How to Bake a Perfect Pie from Scratch
Taartwork Pies, Brittany Bennett’s Brooklyn-based bakery, was inspired by her Oma's old recipe. Now, Brittany is reinventing pies for the next generation with her new book, The Taartwork Pies Cookbook: Grandmother's Recipe, Granddaughter's Remix.
This is a hands-on, intensive pie that asks you to decimate, or at least abandon, any timid nature. Beating around the butter won’t do. I’m afraid you’ll only be massaging butter into smaller balls of butter and have tangled yourself in a very long, tedious procedure of getting dough. Dig into the bowl the way your heart dives into writing love letters. Act with intention and give it your all.
Smush and mash the butter into the flour and sugar with passionate fists. Singular ingredients will morph into a unified treat. Use butter that is close to room temperature in the winter. On a humid summer day, use chilled butter; otherwise, the soft butter will make a dough that’s harder to work with.
As you knead, digging into the bowl to fold everything together, the dough will first become crumbly. It will come together, forming a neat ball with minimal cracks. My cousin Bettina describes creating this dough as “building a sand castle and then destroying it.” When it’s done, you should see streaks of butter throughout, like summer highlights.
When pressing the dough into the pie pan, it molds like clay. Press it down, spread it thin (but not too thin, you don’t want it to be sheer or see any of the pan) and stretch it across the pan to fill all creases. The ease of working with the dough in this phase and in topping the taart is dependent upon the climate of your kitchen.
Temperature matters. Particularly with the environment in which you’re baking and the butter you’re using to make the dough.
I have baked plenty of pies in my kitchen without air conditioning or an industrial grade fan, making my baking station feel near 450°F (232°C). When baking in a kitchen with temperatures over 71°F (22°C), the dough becomes tougher to work with, cracking and sweating under the heat of your hand. Though, it’s not impossible to handle, and it’s certainly an experience, I suggest everyone sweat their way through. A cooler, temperate room keeps the butter firm as it gets worked into the dough and the elasticity remains more intact. Humidity is the enemy, so the chiller the kitchen, the better the pie. Dough will crack under humidity’s reign, and sweat and break in the oven.
Oma’s dough isn’t a traditional, flaky dough typical to American pies. But that’s because Oma is Dutch first and Canadian second. The taart dough has a denser texture, much like a shortbread crust or cookie. It doesn’t roll out well, so it’s meant to be pressed into the baking pan.
It is going to crack. Even if you do everything perfectly, it will a little bit. It won’t be perfect, far from a typical definition of the term “perfect.” My Oma traditionally rolls logs of dough between her fingers and then out on the countertop until they’re similar in length to a garden snake. When she picks it up, delicately, it always crumbles in two. But instead of throwing her hands in the air, she continues with the topping and simply mends them back together on top of the pie. Her casual and no-frills attitude may be credited to her lifelong career as a nurse, and it’s one to adopt. The pie will bake and it won’t matter what cracked when it’s being ravaged with a fork.
Think outside the lattice. Of course, the traditional topping is a classic choice that’s hard to— pardon the pun—top. But there are many more creative avenues to venture down. If a pie is an offering, an edible object to consume and converse and connect over, let it be an exclamation mark on your table.
With cookie cutters or your paring knife penmanship, carve letters and shapes out of dough to get the point across.
When cutting shapes and letters, press the dough down to create a canvas, about ¼-inch (6-mm) thick. Chill the dough for 20 to 25 minutes to help firm it up if your kitchen is too humid.
When your topping is finished, wash over it with egg and a splash of water for it to brown while baking. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon.
Perfection is bland here. Let juices overflow and stain the crust.
Blind Baking: After fitting the dough to a pie pan, let it rest in the fridge for at least 2 hours, until firm. Butter a sheet of tin foil and fit it into the pie shell. You can use pie weights to weigh the dough down, but my favorite—and I’ve found, most effective—tool in deceiving the crust into believing it’s baking something so that it holds its form is dry garbanzo beans. Bake it at 350°F (175°C) for 50 minutes, until golden brown. Remove the pie from the oven, let it cool for a hot minute and then remove the tin foil and weights. Put the pie back into the oven for 10 minutes.
Bake all pies in a rack fitted to the middle of your oven and at 350°F (175°C), always. This is a standard temperature for baking. While some pies may require a longer baking time at this temperature, the low and slow technique ensures that everything will be baked evenly and hold the most vibrant flavors of the filling.
Getting that perfectly crisp bottom crust is a matter of choice in pans. There is a variety of pans to bake with—ceramic, Pyrex, tin. Each material conducts heat differently, which affects the dough. One pie with a heavily juiced filling baked in a pan like the Fire King Peach Lustre pan might look pretty, but the pan doesn’t function well in crisping the crust. The bottom crust will all together turn into a sloppy glop of a bottom. While delicious and reminiscent of a crumble, this is not ideal for a dessert meant to have a bottom crust. Pyrex glass pans, metal and aluminum foil will give you your best bottom crust.
Use a scale for precision. What you don’t want is too much flour and too little butter. You’ll end up with a crumbly dough that falls apart very easily. The ideal texture will be smooth with minimal cracks. You can choose to decrease the sugar in the dough to as low as ¼ cup (50 g).
