Uncommonly Good — Sam’s (award winning) Apple Pie

4 Nov

The name of this blog is not just a math pun.  (Get it, pie are round, not πr2!)  I also really, really love pie.  Of all the things that I create in the kitchen, pie is probably my favorite.  And, it can be any kind of pie—strawberry, blueberry, peach, you name it.  I must admit a strong preference for fruit pies however.  Not to give cream, or other types of pie short shrift, mind you.  But if it’s a fruit pie…well, it has fruit! It’s not just dessert, it’s healthy! (Right?)

My pie obsession isn’t entirely new.  As my mother would be happy to tell you, at some point in elementary school I declared that apple pie was my favorite smell in the world.  This is probably still true.

What is new is the fact that I’m no longer just the pie eater—I’m also the pie maker.  The transformation from one into the other came about in large part because I was seeking out a culinary challenge.  It seems that many people are intimidated by pie crust; making pie crust is perceived as a time-consuming task whose prospects for success are uncertain at best.  With that in mind, I set out to master the art of the crust.

Over the years, I tried countless recipes some which met with greater success than others.  I had pretty much settled in with a final recipe when I came across the Cook’s Illustrated Foolproof Pie Dough recipe.  At this point, my love of Cook’s Illustrated is well established. (I’ve recently had cause to question that a bit, but this is a blog about pie.  So I won’t burden it with any unpleasantness.) I decided that it was worth deviating from my standard recipe to try out this new approach to crust.

The secret ingredient: vodka. I could probably have used a less high quality version–Watershed wasn’t called for under the circumstances. But you use what you have, right?

The secret to the Cook’s Illustrated recipe is one simple ingredient: vodka.  Yep, that’s right, I use a full ¼ cup of booze in my crust.  Honestly, the concept of using alcohol in the crust wasn’t new to me.  I’d first heard about it from one of my other culinary heroes: Alton Brown.  But I’d never actually tried it.  The Cook’s Illustrated recipe was the first time I did.  (The benefit of using alcohol is that, unlike water, it won’t interact with the flour to create gluten.  As a result, you’ll end up with a flakier crust.  And, because of alcohol’s higher volatility, it will all cook out of the crust during the baking process.)

Once I cut into that first pie featuring the Cook’s Illustrated crust, I knew that there was no going back.  That would be the recipe I would use forever and ever amen.  But a good recipe is only half the battle.  When it comes to making pie crust, good technique is as important, if not more so.  Over the years, I’ve accumulated numerous tips and tricks, which I’ll share as well.

The recipe (with tips and tricks in bold):

Pie Crust


2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon table salt

2 tablespoons sugar

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, also cut into small pieces

(Cut the fats—butter and shortening– when they’re still slightly warm, they’re easier to cut that way.  After cutting them, place them in the freezer for at least 15 minutes to get nice and cold. Longer is also ok.)

1/4 cup cold vodka (Place vodka in the freezer well in advance of the pie making.  Because of its lower freezing point, the vodka will get very cold but won’t freeze.)

1/4 cup cold water (Use as cold of water as possible, either from the fridge, or water that has been in the freezer, but that has not actually frozen.)

As you can tell, there’s a theme here—you want your ingredients to be as cold as possible.

1. Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses.

2. Empty mixture into medium bowl. (If possible, use a metal bowl that has also been in the freezer.  Again, see above about keeping things cold.)

3. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together.  (It’s possible, and will be tempting, to use the food processor to add the liquid to your dough.  After all, that’s one less dish to wash.  Don’t do it.  Adding the vodka and water manually will actually lead to a more tender flakier crust.)

4. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

As you can see, this recipe doesn’t differ only in that it includes vodka in the ingredient list.  The two- step process by which you combine the fats and flour also significantly contributes to the quality of the end result.  Also, the use of the food processor, which by no means unique to this recipe, is very helpful and saves considerable time and effort.

A food process makes creating pie crust so much easier!

Because of the additional liquid in this recipe it is VERY sticky.  Sufficiently so that it’s going to stick to your counter and rolling pin if you don’t do something about it.  Some would say that you should combat this by making sure to roll it out on a well-floured surface.  I have a different suggestion: plastic wrap.

