluten network. (This is probably the concept I talk about most. Maybe it’s a sign that I should bake less… nah.) Water forms weak hydrogen bonds with the glutenin proteins, increasing their flexibility and allowing them to stretch, shake out their legs, and bond with other proteins. This we know. So where does vodka fit in to all of this? The ethanol molecules can’t form the same bonds with the glutenin proteins, so it pretty much leaves everything around it alone. The alcohol lets you add moisture (which makes your dough more tender and easier to work with) without adding water (which helps develop the gluten network, giving you a tougher result).
The important thing here is reducing the amount of water you add, so we’re looking for an alcohol that’s about 40% ethanol (80 proof). Vodka is a natural choice since it’s pretty plain, but my book tells me that they baked pies with all sorts of other 80-proof liquors and most people couldn’t taste it. That said, whiskey pie crust might be in my future just because it sounds like an awesome experiment.
The take-away here is that water develops the gluten network and makes the crust stronger but tougher. Replacing some of the water with ethanol leaves enough gluten that the pie holds its shape but keeps the final product tender, flaky, and delicious.
I’d highly recommend trying this pie crust with any sort of pie, although I must say that this apple was definitely a winner. In the eternal butter vs. shortening debate, I like the compromise that the Science of Good Cooking found: 60% butter, 40% shortening. I know shortening seems super weird and gross, but you can get vegetable shortening that’s just modified oil. And while I feel better about butter in general because I understand how that process works, the fact that shortening is really all fat (no water) can make a big difference in texture.
Yield: 1 9-inch pie (no guarantees about how many it will serve)
2 1/2 c. flour
2 T. sugar
1 t. salt
12 T. unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces and chilled
8 T. vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces and chilled (yes, the chilling is important)
1/4 c. vodka, chilled
1/4 c. ice water
Use a food processor to mix 1 1/2 c. flour, sugar, and salt. Add the chilled butter and shortening and process until they are incorporated and the mixture forms clumps. Add the remaining flour and pulse until the mixture is evenly distributed around the bowl.
Transfer to a large bowl and sprinkle the vodka and water over the top. Use a rubber spatula to simultaneously stir and press the mixture until it holds together.
Divide dough in half, wrap each tightly in plastic as a disk, and refrigerate for an hour. Let it soften on the counter for about 10 minutes before rolling out.
On a well-floured surface, roll out one disk of dough into a 12-inch circle (your pie plate upside-down over the dough should leave about an inch and a half around the outside). Roll the dough onto the rolling pin and roll it out onto the pie plate. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for half an hour. Roll out the other half of the dough into another 12-inch circle and refrigerate on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet, covered in plastic. (To be perfectly honest, I skipped this second refrigeration. The pie was just fine and took plenty long enough without it.)
2 pounds Granny Smith or other tart apples
2 pounds Golden Delicious or other sweet apples
1/2 c. plus 1 T. granulated sugar
1/4 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 t. grated lemon zest
1 T. lemon juice
1/4 t. salt
1/8 t. plus 1 t. cinnamon
Peel, core, and slice the apples about 1/4 inch thick. This is its own step because it takes FOREVER.
Mix the apples, 1/2 c. granulated sugar, brown sugar, lemon zest, salt, and 1/8 t. cinnamon in a Dutch oven. Cover and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes. You aren’t going for applesauce here, so we don’t want the slices to disintegrate. When the apples are tender when poked with a fork, they’re done.
Let the apples cool in their juices for 30 minutes. Drain the apples and reserve 1/4 c. of juice. Add the lemon juice to the reserved apple juice.
Mound the apples in the prepared pie plate, filling it all the way up to the level of the edges with some extra in the middle. Pour the juice mixture over the apples. Top the pie with the other half of the pie crust (you can use the same rolling pin trick as before), and trim the overhang to 1/2 inch over the plate. Pinch top and bottom crust firmly together and crimp it into a wave around the edge. Cut four 2-inch slits in the top. Combine the remaining 1 T. granulated sugar and 1 t. cinnamon and sprinkle the mixture over the top of the pie. (This is also great for the remaining crust bits–sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and bake for about 10 minutes.)
Bake at 425 degrees F for 25 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375 and continue to cook for 25 to 30 minutes. The crust will be golden brown and juices will be bubbling when the pie is done. The book says to let it cool for at least 2 hours, but I won’t tell if you can’t hold out that long.