This is what my pie dough whispered discreetly in my ear as I worked its buttery bits into the flour mixture last night. Pourquoi pas? I thought.
The fraisage method, in which portions of dough are scraped along the work surface under the heel of your hand, smears the butter into long, thin sheets, much like puff pastry dough, but without the time consuming folding, rolling and chilling. In the oven, the water in the butter evaporates into steam, which raises the sheet of dough above into a distinct layer. This creates a strata of shatteringly thin layers of buttery dough, which add up to the most tender and lovely crust; just the thing in which to encase thinly sliced apples and tiny huckleberries tossed with vanilla sugar, lemon zest and nutmeg.
You can fraisage any pie dough, so long as both parties consent. (Kidding.) That is, so long as you leave ample butter chunks and don’t make the dough overly moist. Feel free to use your favorite pie dough recipe, or, if you have extra sourdough starter handy, make the sourdough pate brisee, below. The starter adds not a sour flavor, but the enhanced ‘old dough’ taste that great hearth breads contain. The acids in the starter contribute tenderness, and the glutens enhance the flake factor. I like to use a combination of all purpose flour, for glutinous sheets of dough that separate into distinct flakes, and whole spelt flour, for pillowy tenderness and the nutty taste of the bran and germ still present in the flour. You can use all white flour, or substitute whole wheat pastry flour for the spelt.
1) Great pie begins with great dough. Like baking bread, this requires doing it a few times to get a feel for just what makes a flaky, tender crust. How much to cut in the butter, how much liquid to add, whether to be fancy and give the dough a fold as for a laminated dough, or use the fraisage method. Really though, anything with loads of butter in it is not going to taste bad, so don’t be scared, it will be ok. Each time I make pie dough I seem to learn something new. (I know you know to use great fruit, too; I will not insult your integrity with a condescending lecture, nor will I mention supermarket apples with the inept surname ‘delicious.)’
2) Taste your fruit and sweeten accordingly. Once the pie is baked, there is no going back. I used 3/4 cup of sugar in this one, but found it lacking slightly in sweetness. (I think 1 cup would have been just right, as I’ve written in the recipe below.)
3) Start out with a hot oven, then reduce the temperature. This cooks the dough with a blast of heat, then allows the filling to finish baking slowly, ensuring a crisp crust and cooked through interior. Baking the pie in the lower third of the oven lets the bottom brown adequately without burning the upper crust.
4) Don’t underbake. If you use firm baking apples, like Grannies or Pink Ladies, the pie can take quite a bit of baking. As long as the crust doesn’t burn, you can keep going until the juices have been bubbling furiously for 10 or 15 minutes.
5) For neat slices, let the pie cool completely before cutting into it. This takes at least 2 hours, but the pie keeps beautifully for a couple days, at room temperature. Think of the filling as jam, which needs to set in order to transform from a runny liquid into a thick, firm mass. (If you don’t care, though, by all means, eat the pie hot.)
6) Have some ice cream handy, preferably vanilla, to nestle into a slice of warm pie. Whipped cream will do, but you may feel a bit deprived of the a la mode experience if eating your pie warm.
Huckleberries freeze well and make a satisfying addition to winter desserts, when you may be feeling neglected and underprivileged due to the lack of fresh fruit in your life. They add a deep woodsy flavor, some tang and texture, and turn the filling a gorgeous magenta. If you don’t have huckles, you can find ‘wild blueberries’ in the freezer section of certain schmancy grocery stores. Blackberries go equally well with apples, as do fresh cranberries.
Of course I’m looking forward to trying this in the summer, with fresh peaches instead of apples. Now I’m feeling deprived again. Better have another slice of pie.
Makes one 10″ pie, 10-12 servings
Sourdough Pate Brisee
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat or whole spelt flour (or use all AP)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
8 ounces (2 sticks, 1 cup) very cold unsalted butter, in 1/2″ dice
about 8 ounces (about 1 cup) liquid sourdough starter
In a large bowl, combine the flours, salt and sugar. Add the butter and rub with your fingertips until the mixture looks like gravel, with some butter worked in and some 1/4″ chunks remaining. Gradually add the starter, folding the mixture with a spoon or your hands until it just starts to come together into large clumps.
Turn the dough out onto a surface, floured lightly if the dough is at all sticky. Divide roughly into 8 portions. Fraisage the dough: using the heel of your hand, scrape a portion of dough across the surface. Repeat with the remaining dough. Gather the dough into 2 equal balls. Flatten into discs and wrap in plastic. Chill for at least 30 minutes, and up to a few days. (Or freeze for up to a couple months. Defrost before proceeding.)
Remove one disc from the fridge. If it is very firm, you may need to let it soften at room temp for 15 minutes or so. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 14″ round. Fit into the pie pan leaving a slight overhang. Roll out the second disc to a 12″ round. Place on a piece of parchment and slide onto a rimless baking sheet. Chill both while you prepare the pie filling.
Apple-Huckleberry Pie Filling
3 pounds apples, such as pink ladies, peeled, cored, halved and thinly sliced
2 cups fresh or frozen huckleberries
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 cup sugar
seeds of 1 vanilla bean (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, added to the apples)
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
good grating fresh nutmeg
1 tablespoon milk or cream, for brushing the dough
1 tablespoon sugar, for sprinkling
Position a rack in the lowest level of the oven and preheat to 500º. If you have a baking stone, set it on the rack.
In a very large bowl, toss together the apple slices, huckles, and lemon zest and juice. In a separate bowl, combine the sugar and vanilla bean seeds. Rub the seeds into the sugar to distribute evenly. Add the flour, salt and nutmeg and mix to combine. Add the sugar mixture to the apple mixture and toss to combine.
Turn the apples and their juices into the pie crust. Lay the second round of dough on top. Use a pair of scissors to trim the overhangs flush with the pan. Flute. (Or, if you have an inch or so of overhang, you can tuck the dough under itself and flute.)
Brush the top crust with the cream and sprinkle with the sugar. With the tip of a paring knife, mark the center of the pie, then cut 8 slits in the top.
Place the pie on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven, on the baking stone if you have one. Turn the oven down to 425º. Bake the pie for 20 minutes. Reduce the oven temp to 350º and bake for another 35-45 minutes, until the crust is deep golden and the juices bubble up vigorously, for a total baking time of 55-65 minutes.
Remove the pie to a cooling rack and let cool completely, at least 2 hours, at room temperature. The pie keeps at room temperature for a couple days; put it in the fridge after that. Serve with whipped cream, or warmed with ice cream.