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Apple Pie with "Foolproof" Pie Dough

Apple Pie with "Foolproof" Pie Dough

Let me start this post by saying that I don't think the world needs another apple pie recipe. I mean, how different can I possibly make it from the million and one recipes out there? There are lots of twists on pie - some add cheddar, others use shortening v. butter or both, others swear theirs is the best because the recipe has been passed down from generation to generation....if it came from their great-great-grandma, it MUST be the best.

I do not have such a proclamation, but my interest was peaked when I listened to a recent "Freakonomics Radio" podcast episode titled,  Food + Science = Victory!  In it, one of the guests, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science and Managing Culinary Director at seriouseats.com, talked about the science behind adding vodka to pie dough for a moister crust. It's something he and his team put into a recipe while he was at Cook's Illustrated. I love hearing about the science behind food and cooking...I get a little geeky about it. (And I'd get "The Food Lab" cookbook in a heartbeat, but I think if I buy another cookbook, my husband will lose it. I think we could build a small fortress with the number of cookbooks hanging around the house.)

So, this post introduces my test for making the vodka pie crust, the science behind it and a pie recipe adapted from the New York Times. 

Which Apples are Best for Pie?

First, a note about apple selection. When I thought about apples for pie, I thought "Granny Smith" or "Macintosh," but I did what I do whenever I ponder life's important questions; I consulted "The Google." I was on my way to Lakeside Farms to pick out apples (read more about my nostalgic trip) and wanted to pick the "right" ones. A search result turned up an article, also by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, on Serious Eats that tested and rated 10 different kinds of apples in pie. Golden Delicious rated an 8 (out of 10), the highest of any of the apples tested. Lopez-Alt writes of the Golden Delicious results:

Golden delicious apples I got at Lakeside Farms in Ballston Spa, NY

Golden delicious apples I got at Lakeside Farms in Ballston Spa, NY

Flavor: Sweet, tart, and almost buttery. Well balanced and rich, especially when cooked.
Texture: Very fresh it's quite crisp, but can border on mealy when held for too long off the tree. When baked, it softens but retains a bit of texture
Pie Rating (1-10): 8; the best flavor I got out of any single appleβ€”this is what apple pie should taste like. I just wish it were slightly firmer.
Best uses?: Pies, sauce, apple butter.

Golden Delicious is what I used in my pie. (Braeburn would have been my second choice.)

The Science of Pie Dough

Why does vodka make a better dough? As Scientific American explains, pie crust is a ratio of three things: flour, liquid and fat. These three vary greatly in proportion and variation in different recipes. By substituting alcohol, like vodka, for the liquid portion of the recipe, it alters the formation of gluten. When water is added to flour (which contains different percentages of protein depending on the flour you choose), two wheat flour proteins -- gliadin and glutenin -- form gluten which "toughens" dough. However, an 80 proof vodka is only 60% water, so it will work in combining the dough, but doesn't contribute to forming gluten. Gluten doesn't form in alcohol because the ethyl alcohol doesn't attach itself to the proteins the same way water does -- it doesn't "hydrate" the proteins. And that, dear friends, is the science behind vodka pie dough. 

Vodka Pie Dough Results

I pretty much followed Lopez-Alt's recipe for "vodka pie dough." (It's really titled "Foolproof Pie Dough" but I like saying "Vodka Pie Dough" better). Here's the kicker - I thought for sure I wasn't going to be able to write this post. The dough was STICKY WET. Seriously, I thought, "This can't be right." I thought for sure I messed it up. No pie dough is this wet. But, every time I read through the recipe again, I found I followed it to a "T," so I just chilled the dough and hoped for the best. As I later found out, the bloggers over at Scientific American were just as intrigued by the science of vodka pie dough and tried the recipe as well. They too, remarked at how wet it was. Just be prepared to use extra flour when you roll it out after chilling.

So, did it work? Yes, it did. Despite my doubts about its pre-baked wet consistency, it really is a moist, flaky pie dough! Here are the details of "Foolproof Pie Dough."

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (12 1/2 ounces)
1 tsp table salt
2 TBSP sugar
12 TBSP cold unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup vodka, cold
1/4 cup cold water

Directions

Step 1: 

Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage-cheese curds, and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

Step 2: 

Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

Tip: I would recommend letting it chill even longer than I did (which was 1 1/2 hours). If it's not chilled enough it keeps a thinner, wetter consistency and no matter how much flour you use, this stuff just sticks almost uncontrollably to your rolling pin and surface. 
Forgive my poor pie-crust pinching skills...

Forgive my poor pie-crust pinching skills...

I beg you to forgive my ugly pie. I will admit that I have never gotten the technique of pinching off pie crust quite right...it always looks terrible. Maybe this will be one of my new year's resolutions - learn how to make a better looking pie.

NY Times Apple Pie

Adapted from Sam Sifton's recipe

Ingredients

2 TBSP unsalted butter
2 1/2 pounds Golden Delicious apples (about 5-6 large), peeled and cored, then cut into wedges
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tspground cinnamon
1/4 tsp kosher salt
3/4 cup plus 1 TBSP sugar
2 TBSP all-purpose flour
2 tsp cornstarch
1 TBSP apple cider vinegar
1 recipe all-purpose pie dough
1 egg, lightly beaten

Step 1:

Melt butter in a large saute pan set over medium-high heat and add apples to the pan. Stir to coat fruit with butter and cook, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, whisk together the spices, salt and .75 cup sugar, and sprinkle this over the pan, stirring to combine. Lower heat and cook until apples have started to soften, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Sprinkle the flour and cornstarch over the apples and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, another 3 to 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat, add cider vinegar, stir and scrape fruit mixture into a bowl and allow to cool completely. (The fruit mixture will cool faster if spread out on a rimmed baking sheet.)

Step 2:

Place a large baking sheet on the middle rack of oven and preheat to 425. Remove one disc of dough from the refrigerator and, using a pin, roll it out on a lightly floured surface until it is roughly 12 inches in diameter. Fit this crust into a 9-inch pie plate, trimming it to leave a .5-inch overhang. Place this plate, with the dough, in the freezer.
Roll out the remaining dough on a lightly floured surface until it is roughly 10 or 11 inches in diameter.

Step 3:

Remove pie crust from freezer and put the cooled pie filling into it. Cover with remaining dough. Press the edges together, trim the excess, then crimp the edges with the tines of a fork. Using a sharp knife, cut three or four steam vents in the top of the crust. Lightly brush the top of the pie with egg wash and sprinkle with remaining tablespoon of sugar.

Step 4:

Place pie in oven and bake on hot baking sheet for 20 minutes, then reduce temperature to 375. Continue to cook until the interior is bubbling and the crust is golden brown, about 30 to 40 minutes more. Remove and allow to cool on a windowsill or kitchen rack, about two hours.

Lakeside Farms - Ballston Lake, NY

Lakeside Farms - Ballston Lake, NY

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