an apple pie tale

About five years ago, I brought an apple pie to Thanksgiving from some recipe I had made up while I was going along–feh, who needs a recipe for apple pie?–and my aunt declared it the best apple pie she had ever tasted. While this should have been the best news in the world, in the years since, in my mind, at least, it has brought nothing but chaos because, without having written down my “little of this” and “little of that” approach, I’ve had a terrible time recreating it.

apple pie

Fairly certain I had used only yellow delicious apples, as I had heard that they have the lowest water content and therefore spare the pie sludginess, I used them again the following year only to have an overcooked and not tart enough pie. The next year, my New Boyfriend Alex and I made a slew of stunning pies (so I could send one to his family, too, oh, I was in deep) with a mix of apples, but these ended up slightly undercooked. The following year, unbearably short on time, I used one of those Pillsbury unroll-and-bake doughs (more on this later, or another time if it gets late), but found the inner contents not to be heavy and gushy enough. Yeah, gushy is an acceptable word to describe pie, okay?

apple pie

Last year, realizing I was flopping around, creating chaos and confusion where neither need be, I turned to good ol’ Cooks Illustrated, the pinnacle of reliability and sound practices in cooking and baking. I used shortening in the crust, even though shortening makes me cringe; I used their suggested mix of apples; I used lemon and lemon zest because they said I should, but I insisted upon keeping the lattice top because I think it’s just the prettiest. In the end, I still cringed from shortening (but admitted the crust was very flaky), didn’t like the lemon and felt there was not nearly enough spice. I realized that the pie kept getting dry because there was too much openness in the lid. At least this time I took notes.


This year, I opted for a tightly woven pie lid, requiring nearly double the amount of dough, skipped the lemon, doubled the spices and used Cooks Illustrated’s new-and-improved vodka pie dough.

Oh, I’m sorry, you wanted to know how it turned out? People, its only 10 a.m.! Even my family doesn’t eat that early. But I have high hopes. Fine, moderate hopes. Okay, I’m just plain nervous. So while I am all fidgety, I need to make a confession:

I am sorry to all who were harmed in the making of that vodka pie dough. After making two pies with it now, I have to admit: I simply hate it. It’s too sticky and difficult to work with. No matter how cold it was, it never firmed up enough (because, duh, vodka doesn’t freeze) and each dough had to be messily peeled from its plastic after being rolled out. That said, it does appear to be the flakiest dough that I have ever made in the history of Deb’s Apple Pie. But it was a royal pain in the butt and I am not sure I’d suggest it again without that caveat.

Whew, I feel much better now. I hope this good karma can be leveraged in that lopsided pie on the counter. I think five years is long enough to wait.

apple pie

I hope you all have a warm, relaxing and charmingly lopsided Thanksgiving.

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57 comments on an apple pie tale

  1. bramley fan

    Hi there,

    In England, we use Bramley apples for cooking. They’re really sharp, tart and lovely. But I can’t find them anywhere in this country! Any ideas?

    Bramley fan.

  2. Susanne

    So Deb, do you remember for ever ago when you were thinking about purchasing a url for your site? There was some discussion about what it should be because your “rightful” site was already taken by some crazy crafty people who made up a mitten for two hands and called it a smitten. I looked at the site back then and thought good lord, that is just weird and who on earth would buy it?

    My question was answered yesterday when flipping through my in-laws Restoration Hardware Christmas catalog. Behold:

  3. Ann

    Um, just writing back to say, I’ve figured out the pie-crust problem. It lies with the “16 oz.” butter I used. The recipe calls for two AND A HALF sticks, not two sticks. Converting 1/2 cup of shortening to butter shouldn’t really be that challenging, but in my defense I AM chronically sleep deprived and WAS juggling fussy four-month old twins while baking.

    Guess I’ll try again. Sigh.

  4. Stephanie in Davis

    I made this pie crust last night. It WAS sticky but I rolled it out in between two sheets of waxed paper – didn’t have parchment. It was a little tricky to peel off the dough but not really too bad. Maybe the waxed paper is the trick. In any case, it looks great and hopefully will taste good when we serve it warmed up today.