OMA’S DUTCH TAART DOUGH
YIELDS ONE 9" (23-CM) PIE & TOPPING
- 1½ cups / 239 g unbleached all-purpose flour
- ¾ cups / 157 g granulated sugar
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Pinch of salt
- ¾ cups / 176 g, about 1½ sticks, unsalted butter
- 1 egg
YIELDS TWO 9" (23-CM) PIES & TOPPING
- 3 cups / 360 g unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1½ cups / 288 g granulated sugar
- 1½ cups / 325 g unrefined coconut oil,
- room temperature
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Pinch of salt
YIELDS ONE 9" (23-CM) PIE
- 1 cup / 143 g unbleached all-purpose flour
- ½ cup / 31 g cocoa powder
- ¼ cup + 1 tbsp / 65 g sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tsp orange zest
- ¼ cup + 1 tbsp / 75 g unsalted butter
- 1 egg
To make the dough, combine all the ingredients except the butter, or coconut oil for vegan dough, in a large mixing bowl. Toss until the ingredients are uniform. Add the butter and mix with your hands. Scoop the flour in an upward motion with your fingers formed like claws and clench the mixture, pushing down with your palms to smash and morph the butter. After about 5 to 7 minutes of kneading, the dough should start to come together. Continue until it’s in a ball and few crumbs fall off.
To press the dough into the taart pan, break off pieces of the dough and flatten with the palm of your hands. Press the dough into the prepared pie pan and spread it out with your fingers as far as it will stretch without breaking. Continue to do so, morphing together until the sides and bottom are lined in dough.
To make a lattice in the way Oma prepares it, take a handful of dough and roll it into a ball. On a clean work surface, roll the dough into logs. Place one dough log on top of the pie filling, starting in the center and working your way out, forming crisscrosses as you go. If one log breaks, fuse it back together and keep going.
Whisk an egg in a small bowl and add a touch of water. With a pastry brush or your very clean fingers, wash the top of the crust with the egg. If you're making vegan dough, you can substitute the egg wash for olive oil or melted coconut oil diluted with a little bit of water.
NOTE: Oma’s Dutch Taart Dough easily doubles to make three 9-inch (23-cm) pies or one 9-inch (23-cm) pie with enough dough left over to make a lattice and design for eye-popping embellishment. Instead of using 1½ cups (360 g) of butter (3 sticks) when doubling the recipe, use 1 cup and 6 tablespoons (330 g) (2 sticks and 6 tablespoons).
TRADITIONAL DUTCH APPELTAART
Oma promised that if you peel an apple skin perfectly in one swirl, toss it over your head and let it land on the floor, the shape it takes will be the first initial of your soul mate. I grew up swinging Granny Smith peels over my head as if practicing for the rodeo. (My soul mate’s initial has typically been revealed as a vague “N,” or maybe “S” if you cock your head.) This fortune-telling technique is one of the many pleasures in composing the traditional taart.
Whether your peel spells out your future romance or not, there will certainly be a lot of love surrounding Oma’s traditional, simple Dutch delight. I keep coming back to this recipe time after time for dinner parties, Thanksgiving feasts and just another weekend night. The thinly sliced apples create crepe-cake-like layers that will turn an apple pie hater into an enthusiast, as chunks don’t overwhelm the bite. The tart crunch of apples supported by the sweet crust invigorates the taste buds. Add the cool factor of vanilla ice cream on top and suddenly a bite of pie becomes more like a love potion.
PREP: 15 MINUTES / ACTIVE: 5 MINUTES / BAKING: 50 MINUTES / TOTAL: 1 HOUR 10 MINUTES / MAKES ONE 9"(23-CM) PIE
- 2¼ lbs (about 4 to 5 apples) / 1 kg tart apples (Mutsu or Granny Smith), peeled and sliced ¼"(6-mm) thin
- 1 tbsp / 14 ml lemon juice
- 3 tbsp / 37 g granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp / 16 g ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp salt Vanilla ice cream, for serving, optional
- Whipped cream, for serving, optional
Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C).
Prepare Oma’s traditional pie dough and your tin (page 25).
Using your hands, toss the apples in a mixing bowl with the lemon juice, sugar, cinnamon and salt. Try one! If you want them to be a little sweeter, add a teaspoon of sugar at a time and toss to distribute the added sweetness.
Spread the apple filling evenly in the prepared pie pan and top with a lattice or inspired design of your choice. If you'd like to try a rose design, see page 94.
Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Allow the pie to cool in the pan for 30 to 35 minutes. The liquid released from the apples will continue to cook and thicken as you patiently wait with your fork nearby.
Enjoy with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or homemade whipped cream.
Tips: You can use a mandolin when slicing the apples to get a consistently thin slice. But a sharp paring knife and eye for detail will work well here too.
You can use a 9-inch (23-cm) pie pan, but traditionally a springform pan is used in Holland to create more of a deep-dish style apple pie.
Excerpted with permission from The Taartwork Pies Cookbook by Brittany Bennett, Page Street Publishing Co. 2018. Photo credit: Morgan Ione Yeager