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Thanksgiving Baking is Easy as Pie

Lose your fear of baking pies with valuable tips and delicious recipes from this week's Baker's Table, where we're not afraid to take a few shortcuts. We've also got the latest on a Westchester bakery that's creating buzz with it's local-ingredient pies.

Making pie is certainly not as easy as eating pie.

It’s the crust component of the task that makes people nervous, leading them to outsource the Thanksgiving dessert course with store-bought pie shells to fill and bake themselves.   

Not that outsourcing is such a bad thing. Overall, Thanksgiving should be about spending quality time with the family, not striving to host the be-all and end-all culinary event of the year.

However, if you want to finally conquer your fear of making crust, I’ve come up with a few tips to help make this undertaking a bit easier and definitely more tasty.

The 411 on Pie Crust

1.  Two words: Cookie Crust

Why not bake the pumpkin pie in a cookie crust and skip the pie dough hassle? This process really is easy: crush cookies; mix with melted butter; press into pie pan; and bake.

Ginger snap cookies make an excellent cookie crust with spice, perfect for the season. 

If you need to make a gluten-free pie, there are good gluten-free ginger snaps and graham crackers available.  Click for more information on a gluten-free Thanksgiving.

But, for a more traditional pastry dough crust...

2.  Keep it simple with five ingredients: flour, sugar, salt, butter (or lard), and water.

Some people substitute the butter for lard, or do a combination of the two.  Personally, I like an all-butter crust for the taste, but lard is known to help make the crust more flaky.

3. Cold, cold, COLD!!!

This is extremely important to guarantee a flaky crust. Feel free to freeze your butter beforehand. I cut up the frozen butter into small dice, but some bakers recommend grating the frozen butter into the flour mixture. I think this could be a great idea, too. 

When the recipe calls for “ice-water”, it’s not whistling dixie... make sure your water is ice-cold!  

Chill the dough properly before rolling. Then chill again before baking. Let the pie dough spend ample time “chill-axing”, and it will reward you with a flaky crust.

In fact, you can make the dough up to 3 days prior to baking—or longer if you place it in the freezer.  You can even roll it, place it in the pan, then cover with plastic wrap and freeze before you bake.  

4.  Your new BFF: the food processor.

Don’t have one?  Don’t worry—a pastry cutter or even your fingers will do, just with a teensy bit more effort. 

With a food processor, your dough will be completed in less than 2 minutes.  

5.  Do not overprocess!

The more you work the dough, the less flaky it will be.  Plan on pulsing no more than 30 seconds with the food processor.  By hand, just work it until it comes together without falling apart.

6.  Rolling is a breeze with plastic wrap. 

In culinary school, we were taught to sprinkle the counter with plenty of flour, cover our rolling pins with more flour, and then dust the dough with even more flour. In other words, expect a mess.

I recently read a tip by one of my instructors, Jacques Pepin, to roll the dough between sheets of plastic wrap—this makes it easier to roll and aids you in placing the dough in the pie pan.  I wish I had learned this back in school! 

The only issue I’ve encountered with this technique is that it is a bit more difficult to get the crust thin enough—make sure you have rolled it out to 1/8th of an inch. 

Pie Pans

I prefer ceramic pie pans, such as Emille Henry or Rose’s Perfect Pie Plate, not only because they allow even baking, but also because they look beautiful on the table.  

in Katonah turned me onto the Rose’s plate; at $25 it is easier on the budget than the over $40 Emile Henry brand. Fluting the crust edge is a pleasure and a breeze in this new pan developed by Rose Levy Berenbaum, author “The Pie and Pastry Bible.” 

The pan makes an thoughtful and beautiful hostess gift for all the holidays—a home-baked pie in a lovely plate which they can use for years.

Glass pans, such as Pyrex, also are wonderful at producing an evenly browned crust. Metal pans are not as good at retaining heat; and aluminum pans can react with acidic fruit fillings, producing off flavors.

My recommended recipes

The first pie I ever made on my own was Old-fashioned Bottom-Crust Apple Pie out of Martha Stewart’s “Quick Cook” cookbook published in 1983.  However, I prefer a double-crusted apple pie, so now I make an adapted recipe for Martha's Old Fashioned Apple Pie (with a double crust) using her Pate Brisee recipe for the pastry shell.  

What I love about this pasty recipe is that the crust is buttery-delicious, incredibly flaky and extremely easy.  You can also use the pie crust recipe for a pumpkin pie.

This Thanksgiving, I plan to make a rich chocolate tart with a gingersnap-cookie crust in addition to the apple and pumpkin pies. The chocolate lovers in my family will be rejoicing! 

I considered making a chocolate-praline pie to placate the non-fruit eaters, but we have some opposed or allergic to nuts.  

The gingersnap crust will lend a nice spiced taste for this time of year, and would also be wonderful served for the December holidays. Of my three pies, the chocolate tart is definitely the easiest and least time-consuming recipe. 

See below for Apple, Pumpkin and Chocolate Gingersnap pie recipes which will have you believing the phrase “easy as pie.”

Alternatives to homemade

If you would rather leave the pie baking to a professional, check out the varieties at Red Barn Bakery in Irvington, NY. is baking up some amazing pies and tarts, such as pumpkin-yam chiffon, apple crumb, chocolate-pecan, pumpkin cheesecake, and more.  Dodge recommends ordering in advance.

