Thanksgiving is the only day of the year when pie is an out-and-out requirement. Yet a pie can be, even for the experienced baker, an intimidating thing -- especially on a day when a million other things are going on in the kitchen. You can’t solve the problem by making pies ahead: You want a flaky, crisp crust and a bright filling bursting with firm fruit.
Pie is, by nature, a last-minute thing.
But there’s a solution: a very easy, yet extremely flaky and flavorful crust, and spectacular fillings that are simple to prepare. We’ve created three: a classic apple enlivened with roasted quince; a caramelized pear and brandied prune; and a “pumpkin” custard with maple meringue. They’re all festive and traditional, but each has a twist.
First, the crust. The goal was the flakiest, most flavorful crust we could manage short of making puff pastry. We spent two weeks developing a recipe, comparing versions with varying ratios of butter to shortening and flour to fat. We mixed some doughs using the electric mixer, some by hand and some using the food processor. (We were suspicious of the food processor, worried about overworking the dough.) We tried doughs rolled out, then folded and turned and chilled like puff pastry -- then rolled and folded and chilled again.
We learned that we needed butter for flavor and shortening for tenderness, but we were bothered by the fact that, with all the chilling in between steps, it was taking several hours to prepare.
Finally, we hit upon it: a pie crust dough that takes a mere 10 minutes to make, chills for half an hour and is ready to roll. And it’s made in the food processor.
The winning dough uses equal amounts of butter and shortening. Because it comes together in just a few pulses, the dough is worked very lightly and quickly, so the butter doesn’t break down too much. The streaks (or “feathering”) remain when it’s rolled out, resulting in a most desirable layered effect in the final crust. Flakiness!
We use more salt than is customary; that boosts the flavor. And we add a touch of sugar -- that’s for color; it doesn’t impart any discernible sweetness.
But proper browning is the key to superlative pie crust flavor, and most of us are not used to leaving crusts in the oven to brown nearly long enough.
The trick is to bake pie in a glass pie plate. You may think it’s done when the crimped edge is golden brown. But look at the side of the crust under the glass -- that takes longer to brown. In fact, we baked our pies so long that we made the Times Test Kitchen staff nervous. Patience is a pie virtue, though: We let the crusts bake until the sides were golden-brown, and they were fabulous.
A few other tricks:
Keep the ingredients cold. The butter should be well-chilled. It’s helpful (though not essential) to roll the dough out on a marble slab, because stone stays cooler than wood or plastic.
When you remove the dough from the food processor, flatten it gently into a circle about 1 1/2 inches thick before wrapping it in plastic. It will chill more quickly than will a ball, and it will be much easier to roll out.
Use a light hand with the flour: When you buy it, transfer it to a large resealable container so you can fluff it up before measuring. When you flour a board, pick up a little flour in your fingers and use a flick-of-the-wrist motion, like rolling dice, to scatter it lightly.
Rolling out pie dough requires a light hand, as well. This particular dough is easy to work and requires little pressure on the rolling pin. Lightly flour both sides of the dough and begin to roll in a circular motion, gradually increasing the size of the circle. Resist the urge to press harder when you get to the edges. If it sticks at any point, gently lift it up and flour the surface. If it starts to feel elastic, pop it in the fridge for a few minutes and start again.
When fitting the crust into the pie pan, leave some slack in the dough; that way you’ll compensate for its natural tendency to shrink.
Fillings of a higher order
And now for the fillings. Tempting though it may be to settle for pies that are easy as, well, you know, we refrained from simply plopping in a lot of fresh fruit and calling it a day. You’ll get a good enough pie that way, but not one extraordinary enough for Thanksgiving.
We took our pies up a notch by filling them with roasted, caramelized or macerated fruit or winter vegetables. The results are outstanding, and well worth the extra time, which is largely unattended. And much can be done in advance (tonight!). These are less sweet than ordinary pies, and therefore less cloying -- a fitting end to the most auspicious feast of the year.
The apple-quince pie has a double crust, so much the better to seal in all those wonderful juices (though we’re secretly happy when they ooze out a little in the baking, caramelizing so irresistibly.) The quince is a little-understood fruit -- at least in the United States. It looks a bit like an underripe mutant pear, and if you try to eat it raw, you’ll get a mouthful of astringent. Slice it up and roast it an hour or two, though, and it gets soft and brightly sweet, its flesh a pretty pink; let it go another hour, and it becomes dark rosy-orange and takes on the concentrated, intense flavor of quince paste.
Yet the slices hold their shape. What an ideal candidate for a pie!
Put the quinces in the oven to roast this evening, and you can make your stuffing or play Boggle while they roast.
As far as apples are concerned, fairly tart ones work best in this pie: Braeburn are ideal, though Granny Smith also will do nicely.
Our recipe actually yields five cups of extra apple-quince mixture; the stuff is so delicious that we place the excess in a baking dish, top it with an improvised streusel and bake it for about an hour. It makes a heavenly breakfast.
For the pear and prune pie, which is topped with an oat streusel, macerate the prunes in the brandy tonight. If your pears aren’t quite ripe, put them in a paper bag overnight to ripen. You don’t want to use unripe pears or they won’t bake up soft and luscious and have a lovely pear aroma.
When the pears are caramelized to a glorious deep brown, stir into the caramel the brandy in which the prunes have macerated. (The aroma that wafts up when the prune brandy goes in, mingled as it is with ginger and star anise, is reason enough to make this one.) For the streusel, we use brown butter, rather than plain melted butter; this gives it a deeper nutty flavor.
The “pumpkin” meringue pie is actually faux pumpkin made from butternut squash and yam roasted with butter, brown sugar, salt and pepper to creamy perfection. We had intended to use real pumpkin, but found that the squash and yam yielded deeper flavor.
Choose a butternut squash with a nice, big bulb; when you halve it, the extra-large cavity will hold more butter and sugar. Puree it with the yam, and the depth of flavor will make you wonder whether you’ll ever open a can of pumpkin again.
Pour the custard into a crust that already has been blind-baked. (After lining the pie plate with dough, trim it flush with the side; no crimping necessary on this one. Then mist the crust lightly with vegetable spray, line it with opened coffee filters so that they come up a little on the sides, and fill it with metal pie weights, dried beans or rice.)
After filling the crust with the “pumpkin” custard and baking it again, it will be topped with an Italian meringue flavored with maple syrup. We love Italian meringue because it’s beautifully glossy; unlike French meringue, it doesn’t get dried-out and cracked. The difference between the two is in the cooking: Italian meringue is partially cooked by adding hot syrup to the whipped egg whites, while French meringue relies solely on the oven.
Cooking the syrup to the soft-ball stage isn’t as tricky as it sounds: If you don’t have a candy thermometer, you can use our six- to eight-minute gauge. Have a bowl of ice water handy, drop in a bit of syrup after 5 minutes and put it in your mouth: It will be soft and chewy. If it’s not ready, it won’t hold together; if it’s overdone, it will be brittle.
When you top the pie with the meringue, have some fun with your spoon, pulling up tall peaks and creating low valleys. They’ll look even more dramatic once they’re browned.
Again, you’ll probably have some custard left over. Bake it on its own in a ramekin. It’s delicious.