I love pie. I love pie more than cake, I think, though extensive further research is no doubt necessary. Nancy Willard's Pie Every Day was the first cookbook I read through like it was a novel, from cover to cover. When Laura requested three kinds of pie for Thanksgiving this year, these were two of her three choices (Grandma is making the pumpkin pie.) Both of these recipes are almost straight from Willard's book, as they are pretty much perfect.
Willard devotes a whole chapter to crusts, and if you are at all nervous about making pie crusts, the book is worth reading just for that. She gives friendly advice about the various combinations of fats (butter, lard, shortening) and which kind of crust is best suited for what kinds of pies, about rolling pins and pie dishes, about getting the rolled crust into the dish, and not only how to do things but why. Some of her most useful tips are to chill everything, including the flour and the bowl (especially if the weather is warm), which keeps the fat from softening too quickly, as the coldness of it is actually what helps the crust to be flaky -- to use a pan with a dull surface, such as glass or ceramic, so that heat isn't reflected away from the pie during baking -- and to avoid stretching the rolled crust when transferring it to the pan, as this will cause it to shrink while baking.
This crust recipe is a very useful one, suitable for any kind of pie, as the lard gives it strength and the butter gives it flavor. The most commonly available lard is too meaty-tasting for pie, so use leaf lard (rendered from pork kidney fat) if you can find it. I usually use shortening, which does make a bit of difference in the taste and texture of this crust, but is still a decent substitute.
You will need two batches of the crust recipe if you will be making both pies, using all of one batch for the apple pie and half of the other for the pecan pie; wrap the leftover piece of crust in plastic wrap and freeze for up to three months (thaw completely before using).
Willard usually uses a food processor for crusts, but mine is a blender/processor combination and the bowl is too small to accommodate this crust recipe, so I make it by hand with a pastry blender. If you have trouble getting the dough to come together quickly, tend to use too much water, or your crusts come out tough, then the processor is the way to go, as it mixes very fast -- overmixing is the chief cause of toughness.
Even after years of pie-making, I still have trouble keeping the edges from getting too brown. I almost always take far too long in covering up the edges with those foil ribbons, and usually manage to burn my fingers at least once in the process. But even though I actually love crust -- unlike so many people who eat pie only for the filling -- I've come to accept the fact that sometimes the crust is too brown and sometimes it's just right. Luckily, usually it's fine.
Butter and Lard Crust
3 cups all-purpose flour, chilled
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
1/3 cup lard or shortening, chilled and cut into small pieces
6 to 8 tablespoons iced water
Sift the flour, sugar, and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Add the pieces of butter and lard, and quickly mix it with the flour, using a pastry blender, two knives, or your hands, until the mixture resembles corn meal.
Sprinkle a tablespoon or two of the cold water over the flour mixture, and quickly blend it together. Push the moistened lump of the dough to one side of the bowl as you work, add another tablespoon of cold water to the dry part, and work it in, incorporating this into the dough as you can. (If the weather is particularly dry, as mine usually is in Southern California, you may need more water: the thing is to use only enough to get the dough to hold together, but not look moist.)
When enough water is incorporated, turn the dough out onto a floured work surface, and knead it quickly with the heel of your hand until it comes together. Shape the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Take the dough from the refrigerator, unwrap it, and cut it into 2 pieces, one slightly larger than the other. Rewrap the smaller piece and return it to the refrigerator. Roll out the bigger piece on a lightly floured surface until it is slightly larger than your pie dish. Transfer the crust carefully to the pan, then gently press the dough against the sides of the pan. Trim away the excess dough, leaving about 1 inch of dough hanging over the sides of the pan. Patch any holes or cracks with a piece of the thinner trimmings; wet the underside slightly to help it stick. Refrigerate the crust for another 30 minutes, while you prepare the filling.
Continue as directed in the recipes below.
