I had an amazing grandmother. From the time I was 12, Grandma Tiny lived just down the road—where she remained until she died at 104. My sister and I stopped in every day after school. For someone who ate few sweets, she took her grandmotherly duties seriously: the cookie jar was always full (usually of snickerdoodles), and holidays received sugary attention.
Thanksgiving was her party. Every year, the family descended. We extended both pullouts on the dining room table, yet it was so crowded an adult was still relegated to a card table in her sitting room with my sister, cousin, and I. Turkey was the mainstay, but even before I became vegetarian, the rest of the spread dominated my plate. My favorite was “dressing”; the several types couldn’t all fit within the bird and be accurately called “stuffing.” I would douse them with my mom’s homemade cranberry sauce and go back for seconds. But like everyone present, I always left plenty of room for apple pie.
Grandma Tiny’s pie crust was heaven—and impossible to replicate. My sister and I both tried; I remember Kristy coming home and telling us she would never be able to make pie like grandma because her hands weren’t the right size. My grandmother had been making pies for so long she measured everything in her hands and did the entire process by feel. There was no recipe we could copy down, no advice she could give us other than “practice.”
Perhaps because I’m neither a sweet lover nor a grandmother, or perhaps because I’m not yet halfway to 104, I have yet to consistently nail her crust and have needed to come up with an actual recipe. But I have practiced enough to realize that getting your hands into the bowl makes all the difference. That’s why my recipe is nearly perfect: Grandma Tiny would make it better, but she would have loved this version because it’s mine.
Nearly Perfect Pie Crust
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup coconut oil
3 tablespoons ice-cold water
Chill all the ingredients and a medium bowl for at least 30 minutes before starting. Combine the flour and salt in the bowl. Dice the butter into 1/2-inch cubes, and then add it and the coconut oil to the flour mixture. Use your fingertips to work the butter and coconut oil into the flour mixture, pressing them into flat chips coated with flour. Stop working the dough when it becomes mealy.
Drizzle ice-cold water into the flour mixture a tablespoon at a time, working it in briefly with your fingers after each addition until the dough just starts to cling together. Test the consistency as you go; if the dough crumbles, add a little more water until it holds together when you press it into your hand.
Lift the dough onto a piece of waxed or parchment paper, and then press it into a disk shape with your hands. Fold the paper around it and chill at least 1 hour. The dough can stay refrigerated this way for several days or can be transferred to a zip-close freezer bag and frozen for future use.
When ready to make a pie (see below), remove the disk from the refrigerator and immediately begin rolling it on a lightly floured surface. Press firmly down and out from the center of the disk with your rolling pin, making a quarter turn after each pass. Continue rolling until the diameter is at least 1 inch larger than the top of the pie plate. Makes 1 single crust.
Tips & Tricks
- Apple Crumble Pie only needs a base crust, but you can easily double this recipe to make top and bottom crusts for other pies or quiches.
- For a little sweetness in the pastry, you can add 1 tablespoon of ultrafine sugar when you add the salt. If you want a hint of tartness, sprinkle in 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or cider vinegar while you’re adding the water. As long as you don’t overwork the dough, neither the sugar nor the acid will ruin the texture.
- When I was young, my grandmother made her pie crust with vegetable shortening, but she once told me that she used a combination of butter and lard before Crisco was invented. Her permanent switch seemed to be primarily based on butter shortages in the 1940s. Perhaps my preferences are a product of my time as well: in all things, including pies, I prefer butter to margarine and coconut oil to vegetable shortening.
Twice as Tasty
Thanksgiving was traditional at Grandma Tiny’s house: turkey, dressing (stuffing), gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce—and of course pies featuring pumpkin and apple. But no one in my immediate family got excited about the pumpkin; it was always apple pie that took the final spot on our plates.
Apple pie is the perfect way to use the last of a harvest that has been packed away for the winter months. No matter how well you store the fruit, apples will soften over time. But they retain enough crispness to hold their shape when peeled and sliced into a pie. Grandma Tiny always made hers with quite a bit of sugar and a double crust, but I prefer my mom’s recipe, which lands most of the sugar on top in a crumble crust that gives extra crunch to each bite.
Apple Crumble Pie
2 pounds tart apples (about 6 cups peeled and sliced)
3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground mace
1/4 cup butter
Fit the rolled pie dough into a 9-inch pie plate. If any dough hangs more than an inch over the edge of the plate, tear it off and set it aside. Flute the remaining dough along the lip of the pie plate, folding it up to the rim and pinching it between your thumb and forefinger to form a wavy edge.
Peel and slice apples, tossing them with a splash of lemon juice in a medium bowl as you work. Toss the apples with 1/4 cup of sugar and 2 tablespoons of flour, and then layer the apples into the pie shell. Mix the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and 6 tablespoons of flour with the spices, and then cut in the butter with a fork until crumbly. Sprinkle the butter mixture over the apples.
Tear off a piece of foil half as long as the circumference of the pie plate, and then tear the foil sheet in half down its length. Fold the ends of the pieces together to make a long strip, and then wrap this around the rim of the pie plate and fold the remaining ends together to form a halo that covers the edge of the crust with foil. Bake at 375°F for 30 minutes, remove the foil, and then bake for another 30 minutes until the crust is golden. Let cool as long as you can before cutting. Serves 8–10.
Tips & Tricks
- If you’re using a larger or deeper pie plate, you’ll want to add more apples to fill out the pie. Ideally, the apple slices should mound slightly in the plate before they cook; this prevents the pie’s center from sinking deeper than the edges as it cooks and then cools.
- The tarter the apple, the greater it’s pectin content, and pectin is what helps the pie filling resemble syrup rather than juice. Adding a bit of flour to the filling also helps it to set up. So does letting the pie cool; although it’s tempting to eat it straight from the oven, it will lose some of its shape.
- Leftover pie pastry was one of my favorite treats as a kid: simply gather the pieces you cut from the edge, form them into a ball, and gently reroll the dough to the thinness of pie crust. Cut the dough into pie slice–sized pieces, cover each piece with a thin layer of butter, and sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Place the pieces on a baking sheet. Bake at 375°F for 10 minutes, until the pieces are brown and crisp. Eat immediately.
- Although you can cover the entire pie with foil for the first half of baking, I’ve found it cuts down on the crispness of the crumble top. Leaving the foil off entirely tends to brown the fluted edge of the crust too quickly.
- My dad can’t live without vanilla ice cream on top of his pie, but I prefer my mom’s tradition: a thick slice of sharp Cheddar cheese.