What We Also Learn From Our Students

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 By Jason Shriner, The Aubergine Chef

Over the years my students have taught me as much about baking as I’ve taught them. I believe this is crucial for any instructor as I have found that students, especially recreational students, don’t respond well to rigid rules from a disagreeable teacher. After all, there are many different ways to make a dish and  few ways to ruin a recipe. Instead I encourage my students to follow their baker’s instincts and to keep an open mind in the kitchen. Here are just a few lessons I’ve learned about apple pies from my students.

Room temperature butter makes great pie dough

Against all conventional wisdom I have learned to embrace room temperature butter when rubbing the fat into the flour. Traditionally it is thought that cold butter prevents the dough from getting too tough, which results in a warped pie shell with an unpleasant texture. However, a warmer butter allows you to work it in faster keeping gluten development at a minimum. Keeping the butter in tiny pieces (rather than traditional dime or quarter-sized pieces) helps keep your crust looking nice since those large patches of butter will melt and create holes in your pie crust.

Err on the side of a too wet dough

The amount of liquid you add to pie dough changes depending on humidity and how much you worked in the butter. Every time you make pie dough, you could use a different amount of water. I used to think that it was essential to get the dough’s wetness exactly perfect in order to have a good crust, but this caused my students to be nervous. Since a drier dough is difficult to roll and move I tell students to use a tiny bit more water if they can’t tell if their dough is ready. The flour used during the rolling process will compensate for the wetter dough.

A 50/50 blend of Gala and Granny Smith apples makes the best filling

This is largely based on my tastes but I find the sweetness, flavor, and mainly the texture from this blend to be my favorite. However, I’m not even militant about this since…

After baking, all apples pretty much taste the same

You would have to be a pretty seasoned taster in order to identify apple varieties after being baked in spices, liquid and butter. You may be able to distinguish texture especially with Granny Smith contrasted against McIntosh but I had a student bring in Red Delicious apples and – much to my chagrin and relief – the pie tasted just fine.

Have you broken any pie making rules lately? I’d love to hear them!

Jason Shriner owns the baking & pastry blog The Aubergine Chef, which contains free videos and recipes. He also teaches baking classes at the Manassas Park Community Center. You can visit his blog at www.TheAubergineChef.com.

Basic Pie Dough

Makes 4 pie crusts

3 cups of all-purpose flour

2 sticks + 7 tablespoons of unsalted butter, room temperature cut into tablespoons

1 teaspoon of salt

¾ cup ice cold water

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

  1. Begin to work the butter, by hand, into the flour.  This is done through a process called the Rubbing method or Biscuit method.  Take your hands and scoop up a handful of dry ingredients and butter.  Press your hands together, flattening the fat, and then rub one hand away from you.  Do not continuously rub back and forth – this will cause the fat to melt resulting in undesirable qualities.  Rotate the bowl 90 degrees in between each cut in.
  2. Repeat until the pieces of butter are flat and are about ½” wide.
  3. Drizzle in some of the water into the mixture and toss like a salad while adding.  Mix till mixture comes together.  Slowly add more water as you need it.  You may not need all the water depending on the humidity.  Look for the bits and pieces of fat and flour on the bottom of the bowl beginning to become less prevalent.  The dough should also become sticky and start to ball up, however it should not have a sloshy water sound.
  4. Shape the dough into a log.  Divide into 4 equal pieces, weighing about 9 ounces each.
  5. Wrap in plastic and flatten into a circular disc (this will help with rolling out later).
  6. Store refrigerated for 2 days or frozen for 6 months.

Cooked Apple Pie Filling with Lattice Top

1 lb 13 ounces whole apples (or 1 lb 7 ounces peeled, cored, and slice apples)

1 ¼ cups apple cider

1/3 cup granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon (or to taste)

Pinch of salt

¼ cup cornstarch

Egg wash (1 egg plus 1 teaspoon water whisked together with salt)

1/3 cup shredded cheddar, optional

  1. Prepare apples by peeling, dividing into quarters, coring, and then slicing.
  2. Place ½ of the sugar in a pot with ¾ of the apple cider, cinnamon, and 2/3 of the sliced apples.  Bring to just a boil.
  3. Take the remaining ½ of the sugar and place it in a bowl with the cornstarch and salt (combine well) and then add ¼ of the apple cider and whisk all the lumps away.
  4. Whisk in cornstarch and bring to a second boil for 1-3 minutes, remove from heat and fold in the last 1/3 of the apple.
  5. Pour onto the plastic wrap on the sheet pan and spread thinly and cover with another piece to avoid creating a skin while allowing it to cool to room temperature.  Place in fridge or freezer to help.
  6. Roll two pieces of pie dough, one to line a 9” pie tin, and the second 9” in diameter.
  7. Slice the 9” round pie dough into 10 strips of the dough ¾” thick
  8. If the filling has reached room temperature fill the pie and create a slight mound with about a half inch of the side crust showing – this will help adhere the lattice.
  9. Take the longest strip and lay it straight across the middle of the pie (12 to 6 o’clock).  Place the bands beside the longest strip ¾” away from the middle one and continue until 5 strips are placed.  Peel back strip 1, 3, and 5 past half the pie and lay a long strip across the equator of the pie (3 to 9 o’clock), place the peeled strips back how they were. Peel back strips 2 and 4 about 1/3 of the pie and place a strip along there as well.  Repeat to the opposite side of the equator strip.  Peel back strips 1, 3, and 5 about ¼ of the pie and lay a strip across, repeat on the opposite end of the pie.
  10. Press the lattice and the crust of the pie together gently.  Spin the pie around pressing the dough against the rim to slice the excess dough.
  11. Egg wash, sprinkle granulated sugar on top (to make a crisp top) or with the cheddar cheese (for a salty savory contrast) and bake between 400-425 degrees F until crust is browned and filling is bubbling.

Marshmallow Fondant

10 ½ ounces of mini marshmallows

1 tablespoon water

Up to 2 lbs powdered sugar

Unflavored shortening

Food coloring

  1. In a microwave safe container, warm marshmallows with the water 30 seconds on high at a time (up to 2 minutes) stirring until melted and fluid.  Make sure it isn’t hot or it’ll be difficult to work with.
  2. Meanwhile grease your work surface with shortening and place about 1# of the powdered sugar on the greased table.
  3. Pour the melted marshmallow on top of the powdered sugar and start working together in a kneading fashion.  Grease your hands with shortening before kneading to keep the marshmallow from sticking to your hands.
  4. Continue to knead until all the powdered sugar is absorbed and the fondant is soft and pliable.  It shouldn’t be tough, sticky, or crumbly.  Use more water or powdered sugar to adjust the consistency as necessary.
  5. Fondant should rest for a couple hours before using, but can be used right away.
  6. Best if stored in the fridge for long periods but is room temperature stable for at least 5 days.
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