His lordship, like many a bearer of the Y-chromosome, is generally uninspired by sweets. He will take them happily enough should they appear before him, but he will rarely lament their absence. Cake in particular is usually his last choice from the dessert menu, which is why we celebrate his birthday every year with pie instead.
Wherein lies the problem, because pie crust is the runner-up for the title of my personal culinary nemesis (the winner, I would think, should be obvious). Pastry, yeast, even candy I can master, but really good, reliable pie crust has, for many years, eluded me. Every decent pie I’ve made has been outnumbered two or threefold by dry, crumbly, tough, or greasy less-than-perfect-successes. While many people have issues with this area of baking, I’m doubly handicapped at the gate since two of the standard go-to ingredients are off-limits. Lard, while OK with his lordship, does not fit in my vegetarian lifestyle, and transfat-laden shortening is not good for either of us. That leaves all-butter crusts, which, while very flavorful, can be horribly temperamental and, no matter how perfectly executed, are never going to achieve the ideal of flaky tenderness of a truly perfect pie.
Until now, the best results I’ve been able to achieve is by using the French technique of fraisage, in which the sandy dough is smeared across a cold work surface with the heel of your hand to build flat, thin sheets of flour-coated butter that will puff in the oven into crisp layers that impart that much-desired flakiness. While it produces lovely results, the process is fiddly, time-consuming and messy, which is why most of the time I’ve drifted into the less cumbersome and more forgiving tart zone. His lordship’s previous birthday ‘pies’ have included tarte tatins, linzertortes, pear frangipane tartes and the like.
This year, though, he specifically requested all-American double-crust apple pie, so there was no getting away from the pastry conundrum. I could have cheated and used store-bought, since there are a few on the market that use neither animal fats nor hydrogenated fat, but a birthday pie really deserves more effort than that. When I saw non-hydrogenated, palm-oil-based shortening in the store, I thought I’d give it a shot, using a recipe from the always-reliable chefs at America’s Test Kitchen, in the encyclopedic New Best Recipe. To my surprise, it worked perfectly. The pastry was far easier to work with than I expected, and baked up as beautifully flaky and light as any I’ve ever had. The filling, a mixture of Fujis, Jonagolds and Honeycrisps from several trips to the farmer’s market, was juicy and complex. His lordship was delighted, and declined ice cream or whipped cream, preferring to enjoy it in its pure, ungarnished form.
The only factors preventing me from dubbing it a complete triumph are that, in my haste, I forgot to add the salt to the flour, and I really ought to have chilled the entire pie well before baking to ensure better definition, since the very high initial baking temperature flattened out my careful crimping almost immediately. Still, it’s the best result ever, and I finally feel as though I’ve achieved the upper hand against that pesky pie dough.
Birthday Apple Pie
2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 oz) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
6-8 tablespoons ice water
8 cups sliced apples of choice (in 1/4-inch slices, from approximately 3 pounds of apples)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon grated lemon or orange zest
3/4 cup (5 1/4 oz) sugar
1 teaspoon apple pie spice
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg white, beaten lightly
1 tablespoon raw sugar
Chill shortening and butter very thoroughly before beginning.
Process the flour and salt in a food processor until combined. Add the shortening and pulse for 10 seconds, then add the butter and pulse again until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Turn out into medium bowl.
Sprinkle 6 tablespoons of ice water over mixture and fold in with a rubber spatula, pressing down until the dough sticks together. Add additional ice water as necessary. Divide into two balls and flatten into disks. Wrap each disk in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour before using.
Adjust oven rack to lowest position, place a rimmed baking sheet on rack, and preheat to 500 F.
Roll each disk of dough into a 12-inch circle between two sheets of parchment or plastic wrap. Set one circle into a 9-inch pie plate, pressing gently into the corners and leaving a 1/2-inch overhang. Chill the lined pie plate and the top crust well while preparing the filling.
In a medium bowl, toss the apples with the lemon juice and zest. Mix the sugar, apple pie spice, flour and salt in a medium bowl, then toss in with the apples. Fill the chilled shell with the apple mixture, mounding it in the center. Cover with the top crust, tucking the edge under the bottom crust overhang so that the fold is flush with the pan edge. Crimp the edge to seal, cut four slits in the top, and place in the freezer for 10 minutes.
Brush the top and edge with the egg white and sprinkled with sugar. Place on the baking sheet and lower the temperature to 425 F. Bake until golden, about 25 minutes, then reduce to 375 F. Continue baking until bubbly and deep golden brown, 30-35 minutes more.
Cool the pie on a rack to room temperature, 4 hours or more.