Sensi Magazine

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Zen and the Art of Apple Pie

By John Lehndorff
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Become one with the dough and bring a taste of flaky bliss to the table.

First, there is that apple-cinnamon/caramel steam that grabs you by the nose. Then you see the whole pie emerge from the oven and, finally, a warm apple pie wedge whose juices mingle the melting vanilla bean gelato. You take a bite and smile, because you know you crafted the pie yourself.
I know what you’re thinking: “Not me. I’m happy to eat pie. Baking a pie from scratch? Not so much.”
Listen, it’s okay to admit you’re scared.
You may be embarrassed that the dessert that defines America terrifies you. Pie anxiety is a very common affliction replete with nightmares about soggy bottoms, cardboard tops, undercooked fruit, and heavy-handed spicing. Many bakers give up in the face of performance pressure and buy their holiday pies at a supermarket. That is so very sad and unnecessary! If you are open to learning the way of the crust, I will share what I have learned about transcending dough-phobia during a long and varied life of pie.
Be present and grin.
The first step is to forget everything you think you know about how to make a pie. Really. How you choose to achieve that pleasant, receptive state of mind is up to you, but it is essential. Your real problem with pie is that you think of it as a challenge to overcome. In fact, pie is play and with all kinds of cool ingredients. Remember when you messed around with clay or Play-Doh as a kid? It’s like that, only actually edible.
Manifest lightness as you make pastry.
Don’t “work” the dough, be gentle on the pastry. Don’t overmix the crust. You’re crafting delicate pastry, not relieving a muscle cramp. Men seem especially prone to over-kneading and heavy-handed rolling. Lighten up, dude.
Achieve stillness.
To push everything from your mind is easier thought than done. In my decades as a pie judge, I have encountered many terrible pies baked by distracted cooks who don’t organize the ingredients and equipment beforehand. Multitask at your own pie peril.
Once you are still, everything must chill.
The butter, shortening, or lard must be near frozen so it won’t melt into the fl our to achieve maximum flake. Chill the bowl and even the rolling pin. Naturally, hot hands are a no-no.
You and the pastry need a nap.
To be at its fl aky best, the disc of fi nished dough must rest in the refrigerator before being rolled out. The same holds true for the baker, who should either manifest patience or take a snooze.
Play more than one note.
Granny Smiths apples are tart and firm but single note in terms of flavor and texture. Add harmony by mixing in some Jonathans, Braeburns, and McIntoshes. Never ever bake with mealy Red Delicious.
Embrace wax paper.
Frustration can result if your dough sticks to the cutting board and you have to scrape it off and start over. Roll out pie crust between sheets of wax paper or in a gallon freezer bag. That makes it easy to transfer to the pie plate.
You deserve the best.
If you only make a few pies a year you might as well use the best ingredients, which includes high butterfat, flavorful European-style butter. Buy small quantities of spices and fresh flour. The taste might inspire you to bake more often.
Complete the pie cycle.
While the pie bakes, clean up the mess you made of the kitchen. It will all work out better. Trust me on this one.
Do you want to make a recipe or a pie?
Students sometimes ask for my best pie recipe. I respond: “Who is asking?” In this column, I’m sharing my tips and a recipe but you should tweak them as you see fit. By the way, you can also leave the butter, salt, vanilla, lemon juice, and lemon zest out of the filling recipe, and it will still be tasty. Experiment and improvise. Repeat. If you wish for a perfect recipe yielding guaranteed success, go buy a pie.
Pie is a process, not a dessert.
To master pie, you cannot abdicate authority to a cookbook, thermometer, or timer. I have at least a hundred cookbooks involving pie with thousands of pie recipes and variations. None of them can really tell me how I can make a pie. It’s a recipe, not a sacred text. Recipes are only broad roadmaps because of the many variables, such as your oven’s true temperature. That’s why you must maintain attention until the pie emerges from the oven to have success.
There is only one truth: pie is kindness.
You need to bake a lot of pies to master the art, and you don’t want to eat all those pies yourself. Your pie practice will produce something tangible that allows you to bring bliss to others. Give anyone a homemade pie and they will love you. If you are one of those rare pie masters, consider passing along your skills to a new generation in dire need of pastry skills.