Roll the crust out between two pieces of plastic wrap.  The dough will eventually expand beyond the protective sides of the plastic, but for the most part will remain well-covered.  Once it’s the proper size, peel off the top layer of plastic.  Roll the other side over the top of your rolling-pin and drape it gently over the side of the pie pan.  Once you have it placed as you want it, peel off the other layer of plastic.

A good crust is only half of the equation when it comes to pie.  (Equation! Another math reference!) You also need a good filling.  I’ve experimented with as many filling recipes as I have ones for crust.  Despite all that, I keep coming back to the same tried and true recipe I copied from my parents’ card file. (With one minor exception—that recipe makes no mention of cornstarch, which I’ll add depending on how liquid-y the apples that I’m using are.)

Speaking of apples, a good recipe can’t make up for bad apples.  If at all possible, buy your apples locally.  You want them to have been picked as recently as possible, and that just isn’t the case with grocery store apples.  When possible, I like McIntosh or Jonathan apples.  Also acceptable are Granny Smith and Galas.  Whatever you do, DO NOT USE RED DELICIOUS.

Apple pie filling (and final baking instructions)

Roughly 8 cups thinlysliced apples

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup flour

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp cinnamon

Cornstarch (about a tablespoon, give or take.  This recipe works without it, but there may be more liquid in the pie pan than you are accustomed to.  It’ll still taste great though.)

Dash of salt

2 tablespoons butter

One egg white –beaten


1. Heat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Stir together sugar, flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, cornstarch, and salt.  Mix with the apples.

3. Turn filling into a pie pan lined with a bottom crust. Dot with butter.

4. Apply top crust.  Seal and flute the edges.  Brush the top crust with the beaten egg white.  Sprinkle the crust with sugar (eyeball it, but you may wish to use as much as 1/8th of a cup of sugar.) Cut slits in the top to vent the pie.

5. Cover the edges of the pie with a 2-3 inch strip of aluminum foil.  Remove foil for the last 15-20 minutes of baking.

6. Bake 30-40 minutes, or until the crust is browned.

Pie — pre-covering.

So there you have it—my well-tested recipe for apple pie.  And now, I can proudly say, my well-tested, well-received, and award-winning apple pie.  That’s right, this isn’t just any apple pie.  It is the winner of the Brother’s Drake Meadery apple pie competition.

Brothers Drake has redefined mead as a beverage.  If you’ve never had Brothers Drake mead, you probably have some assumptions about what mead is like.  Those assumptions would be wrong.  Banish all thoughts of Vikings and Renaissance festivals.  This is a high class beverage—it’s more like wine than anything else.  And it’s not nearly as sweet as you might expect.  Well, most of it isn’t.

What is sweet (and really tasty) is their Apple Pie Mead.  Just yesterday they launched this year’s batch and had a big party to celebrate.  I was lucky enough to be able to participate as one of the contestants in their apple pie competition.  Although the competition was fierce (hats off to my competitors) I emerged victorious.  (Thank you, judges!)

So if you make this recipe, rest assured, it’s not just any old pie.  It’s a pedigreed, award-winning pie. 🙂


4 Responses to “Uncommonly Good — Sam’s (award winning) Apple Pie”

  1. Janean November 5, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

    This looks really delicious! Congrats on the big win.

  2. thisadventurouslife November 14, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    Hello, Sammy! We will enjoy reading your food adventures and can always use new recipes to try- thanks for sharing. Congratulations on your pie contest win. BTW, bluest counter tops ever! Cheers, Tracy


  1. Columbus Events Nov 9 – 14 « - November 7, 2012

    […] Sam won “best traditional pie” at the apple pie bake-off at Brothers Drake this past weekend! You can find his award-winning recipe here. […]

  2. More Pie! — Bananas Foster Cream Pie | Pie are Round - July 12, 2014

    […] things that the recipe provides that we didn’t do: a crust recipe. I’m partial to the Cooks Illustrated vodka pie crust recipe, so that’s what we used here. We also didn’t add the extra optional layer of caramel, but I […]

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