Her baked goods are also available in the following tri-state markets:

Mt Kisco Seafood, Mt Kisco

Stone Barns Market, Tarrytown

The Hickories, Ridgefield, CT

Gentile's Market, 79th St & Madison Ave, NYC

Scaglio's Market, Katonah

Moomah, 161 Hudson St, NYC 

If you still would like to buy a pre-baked shell, Bon Appetit conducted a taste test in August which gave first place to Oronoque Orchards Deep Dish Homestyle Pie Crusts in terms of taste alone, and top honors to Wholly Wholesome Organic Traditional Pie Shells in terms of both nutrition (natural ingredients) and taste.

Note: Most store-bought shells include artificial ingredients and partially hydrogenated fats. Of the lot, Whole Foods and Wholly Wholesome brand pie shells have the fewest ingredients  and nothing artificial. 

The Recipies

My Favorite Pie Dough

Pate Brisee

adapted from Martha Stewart

makes 1 double crust pie or 2 single crusts pie crusts

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter chilled and cut into small pieces

1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water

Directions

In the bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt, and sugar. Add butter, and process JUST until the mixture resembles VERY coarse meal, about 8 seconds.

With machine running, add 1/4 cup ice water in a slow, steady stream through feed tube. Pulse until dough holds together without being wet or sticky; be careful not to process more than 30 seconds. To test, squeeze a small amount together: If it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Divide dough into two equal balls. Flatten each ball into a disc and wrap in plastic. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill at least 1 hour. Dough may be stored, frozen, up to 1 month.

Gingersnap Cookie Crust

adapted from Bon Appetit (2007)

8 ounces gingersnap cookies (about 32 cookies), coarsely broken

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 325°F. Finely grind gingersnap cookies in processor (yielding 1 1/2 to 1 2/3 cups). Add melted butter and salt; process until moistened. Press crumb mixture firmly onto bottom and up sides of 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom. Place pan on rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 8 minutes and allow to cool before placing filling inside.

Old Fashioned Apple Pie

adapted from Martha Stewart

1 recipe Pate Brisee (see above)

8-9 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and sliced

3/4 cup sugar, plus additional for pie top

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Pinch ground cloves

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large egg, beaten

Directions:

Heat oven to 375 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll out pate brisee into two 1/8-inch-thick circles to a diameter slightly larger than that of an 11-inch plate. Press one pastry circle into the pie plate. Place the other circle on waxed paper, and cover with plastic wrap. Chill all pastry until firm, about 30 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine apples, sugar, lemon zest and juice, spices, and flour. Toss well. Spoon apples into pie pan. Dot with butter, and cover with remaining pastry circle. Cut several steam vents across top. Seal by crimping edges as desired. Brush with beaten egg, and sprinkle with additional sugar.

Bake until crust is brown and juices are bubbling, about 1 hour. Let cool on wire rack before serving.

Maple-Pumpkin Pie

Pate Brisee (see recipe above), partially baked

OR

1 recipe Gingersnap Cookie Crust (see above)

Pie Filling:

2 cups canned pumpkin (without pumpkin pie spice!)

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup sour cream

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

pinch ground nutmeg

pinch ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon table salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs, whisked together well

Heat oven to 375 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll out half of the pate brisee dough into a 1/8-inch-thick circles to a diameter slightly larger than that of an 11-inch plate. Press one pastry circle into the pie plate. Chill pastry until firm, about 30 minutes.

Place foil over the pastry and fill the interior of the pastry shell with pie weights -- you can use dried beans, coins or official pie weights.  Bake the pie crust for about 20 minutes.  Remove the foil and weights, and allow to cool before adding the pie filling.  You can do this the day before and leave at room temperature overnight as well.

OR, prepare the gingersnap cookie crust as instructed in the above recipe.

In a food processor, mixer OR by hand in a large bowl, mix all the filling ingredients together well. Pour into the pie shell -- you may have extra filling depending on your pie plate.  If you have extra, you can bake in a small greased baking dish alongside the pie.  Timesaver: you can make the filling the night before and just give it a quick whisk before  placing into the pie shell. 

Chocolate Tart with Gingersnap Crust

1 recipe Gingersnap crust (see above)

1 1/4 cups heavy cream
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped finel

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

pinch ground cinnamon

2 eggs, beaten 

Place the cream in a saucepan set over medium-low heat. Bring the cream to just simmering. Remove it from the heat, and stir in the chocolate, vanilla and cinnamon until the mixture is smooth and the chocolate is completely incorporated. Whisk a small amount of the hot chocolate cream into the eggs. Transfer the tempered egg mixture back into the hot chocolate and whisk the mixture until it is smooth.

Pour the chocolate filling into the prepared crust and bake it for 18 to 25 minutes, until most the filling is set and only the center jiggles slightly when the tart is moved.

Tracey Pagan November 17, 2011 at 03:28 PM
Really great article Amy!! Love the plastic wrap/crust rolling tip!
Amy Baker November 22, 2011 at 03:26 PM
Thanks, Tracey! Happy Thanksgiving to the Pagan family.

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