I only make pies when I have to, because pies are bad for my self-esteem. In Ohio I never had to make pies, because there are amazing pies in the heartland. But California is not pie country. I don’t know what it is – fear of lard? – but to get a good pie for Thanksgiving, I have to make it myself.
This recipe maximizes what I can make reliably – a filling of soft apples spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, plus a buttery crumble topping – and minimizes what I can’t: pie crust. So I buy a good-quality pie crust (Trader Joe’s has a good one), and the rest is pretty much foolproof.
If you’ve been too scared to tackle pie, this is pie for dummies, by dummies. Believe me, if I can make a good pie, you can make one better.
The mechanics of pie crust aren’t hard – flour, butter/shortening (lard if you’re old school), a bit of salt and water. My problem is personality – heavy handed and impatient, I overwork the dough and get something inedibly tough instead of invitingly tender. I can take out my aggressions on bread, but pastry wants a light touch that I just don’t have.
Crust aside, the only trick to apple pie is what kind of apples to use. A mix of apples adds a nice variation in flavor and texture. But if I’m only buying one type of apple, I try to find firm Golden Delicious (not the mealy ones!), which at its best is sweet with great flavor. There are also many Golden Delicious cultivars on the market now, such as Gala, Jonagold, Pink Lady and Mutsu, which are also good options.
But apple types vary regionally, so ask around at the market for advice. My chef friend Heidi just conducted a fantastic apples-for-pies comparison and found that in general, tart apples break down when cooked, while sweet apples stay firm.
I would definitely stay away from Red Delicious (very mushy, poor flavor) and Fujis (they never get soft). Granny Smith is the traditional pie apple, but I always find Granny Smiths tart and bland.
When I can find them, I love the dense, sweet-tart Pippins for eating and baking. Old-fashioned Pippins are hard to find now, but this is what they look like.
I don’t worry too much about the uniformity of my apple slices – variation is good to produce a mix of apple textures in the pie. The kids like helping with this part, especially if they’re allowed to taste as they work (“quality control”).
If I peel off a ring from the tops and bottoms of the apples, I can hand off the apples to the kids, who can then easily peel strips down from the top of the apple to the bottom.
No more peeler accidents.
After I core the apples, I’m relaxed about the kids slicing them. Their handiwork ranges from tidbits to chunks, but the variety makes for a good mix of apple mush and apple slices in the cooked pie.
If you don’t know how well your particular apple variety cooks down, you might want to err on the side of thinner slices so you don’t end up with crunchy apples in your pie. At the Creamery in Palo Alto, they don’t slice their Granny Smith apples for pie at all – they just cut large pieces around the core and pile them up in the shell. Maybe they have a secret method, but if I tried that at home, I’d have a pie full of hard, sour apples. But their giant apple mountains make for fun viewing.
You can increase or decrease the sugar depending on the tartness of your apples. Some flour or starch is good to keep your pie from being too runny. If your apples are releasing a lot of juice as they sit, you can add a bit extra.
Go ahead and taste one. This is when quality control gets particularly enthusiastic.
Apples in the prepared pie shell.
The crumb topping takes no time to make – just flour, butter and brown sugar. So easy, and a sweet buttery delight to eat.
The mini-food processor is great for this (mine is an attachment to my hand blender), but it’s also quick to cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or two knives.
Sprinkle the crumb topping evenly over the pie.
The one benefit to a pastry crust vs a crumb topping is that it keeps better for leftovers (sometimes the crumbs get soggy, depending on how juicy your apples turned out to be). But in our house this apple pie is never leftover for long.
Thanksgiving recipes from the archives
- Thanksgiving meal planning
- Bread stuffing for a crowd [post] [printable]
- Broccoli salad with Greek yogurt, cranberries and almonds [post] [printable]
- Arugula, pear and parmesan salad [post] [printable]
- Chinese green beans [post] [printable]
- Christmas colcannon (mashed potatoes with chard) [post] [printable]
- Cornbread stuffing with sausage and apples [post] [printable]
- Easy cranberry sauce [post] [printable]
- Green beans with feta and balsamic vinegar [post] [printable]
- Kale, quinoa and apple salad [post] [printable]
- Kale salad with cranberries and toasted walnuts [post] [printable]
- Roasted butternut squash [post] [printable]
- Roasted cauliflower with parmesan and olives [post] [printable]
- Roasted potatoes with garlic and lemon [post] [printable]
- Shredded kale and brussels sprout salad [post] [printable]
- Candied walnuts (or pecans) [post] [printable]
- Derby pie [post] [printable]
- Pear torte [post] [printable]
- Pecan pie (no corn syrup) [post] [printable]
- Persimmon bread [post] [printable]
- Pumpkin applesauce cake [post] [printable]
Apple Pie with Crumb Topping
Even a pie dud like me can make a great apple pie with this recipe. The buttery crumb topping is a double plus: more delectable than regular crust and easier to make too. I cheat and use a good store-bought crust for the shell (Trader Joe’s has a good one), and the rest is easy. Adapted from Allrecipes.
- 1 (9 inch) pie shell
- 6 cups peeled and thinly sliced apples (6-7 medium apples)
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional)
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 cup raisins (optional)
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Crumb topping ingredients
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons butter
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
- Place sliced apples in a large bowl. Sprinkle with lemon juice if desired. Sprinkle over apples sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, cinnamon and nutmeg. Toss until apples are evenly coated. Stir in raisins and walnuts if using. Spoon mixture into crust-lined pie pan.
- In a small bowl mix together 1/2 cup flour and brown sugar. Using a pastry cutter, two knives or your fingers, cut butter into flour/sugar until mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle over apple filling. Cover top loosely with aluminum foil.
- Bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 25 to 30 minutes, until top is golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.
- A mix of apple types is nice for flavor and texture variation. Granny Smith are classic pie apples, but I like Golden Delicious because they have better flavor and are less tart. There are a bunch of Golden Delicious cultivars on the market (Gala, Jonagold, Pink Lady, Mutsu) which are also good options.
- Adjust sugar depending on tartness (try a sugar-coated slice). Lemon juice adds good dimension, especially if you have a single variety of apple. Apples cook down substantially during cooking, so you’ll want to start with a good high pile.
- Adjust spices as you like – this has a pronounced cinnamon flavor with a detectable nutmeg note.
- Pie may be runny if you cut into it before it has cooled completely.
Here’s the link to a printable version.