Create your own special apple pie: tips for personalizing your favorite recipe

Like many bakers, I have a standard go-to apple pie recipe. That said, I have a hard time making it “as is.” Like many of you inquisitive bakers out there, my favorite thought in the kitchen is always, “What if…?” And over the years those multiple “what ifs” have transformed my “starter” apple pie recipe into a special apple pie, one that incorporates an array of personal touches.

Now, I know apple pie is a hot-button subject; many of you are completely satisfied with your own recipe, thank you very much, and don’t need me barging into your kitchen with mine. But if you’re as curious as I am when it comes to hearing other people’s personal takes on classic recipes, read on.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

My special apple pie

Let’s start with this recipe for Apple Pie. It’s a basic apple pie recipe done well; I’ve used it exactly as written many times. But it’s also a great launchpad for the modifications that follow.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

The crust

Instead of the recipe’s original crust, I use our Classic Double Pie Crust recipe, which calls for more butter, less shortening (read: more butter flavor). I also add an additional tablespoon of shortening for a slight uptick in richness; and I make it with vodka instead of water (more on that later).

Here’s my reformulated crust:

2 1/2 cups (297g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup (60g) vegetable shortening
10 tablespoons (142g) cold unsalted butter, cut into thin pats
1/3 cup (75g) to 1/2 cup (113g) vodka

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

Whisk the flour and salt together, then mix in the shortening until it’s totally incorporated, with no lumps. Work in the butter, mixing until it’s well-distributed and has broken down somewhat; you’ll still see quite a few larger lumps. By the way, I always make pie crust in my stand mixer; works like a charm.

The best pie crust is made with vodka. Fact — or baker's myth? Click To Tweet

Add enough vodka to bring everything together; I use two “nips” (those little plastic bottles), which equals two shots (99g by weight). Why? The theory is, replacing a pie crust’s water with alcohol results in less gluten development, and therefore a more tender crust.

That said, I don’t use high-octane vodka. Eighty proof (40% alcohol) is about right; higher than that, you risk the gluten being underdeveloped, and the pastry becoming too fragile to work with easily.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

Divide the dough into two pieces, one about two-thirds of the total, the other about one-third.

Why not divide the dough in half? Because your pie’s bottom crust covers more territory and actually needs to be quite a bit larger than its top crust. Wrap and chill for 30 minutes.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

The filling

Like the original Apple Pie recipe’s filling, I start with a generous 3 pounds of apples; but then I veer off the path, incorporating preferences in flavor and texture I’ve developed over the years. Here’s what I’ve come up with: a filling that uses unpeeled apples, for heartier texture and added color; and no spice beyond cinnamon, with emphasis instead on the flavor of the apples, plus vanilla extract and cream.

8 cups (about 3 pounds whole; a generous 2 pounds, prepared) cored, diced (unpeeled) apples
2 tablespoons (28g) lemon juice
3/4 cup (160g) brown sugar
2 tablespoons (26g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
2 tablespoons (22g) Instant ClearJel
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup (85g) boiled cider
1 tablespoon (14g) vanilla extract
1/2 cup (113g) heavy creamSpecial apple pie via @kingarthurflour

The apples

Let’s talk apples. I like to use a combination of whatever’s at our local farmstand. Most recently that’s been Empire, Macoun, and Golden Russet; if I can get Northern Spies, I use them. For more on this subject, see The very best pie apples.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

Now here’s where the real heresy starts: I don’t peel the apples. I simply core and cut them into wedges, then cut the wedges into chunks. Yes, the filling is hearty rather than smooth/soft; that’s the way I like it. But since you asked, no, the peels aren’t annoying! Also, the peels infuse the filling with warm, rosy color.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

The flavor

Next, the flavor. I prefer apple pie that tastes more of apples than spice. So I enhance the apple flavor with boiled cider and cut back on the spice, omitting everything except a hint of cinnamon.

I also love caramel apples, so I add caramel notes and rich color by using brown sugar in place of white, and use a generous splash of vanilla to further ramp up the caramel.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

The texture

I like to precook the filling just a bit, to shrink the apples and lessen the possibility of the dreaded gap, that space that can develop between the filling and top crust. For details on this technique, see Make-ahead apple pie filling.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

The true genius hack here, though, is something I learned from fellow King Arthur baker (and long-time friend) Sue Gray: adding heavy cream. Drizzling cream into apple pie filling gives it luxurious, creamy mouthfeel and a touch of rich flavor. Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

If the cream puddles on top, gently stir it in with a spoon or spatula.

The finish

Bottom crust, filling, top crust — and topping. While there are any number of ways to enhance your apple pie’s top crust, my favorite is an offbeat amalgam of butter, flour, and sugar.