  5. Laura W.

    I made the vodka pie crust last night. They sat in the fridge overnight since I, umm, went out partying instead of baking pies. This morning they weren’t dried out at all (as I expected from previous years). I rolled them out with a smidge of flour on my silpat and declared them the best pie crust to work with. Assuming they taste delicious, this will be my go to recipe for crusts.

  6. Heh… too late. :) I’ve got a variation on the ‘loaded’ pie dough in the oven right now. Except I used amaretto. It looks like a mess… I still can’t get the hang of crimping the edges. and oozed either melted butter or liquor when I blind baked it.

    It’s got a pumpkin-brulee in it right now, and we’ll see how it turns out! Because after all, ugly is perfectly fine as long as it tastes good!

  7. Marisa

    What! What?! What about the pilsbury roll-out dough? I used it last night, as I was out of time to make my own crust, and now I’m afraid…. Is it awful? Is it great? Should I even serve the pie? Well, even pie with a bad crust is still pie. I’ll give it a go. Can’t wait to hear the rest of your story.

  8. I made the vodka pie dough last night, rolled it out this morning and it was the easiest dough I’ve worked with. Also this is the first time I’ve successfully made pie crust in the food processor–every other time it seemed to get tough and flat. I didn’t find it that wet–I think I ended up adding an extra T of water to the mix because it wasn’t wet enough. It was way less fragile than my normal all-butter pie crust and rolled out (and came off!) my floured rolling mat and rolling pin cover. I made some little jam tarts with the extra dough (haven’t eaten the big pie yet) and it tastes great–flaky and tender at the same time.

    So not to worry–my family will be happily sending pie-karma back at you!

  9. jen in ia

    Happy Thanksgiving! It just wouldn’t be the same without at least some measure of high culinary anxiety…good luck with the pie!

  10. Jessica

    My apple pie w/ vodka crust is just out of the oven and it looks great. I had a bit of a mishap with the top crust as it stuck to the counter as I was lifting it and ripped a bit, but I didn’t feel like rerolling it – it’s just a little thicker there where I patched it. I loved how soft and pliable this dough was when rolling it out – the first crust I made I tried rolling out between the plastic wrap, but it just didn’t work, so went back to my floury counter. For those of you who rolled yours out between plastic wrap, how did you keep it from traveling across the counter?

    Anyway, this little bit of crust that I broke off from the edge was delicious. Looking forward to having a real piece later!

  11. JessicaT

    I think the key with the vodka dough is to skip the plastic wrap. It is such a soft dough that I can’t imagine it rolling nicely without sticking to the wrap. With that said, I’ve done it three times this month and I think it is the holy grail. (Disclaimer- I went to pastry school last winter and spent thousands of dollars basically learning to roll pie dough. Oh, and how to skin a kiwi nicely) Anyway, roll it on your counter, use some flour, turn the dough a 1/4 turn after each pass of the roller, adding a little more flour if you start to feel it sticking, occasionally feel the thickness around the edges to make sure you are rolling evenly, and work fast!

    It looks lovely, and I am totally with you on the lattice top – it is the prettiest! I have a lattice topped pear pie cooling on my counter right now.

  12. Great looking pie. My family all ate so much at dinner that we never even had dessert. My parents left with their share of dessert and my pumpkin bread to go. It’s still very early here and I only ate 1 meal today — so probably around 8:00pm I’ll go down to my kitchen and eat some pie! My mother baked apple and I baked pumpkin. YUMMY! I’m still so full! WOW did I over do it! Welp that’s THANKSGIVING!

