Pie Wisdom from a Pro
By Kathryn Matthews
If you want to dazzle family with a home-baked pie—apple, or otherwise—but, you’re a neophyte baker, or, you think that your best pie could be (much) better, take heart. Baker extraordinaire and owner of Tivoli Bread & Baking Company Mikel Gonnella, who also sells his popular multigrain bread and baguettes at Montgomery Place farm stand, offers these pie-making tips.
Gonnella, who has judged a few pies in his time, knows what pie crust for a double crust pie should NOT be: Gummy. Dry. Burnt. Raw. “Tented”—with dead air space between the cooked filling and the crust.
Instead, aim for a crust that is flaky in texture, tastes like butter, and a top crust that rests nicely over the cooked filling.
How to get there:
•Butter (unsalted) is best.
When it comes to pie crust, Gonnella advises using straight butter: “To me, a pie crust is all about the butter.” Crisco is a no-no. “I don’t like what it is, and I don’t care for the end result,” he said. For “hard-core pork fanatics”, Gonnella gives a reluctant go-ahead to use lard. “Personally, I don’t use lard because I can always taste it in the dough”.
•Use good butter.
“You want to be able to taste the butter in a crust—so make it a quality, flavorful, unsalted butter,” says Gonnella, who uses Cabot at the bakery.
•Keep butter cold—as much as possible.
For best results, use cold butter, work with it quickly—and in cool conditions. For example, don’t attempt to make a butter pie crust on top of an oven set on “broil”! And it’s best to make your pie crust early in the morning, when it’s cooler. “You don’t want the butter to start melting as you’re working with it,” says Gonnella.
•Add a little sugar.
Yes, Gonnella adds a little sugar—about 2 teaspoons—to his pie dough, which he says, lends it a nice color.
•Don’t overmix the dough
To avoid overmixing the dough, Gonnellao makes his pie dough in two steps.
First, he breaks up the butter, combining it with flour, sugar and salt in a standing mixer, which he favors. If you don’t have one, use a pastry blender. A food processor is okay to use, but, be aware that, its high speed makes it is easy to overmix the dough within a few seconds, says Gonella, who advises pulsing ingredients for no more than 15 seconds.
Blend dough until moist clumps, the size of small peas, forms.
Then, transfer dough to a large mixing bowl. Add half the water. Rake the dough with your fingers, going underneath and flipping it over to gently fold in the water. The goal is to get the dough to stick together, says Gonnella. Once it does, press into an inch-thick disk, about 4-5 inches in diameter. Wrap well in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for up to a week. Freeze up to three months.
•Less is more.
“I like to make fruit pie filling with as few ingredients as possible because tasting the fruit, itself, is the point. My filling will usually include seasonal fruit, sugar and a thickener, like flour (for an apple pie) or minute tapioca (for a cherry pie). If it’s an apple pie, Gonnella advises, “start with good apples, a little sugar and a little cinnamon—that’s all you need.”
•Use a diverse mix of apples
Gonnella advises uses at least 2 to 3 varieties—ideally, 4 to 5 varieties—of apples for pie filling. “This way, you’re not banking the success of that pie on just one apple, which might retain a hard crunchiness, or cook too soft. Try mixing good pie apples, like a sweet-tasting Cortland and Northern Spy, with tarter heirloom varieties.
•Sugar in moderation
Taste your apples. Sweet apples require less sugar; tart or sour apples, more. “You could get away with 1/2 cup sugar with sweet-tasting apples, but you may need up to 1 cup sugar if the apples are very tart or slightly sour,” says Gonnella.
•Thicken with flour and butter
How much flour to use is a judgment call, says Gonella: “If my apple pie filling is really wet, I’ll use 3-4 tablespoons of flour; if it’s drier, I’ll use less. Then I drizzle on half that amount in melted butter before I put on the top crust.”
•Easy on the spices.
“I’m not looking for garam masala—or any other exotic spice blends—in my apple pie. An apple pie has a standard to uphold; it should taste like an apple pie,” says Gonnella.