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. Charleen Lazzeri

    PJ, Love your suggestions on how to tweek my apple pie recipe. I have a tweek of my own that my family loves…ground red pepper. I add 1/2 teaspoon to a recipe which adds a spicy surprise to those who aren’t expecting it!

    Reply
  2. Judy

    I sometimes add walnuts to my Streusel topping and top with caramel about 10 minutes before removing from the oven. I also use turbinado in my fillings.

    Reply
  3. sandy

    Every Fall I make green tomato mincemeat which tastes like regular mincemeat although it contains no meat or suet. Since I am the only one who eats it in my family, every once in a while I quietly add it to our apple pies (two thirds apple filling and one third mincemeat) and I call it “spicy apple pie” (if I use the word mincemeat everyone runs). It is great and everyone loves it. Another variation is to add sour cherries to the apples as I make the filling and cut back on the spices. It is a nice combination.

    Reply
  4. Ed Henderson

    PJ, Always greatly enjoy your recipes and insight into the “why” we do things- might I add a comment, though about a personal experience using vodka in pie crust? I made a crust using it (I think I used Ketel One) a few months ago for the first time on a double-crust strawberry-rhubarb pie, and the dough handled beautifully… everything was going swimmingly UNTIL I OPENED THE OVEN DOOR at which time a large blue-yellow tongue of alcohol-vapor flame leapt out. Fortunately I was slightly back from the door, and only lost a bit of hair and my eyebrows but if I’d been directly above that cracked door the situation would have been ugly. My only caveat, is: if you’re using vodka in pie crust be very aware that opening the door may be enough added air to have it all go “WOOF” …be safe, keep your face well back. Best regards from a devoted long-term KA customer!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Ed, we’re glad you made it out with your eyebrows mostly intact! Baking safety is always at the front of our minds here at King Arthur Flour, so thanks for this helpful reminder. Kat@KAF

  5. Monica

    So different from my usual twist! I usually add a couple teaspoons of mixed spice (mincemeat-type mix not pumpkin pie spice) and a handful of golden raisins to sliced and peeled apples. Sometimes I’ll do a top crust, but more often an almond crumble or pecan struesel topping

    Reply
  6. Marti

    P.J., a different pie for sure, but worth trying. I’m not sure I could ever make a pie using unpeeled apples. I can’t say I have ever veered too far off the beaten path when making an apple pie other than adding fresh cranberries, and once or twice included cheddar cheese in the crust. Your using such a tiny amount of spice is a brave move. Personally, I love heavily spiced apples, using almost 2 teaspoons of your apple pie spice blend with 2 lbs apples in a traditional 9 inch pie, and in your apple slab pie, which calls for only cinnamon (a LOT of cinnamon: 5 tsp if I’m not mistaken), which by the way, my husband is totally gaga over. He prefers pies which seem to have equal amounts of crust and apples. I also like a combination of maple syrup, boiled cider, vanilla, and dark rum added to the filling, and if I have any heavy cream, I’ll brush the top crust heavily with it. Last, I love to use a combination of several varieties of apples. This year, I was fortunate to get my hands on Albemarle Pippin, Suncrisp, Jonagold, Stayman and Winesap apples. The Albemarle Pippin is also known as the Newtown Pippin, and it’s a great pie apple.
    Always enjoy your blogs, P.J. Thanks.

    Reply
  7. Viv

    Just curious, why pour the cream over the apples in the crust? Why not mix in a bowl with the apples beforehand so not to have to risk spilling any of that lovely goodness? As I said, just curious. 🙂 The streusel topping looks lovely!

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel, post author

      Viv, that’s a good question. I’ve done it both ways, and seem to get the same outcome. Maybe I just like seeing the cream drip down through the crevices and cracks among the apples? But definitely mix it right in if that’s your preference. And yes, the crust/crumb topping is quite yummy as well as giving the appearance of a crumb pie, but without crumbs flying everywhere. 🙂 PJH@KAF

  8. William Lundy

    Very interesting suggestions. I hope readers “read between the lines” to realize your intent, and make their own choices rather than attempting to copy everything you describe pedantically. For me, chunking the apples and cutting back on the spices will be my next project.

    Reply

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