  13. Happy Thanksgiving – i hope you’re having a great one. I made an apple pie too and made my own crust!!! And it was AWESOME. I’m now over my pie crust phobia – it must have been the humidity that summer day. Oh, but I have some sad news – I may have broken my beloved Nikon d70s — i whacked it on the corner of our dinint table after which it shut down and isn’t turning off. B&H this Sunday is my only hope!! We’ve been taking pictures with a point-n-shoot :( Anyway, sorry about that pie dough – that is annoying – though the flakiness does make a difference. Have you tried the Martha Stewart recipe? It’s what I used this time and it’s wonderful and is ALL butter. And who among us doesn’t love butter?

  14. Jessica

    So, the pies turned out well, but I think that I am going to have to invest in a set of pie weights (or beans) and start parbaking the shells because neither of the bottom shells (apple or pumpkin) were completely cooked to my liking… And there was so much fluid in the apple! I don’t know what happened!

  15. I made the Cook’s Illustrated vodka pie crust and apple/cranberry filling that went along with the crust in that issue, and it turned out beautifully. The dough was sticky upon initial mixing, but was perfect after sleeping in the fridge overnight wrapped in plastic. No problems rolling it out with the 1/4 cup of flour they recommend. The crust was flaky and very good. Maybe pie dough is just one of those tricky things…

  16. courtney

    My stepbrother did that one year. BEST PIE EVER. But alas it was never duplicated properly. Close but not exact (or we over-hyped it too much in our heads so nothing could ever compare).

  17. Sarah

    I tried it with saran and it was horrible. I switched to parchment, flipped it once to get more flour on teh rolling out parts and was doubly pleased. Dont’ give up! Just use more flour.

  18. Mary O

    My pie making life was not meant to ever be perfect. I used half Granny Smith and half Golden Delicious which was a perfect combination. My pie dough behaved and I hoped for perfection. BUT when the time came that the recipe suggested for the pie to be done, I decided that it needed 5 more minutes. This was a bad decision. My oven insists that after you set the timer, you must also either hit Start. Alas I failed to hit Start. Since I was busy with other kitchen duties, I trusted my timer to keep track of the 5 minutes. When I came to my senses, the pie dough was not burned but the filling was much dryer than it should have been. Perfection is still a figment of the future Sigh.

  19. Your pie looks gorgeous — can’t wait to hear how it tasted. I hope you and yours had a glorious Thanksgiving. I made two pies — a single crust espresso-pecan and a two crust apple — with the vodka pie crust. I’ve made it several times now, so I skimped slightly on the liquid, and it wasn’t so sticky. I used plastic wrap and flour to roll it out, and didn’t have too bad a time, although it was a tad crumbly and required a bit of patching. The upshot was, the best. pies. ever. Especially the apple. The crust browned gorgeously, was perfectly melting and super flaky, shattering at the touch of a fork. I used Spectrum organic shortening with no trans fats, etc. etc. blah blah blah, but the fact remains that they did turn better than any other pies in living memory.

  20. I made the vodka crust for 2 pecan pies and I didn’t have any trouble with it. It was easy to work with, not sticky and it tasted great. I’d make it again in a heartbeat.

  21. LauraN

    Thanks for the cranberry tart recipe. It was easy to make and delicious. I didn’t bring any of me books or recipes to Santa Fe so I checked your site for recipes and voila’, you came to the resque.

    I made the crust like we make pasta frolla in Italy, starting with a mound of the dry ingredients with the wet in the center, and it worked perfectly. The extra scraps were wonderful as thumbprints cookies.

    A keeper!


  22. LauraN

    The best apple pie I ever made was from Sherry Yard first cookbook, a mile-high apple pie.

    Perfect flaky crust and wonderfully spices filling.


  23. Joanne

    I totally agree with you about that old CI apple pie recipe. I made it several times before I finally decided I hated the lemon zest. I also doubled the spices. I did like the flaky crust recipe in that issue but the vodka recipe sounds much more interesting. Cant wait to try it! Thanks for the great post.

  24. uh, i made the maple cream


    all the foodie publications were spot on about this pie. Easy as pie to make, and 1 of the best pies ever! After tasting the liquid mixture prior to baking, the bf was like, we have enough to make more, get on it asap. Im like, ok, fine.. no crust? The bf said… who cares pour it into ramekins, call it a day. God, that was good to.

    thanks Deb.

