BraveTart: How to Make Old-Fashioned Apple Pie, No Gimmicks Required

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Natalie Holt]

I believe in having recipes for every occasion, especially when that means multiple options for putting dessert on the table. Different techniques lend themselves to different circumstances; what makes sense for a lazy Saturday afternoon won't cut it on a harried weeknight. So, while Serious Eats already boasts two of Kenji's recipes for apple pie (classic and gooey), I'd like to make the case for adding a third.

For me, apple pie is almost always the finishing touch at a family gathering or holiday dinner, which means there's usually a lot going on in the kitchen already. For that reason, I'm all about a hands-off approach, with a pie that doesn't require much fuss or special equipment, and plenty of leeway when it comes to timing—the more I can knock out in advance, the better.

Of course, convenience isn't everything. I also want a pie that's warmly spiced, with the flavor of apples front and center. I want a pie that's thick and easy to slice, with loads of tender apples, plenty of saucy filling, and a flaky crust that's crisp and brown even on the bottom.

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It's a tall order, but one I figured out for my cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts.

Apple pie became a national symbol long before the era of food processors and sous vide, so I wanted my book to include a recipe that was as straightforward as possible. While it's often said that using a variety of apples can create depth of flavor, this can also introduce unnecessary variables into the equation, with some types breaking down more quickly to flood the pie with juice. When you stick with one type of apple, the pie's consistency stays the same from batch to batch; depth is created through a blend of brown sugar and spices that highlights the apples rather than overwhelming them.

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For this purpose, I'm a big fan of tart baking apples, like Granny Smiths. They're high in pectin and hold their shape nicely in the oven, which keeps the filling thick, and they're tart enough to offset the sweetness of embellishments, like a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of chantilly.

I peel, quarter, and core the apples, then cut each into wedges about half an inch thick at their widest point. Cutting significantly larger or smaller pieces will change the overall surface area of the fruit, which can affect how quickly the apples break down to release their juice. This can in turn impact the consistency of the filling, so it's worth taking the time to make the pieces as uniform as possible.

From there, I macerate the sliced apples with brown sugar and spices in a gallon-sized zip-top bag. Not only does this minimize cleanup down the road, it limits the fruit's exposure to air, meaning less oxidation, and it lets me toss everything together without making a mess. (A five-quart-capacity bowl will do the same thing, but that will also increase the fruit's exposure to air.)

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Macerating helps break down the fruit's structure, leading to a massive reduction in volume without any cooking. It requires at least three hours of downtime, which leaves plenty of opportunity to make, roll, shape, and relax my Old-Fashioned Flaky Pie Dough, per the directions for a double-crusted pie.

That particular recipe is fairly essential for success here, as its high butter content helps the dough resist absorbing moisture from the juicy apple filling. In turn, that allows the bottom crust to bake up flaky and crisp—no need to take any special precautions. As a bonus, the buttery dough also lends a pleasant richness to the otherwise lean fruit filling, so you won't have to add pats of butter later on.

Both the fruit and the prepared pie dough can be refrigerated overnight, so the maceration stage represents a nice place to pause if you want to get a jump on the recipe before the big occasion, whether that's a holiday or just dinner with the fam. The fruit will be ready when it's lost about a third of its original volume, and about a cup of "juice" has pooled up in the bag—scare quotes because it's not really juice.

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The liquid you see after macerating the apples is a syrup composed primarily of brown sugar dissolved by a small amount of tart apple juice. (The mixture weighs little more than the brown sugar added in step one.) This is more or less the same thing that happens with my fresh lemon syrup, in which dry lemon rinds are tossed with seven ounces of sugar to yield a scant eight ounces of syrup after a few hours.

That lack of moisture means there's no need to spend time and energy cooking the liquid down to concentrate the "juices," as the liquid is already quite concentrated in terms of both flavor and water content. Further cooking will only candy the syrup and bring out the funky flavors of caramelized fructose, while the overall water content of the fruit is easily managed through a touch of tapioca starch. Plus, skipping that cooking step means fewer dishes to clean up in the end.

Once the apples have collapsed by a third, I add the tapioca starch, then seal the whole thing back up to toss around until it's well combined. (Waiting to add the tapioca starch prevents it from interfering with maceration.)

Make an effort to nestle the slices together as compactly as you can; it'll take a minute to pile all the apples into a mound, but they'll all fit so long as you've got a standard nine-inch glass pie plate.

Glass is important because it determines the rate at which heat is conducted to the pie. Heavy materials, like thick ceramic or stoneware, will slow that process down, which can produce a dense and greasy crust. Meanwhile, lightweight metal, like aluminum, may speed things up so much that by the time the crust is golden brown, the apples may still be a little crunchy. Glass lands right in the middle, conducting heat at a brisk but not breakneck pace, so that the crust turns out flaky and crisp just as the apples cook through.

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To cover the pie, take the prepared top crust out of the fridge. At first, the dough will be cold enough to crack, but it'll become quite pliable after a moment or two at room temperature. So, before slinging it over the pie, wait until it's flexible enough to conform to the mound of fruit. (The exact time you'll need to wait will depend on the temperature of your kitchen, but it shouldn't take more than a minute.) When the dough is pliable but cool, drape it over the fruit, pinch it together with the bottom crust, then trim to a three-quarter-inch border.

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The easiest option for the border is to tuck this excess dough up under the pie and be done with it (that's what I advise in my book), but if the dough is properly trimmed, you can do an old-school crimp. Just keep those waves relaxed and loose, as a tighter crimp won't hold its shape as well with this style of pie.

Refrigerate the assembled pie at least 30 minutes, which is the perfect amount of time to preheat an oven to 400°F (200°C). Chilling ensures the dough is cold to start, which keeps the crust flaky and light.

When it's time to bake, brush the pie with an egg wash, then cut five or six large vents with a sharp knife, using the blade to open each one a little wider—when vents are cut too narrow, entrapped steam can make the top crust a bit mushy.

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Bake until the pie reaches an internal temperature of 195°F (91°C), about 75 minutes. This is significantly cooler than the goal temperature for most fruit pie fillings, which are typically brought to a full boil, but it keeps the apples tender rather than mushy and avoids the problem of a watery pie. When brought to a boil, apples break down and release their juices completely, flooding the pie. A slightly-cooler-than-standard target temperature keeps the apples plump and juicy, with enough structure to retain their own water content, so there isn't as much need for starch.

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I've previously said that pectin isn't a factor in blueberry pie, but that's because blueberries are a low-pectin fruit. Green apples are especially high in pectin, which means that even though this recipe doesn't use nearly as much starch as my other pies, the filling will thicken considerably as it cools.

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That only means that it's best served warm—something that's been true of apple pie all along.

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