Makes 1 double crust or 2 single crusts. Active work time, about 15 minutes; total preparation time, about 45 minutes.
Willard gives only a general idea of the amounts of sugar and spices you will need for an apple pie, as it really does depend on the sweetness of the apples you use and your own tastes. I have had wonderful success with her suggestion to use a variety of apples -- my usual list is 4 Granny Smiths, 2 Braeburns, and 2 Galas, although the second two are not always available, and I have also used Jonathans, Jonagolds, and Pink Lady apples. These kinds hold their shape very well, and after baking are tender but not falling apart. (Edward Behr's The Artful Eater has an interesting essay on apples, the history and flavors of the varieties, and the eating thereof.) Peeling and slicing the apples for pie is a bit tedious, but I usually have at least one child, if not both, hanging around to eat the apple skins and to talk with while I work. The amounts of sugar and spices given below seem to always work well with this combination of apples. You will almost certainly, unless you have a very deep dish or small apples, have more filling than will fit, but go ahead and pile it high, and eat what's left!
about 8 large apples of several different varieties (except Delicious)
juice of 1 medium lemon (about 1/4 cup)
3/4 cup sugar, brown OR white
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
a pinch of both ground mace and ground nutmeg
about 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 egg, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 450° F.
Mix together the sugar and spices in a small bowl.
Peel, core, and thinly slice the apples. As you work, put the sliced apples in a large bowl, and cover with a sprinkling of the sugar to keep the apples from turning brown. Add the lemon juice, and toss gently.
Pour the apples into the prepared shell, mounding them towards the center, and dot with the butter.
Roll out the top crust, and lay it carefully over the apples. Pinch the edges to seal in the filling, and crimp them; cut vent holes, and if you like, decorate the top with extra pieces of dough cut into pretty shapes. Brush the beaten egg over the pastry; if the kids do this part, which they love, just make sure that the egg wash doesn't collect in the valleys. (If the crust dough feels too soft in your hands or you need to delay baking for a half-hour or so, you can put the prepared pie in the refrigerator for a while before baking.)
Place the pie on a baking sheet to catch any spilled juice, and bake in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350° F and continue to bake for 1 hour, or until the top crust is golden brown. If the edges start to darken too much, cover them with ribbons of aluminum foil shaped to fit.
Serve as is, warm or cold, although a slice is exceptionally delicious warm with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream (the kind with specks of vanilla in it).
Makes 1 pie. Preparation time (for filling), about 30 minutes; total time, about 1 1/2 hours.
This pecan pie is a marvellous thing, rich with a molasses earthiness, and with an almost euphoric nearly-runniness that you don't get in the custardy store-bought or restaurant pecan pies. (Not that I have anything against the custardy kind. I love pie, after all.) I actually use more pecans than called for in the original recipe, although as you can see, they don't show under the rather fluffy surface -- you could certainly add more if you like.
1 1/4 cups dark corn syrup
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large eggs
2 cups pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Be sure to crimp the edges of the crust before you refrigerate it for the second time, as this will help keep the crimping from wilting unrecognizably in the heat of the oven.
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Put the corn syrup and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Let the mixture boil gently for 2 minutes. (Lift up the pan an inch or so from the heat if your stove is hot and the boiling gets too enthusiastic.) Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until it is melted.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs with an electric mixer until they are light yellow. While still beating, add in the sugar syrup, then the vanilla. Stir in the pecans.
Place the pie shell on a baking sheet. Pour the pecan filling into the shell. (You may not use all of the filling. Fill it to about 1/2 to 3/4 inches of the rim, as it will rise slightly while in the oven. Make sure all of the pecans get into the shell, though.) Place the pie on the baking sheet in the center of the oven, and bake for about 50 minutes, or until the filling is just set. If the edges start to darken too much, cover them with ribbons of aluminum foil shaped to fit.
Makes 1 pie. Preparation time (for filling), about 25 minutes; total time, about 1 1/2 hours.