    (i passed on smoking the turkey, i wasnt going to piss off 35 people)

  25. Long-time lurker, first-time commenter. I wanted to say first, I love your website! The photos are beautiful and the recipes are delicious. Second, have you tried Rose Levy Beranbaum’s pie crusts in her “Pie and Pastry Bible”? They are foolproof and delicious!

  26. Sue

    Upon the first bite of my sister’s Apple Pie, I thought to myself, what a bizarre combination of spices. A sister-in-law chimes in that she was wondering which spices my sister combined to make a unique flavor. (All this was so as to not hurt my sister’s feelings). She then sheepishly admitted, that she did NOT make the filling, but she purchased a jar of Williams-Sonoma apple pie filling. Well, then we ALL admitted it was horrible, and threw out the whole pie. What a shame, in that the crust WAS homemade. So at least we had the pumpkin cheesecake from my niece. But no one really needed dessert after eating such a delicious Thanksgiving meal.
    PS When someone asks if they can bring the green vegetable, don’t let them bring roasted brussel sprouts with balsamic glaze – it just looks burnt, and THAT went into the compost!

  27. The latticing does look very pretty. I also freestyle my appe pie and am not sure I’ve hit on the right combo yet, but I definitely favor big chunks of apples which stay a but crunchy, and some alcohol flavoring somewhere…

  28. Wow! I’m really shocked at all the hate for the CI vodka pie crust. I looong ago gave up trying to make pie crusts since they always ended up in tears and self recrimination instead of flaky buttery layers, but this recipe sounded different enough I thought I’d give it one more try. And I’m SO glad I did! I found it incredibly easy to work with and have been on a pie and quiche making kick ever since. I am using a silicone roller and mat, so maybe that makes a difference.

    Oh, I’m also skeeved out by shortening, so I’ve made the recipe with all butter and with rendered leaf lard instead, and it’s worked fine both ways.

    That lattice top is stunning! Is it just a tighter weave than others, or have you don’t something else to make it look different?

  29. Beth

    OK – I feel better knowing I wasn’t the only one who struggled with the stickiness of this crust. I ended up having to roll it out on floured parchment, and then flip the parchment over the pie pan. It was flaky and delicious, though. I’d try again but probably not on a day (as Thanksgiving was) that is humid.

  30. This piecrust is starting to sound like No-Knead Bread debate all over again! I tried it exactly as written, including using the vegetable shortening (comforting to find there is a no trans-fat Crisco available now). I’ve never had any particular trouble with any pie crust, but found this one to be exceptionally easy. It’s a keeper for me. I do think that precooking the apples slightly is important. I learned that from making Patricia Wells’ Poilane Apple Tartelets, an all-time favorite in this household. I used a mix of golden delicious, braeburn and granny smith this time. I always add a few raisins, and I like to make the spaces between the lattice top big enough to allow for a little apricot glaze at the end.

  31. Excellent photos and thats a great looking apple pie. It’s amazing how we manage to dig a hole for ourselves when we put together a bit of this and a bit of that to make something that turns out great and then we can’t recreate it.

    Still there is lots of fun in trying.


  32. I found a GREAT apple pie recipe that I posted on my blog last month. The crust is sooo tasty and I also do the lattice top… but not too tight as that will cause the apples to be too mushy.

    Also – if you can ever find them, use Honeycrisp Apples. Unfortunately, I think they are only in season a very very short time in the beginning of Fall.

    Thanks for your fun blog!