Sounds like a crumb topping, right? Well, same ingredients, different ratio, and slightly altered technique. Instead of mixing equal parts of each until crumbs form, as I would with a typical crumb topping, I go heavy on the sugar and flour, light on the butter.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

I whirl the ingredients in a mini food processor or blender until very fine-grained and even textured. This makes a “streusel” topping that’s less crumb-y and more sandy, a mildly crunchy, sweet/buttery patina atop the crust. Here’s how to top your 9” pie:

1/4 cup (50g) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons (23g) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 tablespoon (14g) cold butter, cut into four pieces
1/8 teaspoon salt

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

After brushing the pie’s top crust with a lightly beaten egg white (you can also use milk or water), sprinkle/spread it with the topping, patting it down gently.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

Bake as directed: 20 minutes at 425°F, an additional 40 to 60 minutes at 375°F or until the juices have been bubbling around the edges of the crust for at least 10 minutes. Tent the top of the pie with foil if it starts to brown too quickly.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

The final touch

The caramel/apple flavor combo has been a favorite of mine since childhood days, back when a caramel apple on a stick was the crowning glory of our visit to the town’s annual Grange fair. So I finish my special apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a fat dollop of homemade caramel sauce.

Special apple pie via @kingarthurflour

A slice of warm pie, rivulets of vanilla cream melting down the side, and caramel descending oh-so-slowly over all — honestly, can it get any better?

Yes, it can — if it’s your own special apple pie adorning the Thanksgiving table this year.

In the spirit of sharing, we’d love to hear what personal touches you add to your apple pie; please comment, below.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Sandy Bautch

    PJ, I make my apple pies very similar to yours, including making my crusts with vodka in my stand mixer. I am anxious to give your dusting topping a try.

    The main way I do vary my pies is that instead of making 1 large 8″ or 9″ pie, I make either 5″ mini pies (which can be generously split between 2 people) or 3″ mini pies for single servings. The “king” of my test kitchen (husband, Denny) has concluded that with the smaller pies, the ratio of pastry:filling, is perfectly balanced and one he much prefers, rather than one slice of a large pie which generally has much more filling than pastry per bite.

    Also, using your technique to freeze pies, I make up a dozen or more mini pies at a time, vacuum seal them individually and pop them into our freezer. When I am ready to serve them, especially for drop-in visitors, I pull them out of the freezer, slide them into my toaster oven at 400° for 30-35 minutes until they are golden brown and serve them piping hot, adding a drizzle of caramel and topping them with ice cream. They are the talk of the neighborhood. And an effortless delight!!!

    A dear friend gave me a metal sign I have in my front window which reads: “Fresh baked pies served daily.” With this method, they are here!

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid

      Yes, Lisa, by all means. Prep away! You can thaw the dough to roll out either overnight in the refrigerator or on the counter for about an hour. Susan

  2. Karen Bushy

    I do peel the apples and slice them thin, but enjoy using 4 or 5 kinds of apples; gives a wonderful complexity to the flavor. Additions: rough-chop a handful of walnuts and when available a handful of fresh cranberries. Gives me the “rosy” look to the juice, and a bit of tanginess, and the walnut chunks are a wonderful complementary flavor and a good “crunch”. Family favorite: baking off the trimmings on a cookie sheet, sprinkled generously with cinnamon and sugar. Always a “war” between my kids, their spouses and the grandkids over who gets more piecrust. I’ve been known to make up a batch of crust for a single pie and just roll it out and bake it off as pie crust. They all LOVE it!

    Reply
  3. Laura Denne

    My mother-in-law’s apple pie was, of course, legendary. When my husband started making it, he followed her recipe to the letter; always used Granny Smith apples ( peeled and sliced thin), used all lard for the crust (cut with orange juice to diminish the ‘lardy flavor’), and crimp the edge crust by simply pressing down with a fork.
    Now that he has passed, I look forward to carrying on the legend, but also will be incorporating a few tweaks of my own. Thanks for the ‘inspiration’!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      And thanks for carry8ng on your family tradition, Laura. I’m so happy when I hear that people are passing special recipes down through the generations… PJH@KAF

  4. Charleen Lazzeri

    The tweeks sound delicious and worth a try. I’ve been making apple pies for many years and have a few tweeks of my own. One that my family especially loves is the addition of 1/2 teaspoon of ground red pepper to the apples. If you enjoy a little spice, give it a try. Also, I bake the pie in a brown paper bag, 425 degrees for 1 hour. It bakes perfectly without over baking the crust.

    Reply

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