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The apple pie at Chicago's Hoosier Mama Pie Company. // © Brian M. Heiser
At Chicago’s Hoosier Mama Pie Company, former Trio pastry chef Paula Haney and her team make up to 600 pies a week, kneading dough nonstop for as much as an hour per day, and burning through literally a ton of flour in as little as eight weeks. But practice does make perfect, as Haney’s pies—like her Cherry-Berry Pie—come out superbly flaky and intensely flavorful. Here, Haney tips off home bakers to the many mistakes that can get in the way of pie perfection.
1. Using preserved fruit. “Using any kind of canned filling, or any frozen fruit that’s out of season is just ridiculous,” says Haney. “That is the absolute biggest crime against pie.” If frozen fruit can’t be avoided, she suggests using cherries, because they freeze well. Since frozen fruit can taste a bit flat, Haney also recommends adding a teaspoon of lemon juice to help enhance the fruit’s flavors.
2. Trusting the wrong thickener. Different fruits require different thickeners. Cornstarch works for fruits with a lot of pectin (a natural thickener), like apples. On the other hand, blueberries need a lot more thickening and call for a flavorless thickener like tapioca starch, as cornstarch develops a noticeable flavor if too much is used. Tapioca starch also starts thickening at a lower temperature, which allows the fruit’s juices to set sooner than cornstarch would. “Using the wrong thickener just turns the filling to goo,” says Haney. “It’s nasty.”
3. Letting the butter melt. Crusts become flaky when flecks of solid butter get trapped within the dough, creating pockets of air once baked. To help prevent the butter from melting too quickly, Haney suggests incorporating it in two stages. After cutting the butter into one-inch cubes, add the first two-thirds in with the dry ingredients. Freeze the last one-third of the butter and incorporate that once the first batch of cubes has been reduced to pea-size pieces. Keep many of the other ingredients for the dough—like water—ice-cold, to further slow down the melting process.
4. Reaching for Crisco. “Never use Crisco or any other vegetable shortening,” says Haney. “It’s one of my biggest pet peeves. It wasn’t even invented as food; it was created for use in candles and soap. Sure, crusts are flaky if you use it, but to me they come out kind of flavorless. There’s also this unpleasant pastiness that coats your mouth.”
5. Overmixing the dough. Overworking dough causes too much gluten to form in the mixture, making it tough, and difficult to manage. Haney suggests mixing the ingredients together in a food processor only until the point before dough begins to form (when “it looks like wet crumbs,” she says), then kneading the mixture by hand until it comes together.
6. Not letting the dough fully rest. To prevent a puffy, misshapen crust, rest newly formed pie dough at least 20 minutes in the refrigerator before rolling it out. After forming the crust, let the dough rest another 20 minutes before baking the pie. “If your dough has time to rest, you’ll end up with a more tender dough that’s easier to handle,” says Haney. Trying to bake dough that hasn’t rested will result in an undersize pie crust, as it will shrink and slide down the sides of the pan when baked. “It’ll still taste good, but it won’t be the nice, pretty pie that you wanted.”
7. Baking a fruit pie without the freezer step. One of the biggest problems with fruit pie is that the bottom crust can get soggy. Haney suggests freezing the pies for at least 20 minutes before baking them. This way, the bottom crust has time to cook before the fruit filling thaws and begins soaking into the crust.
8. Removing pie from the oven too soon. “I often see a lot of anemic-looking pies that have no color at all,” says Haney. “Just like with good bread, you really want pie crust to have some caramelization. It’ll have a lot more flavor, and it’ll be better able to stand up to the filling.” To achieve a golden brown crust, be sure to bake pies for at least an hour and 20 minutes, or until the bottom of the pie shell is completely dry.
9. Trying to eat the pie before it has a chance to cool. Giving fruit pies a couple of hours to cool allows the juices in the filling to thicken and gives the flavors a chance to further develop. “We find that our mixed stone-fruit pie (with both berries and stone fruits) actually tastes better the next day,” she says.
10. Storing pie in the fridge. Store only pies with a cream- or egg-based filling in the refrigerator. Otherwise, pies should be kept at room temperature—since the crust tastes best then—and eaten completely within two to three days. “I’ve had people call and ask if it’d be OK to eat a week-old pie,” says Haney. “And I say, ‘Just throw it out!’ Real food shouldn’t last a week—that’s why we make smaller pies, because most people can’t eat a whole pie in two days. I can, but most people can’t!”
Follow Jasmin on Twitter @jasminsun.