  33. This is the prettiest apple pie I have ever seen! God, mine always look like a train wreck. I could never eat the apple pie, if it looked that pretty! hehe

  34. Molly

    I wanted to chime in regarding the vodka pie dough. My Thanksgiving Day assignment has always been pies. Having become obsessed with your blog a year ago, I decided to switch up some of my recipes. I made an obnoxious amount of the vodka pie dough this weekend – you sold me with the word flaky. I went to assemble my first pie tonight to be frozen and then baked on Wednesday. Looking through your apple pie recipes I saw the comment about the doughs stickiness. I panicked a little because though I am proficient with pie dough, I have a hard time not maiming it before it actually gets into the pie dish. But with knowledge in hand, I just dusted my work surface with a little extra flour – I don’t use plastic I think it makes a mess – and it was actually the easiest pie dough I have ever worked with! Seriously. I was able to roll it onto my pin and neatly place it in the dish with no disasters. Not sure if chilling it for almost 48 hours helped, but I loved working with it. Now I can’t wait to taste it!

  35. Tracy

    I just sent you an email about my quest for the perfect apple pie recipe. It’s been an ongoing effort in my kitchen too. I would have posted here but there’s a pic of the dorky recipe matrix I made so I could compare Martha (too lemony) to Ina (haven’t made it, but 4 lbs. of apples and 1/2 c. of sugar?) to ATK (not enough spices) to a few others and figure out what I thought were the perfect amounts of each ingredient, synthesize a recipe, and give it a whirl. It came out pretty great, I have to say. Enough so that I finally wrote it down and put it in my recipe box, feeling like I can move on. I couldn’t figure out how to attach the pic here, but it’s in your email inbox. :)

    1. deb

      Hi Tracy — You know, I seem to remember Ina using a deep dish for her pie on her show. Which is fine, but of course, not standard. (Those lovely Emily Henry ones are deep dish; I don’t use them because, well, I’m cheap and also, standard recipes will come up short. Then again, I think I used an EH knock-off in this post, but not since then.)

  36. Tracy

    Deb, you’re right. In her book, she does say it’s deep dish. I’m not a huge fan of deep dish pies…I like the crust-to-stuff ratio in standard ones better. Plus I’m cheap too. :)

    Still, the sugar seems low for the amount of apples. I don’t like it too sweet, but that seems low to me…

  37. Jessi

    Ok, so I’m confused. Are you suggesting that this apple pie recipe is a keeper, sans the lemon, plus the extra spices? Or not a keeper? I’ve made the vodka crust and it was almost the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, yes it did seem sticky. Do you have a better suggestion? I’m making an apple pie for Christmas, was planning to make the pie dough tomorrow… but I can’t tell whether you’re suggesting using the recipe or not. Help! Should I use this one?
    And email would be very much appreciated:) Thank you Miss Smitten!

  38. Emma

    So, how was this pie? Would you make the pie this way again (i.e., omitting the lemon and doubling the spices)? I think I’m going to make this pie this weekend. Thanks! Can’t wait for your book.

  39. Emma

    Okay, so I bit the bullet and answered my own question. I doubled the spices and used a tablespoon of lemon juice (no zest) and thought it was *perfect*. Definitely my favorite apple pie I’ve made so far! I made the vodka crust and, like you, have concluded that its sticky texture is just not worth it. I’ve made plenty of perfectly flaky crusts using all butter, no vodka, and a pastry cutter (thanks to your step-by-step posts on the topic!), so I think I’ll just stop trying to “fix” my pie crusts when they were never broken in the first place!

  40. Russ

    Confused. Says the pie needed double the dough. Do you mean that you doubled the pie dough recipe on the cooks illustrated website?

    Making this pie right now! :)

  41. Barbara Moss

    I,too, love the vodka pie crust and find it very easy to work with most of the time. I must admit I am a terrible pie crust maker and was thrilled to find this one. I actually brought it frozen in my suitcase with blue ice around them to my kid’s house . I hate their kitchen and this was a real time saver.

  42. shannon

    Hi Deb,

    I realize this post is 10 years old now, but I’m dying to know – do you remember this pie?? How did it turn out? I’m curious about the tightly-woven lattice and whether or not it caved in. I’m debating a lattice top vs regular top apple pie for Thanksgiving. I love lattice top, but never use it on apple!

    Thank you!