The Art of Pie

Let’s get down to BUSINESS here.

I’m going to share one of the real treasures of my life with you all, in a sincere gesture of goodwill and brotherly love.

It is apple season. When the first frost hits, we get a few precious weeks of Northern Spies here in Michigan… simply the finest baking apple in the world, bar none. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

I tried learning my mother’s apple pie recipe a few years ago, in an effort to carry on the tradition. Like just about everybody’s mom, mine makes the best apple pie in the world.

It ain’t so easy though, I found out. I’ve made several dozen pies since I started. A small handful of these have been “perfect,” though most have been perfectly edible. Thankfully, failures are handled by eating them quickly and getting on with life.

There are several variables in making my mom’s pie right. The first one is the apples. Tartness is balanced by the amount of sugar to be added. Dryness is balanced by the amount of flour sprinkled on the bottom crust before adding the apples. This seems simple enough, but the perfect pie is sweetened to perfection and neither runny nor dry - and the only barometer for the adjustments in ingredients is tasting the apple. Mom gets it right every time. I get it right occasionally, and probably by accident.

The other frustrating bit is the crust. The amount of water needed varies with humidity and other unknown factors. After the shortening is cut into the flour, just enough water is added to make the thing a coherent mass and just short of sticky. Add too little water and the crust will split and break as you roll it out, and it will end up with a grainy texture. Add too much water and it gets sticky and impossible to roll and won’t be flakey. Knead it too much and it becomes tough.

All that being said, here is the recipe for Mom’s Apple Pie. If you manage to make a perfect one, enjoy it! If you screw it up, eat it quickly and nobody will ever know.


2 c flour
3/4 c shortening
1 tsp salt
4 to 6 tbsp ice cold water

Cut shortening into flour and salt until you have a cornmeal-like texture. Add water a little at a time while gently kneading just until it forms a ball and isn’t sticky. Divide.


Roll out lower crust and place into baking dish. (There IS a difference between glass, ceramic and metal, but all yield nice results. Ceramic is my personal preference, followed by glass.) Make sure there are no cracks or leaks in the lower crust, or you will very much regret it when trying to serve the pie!

Cover the bottom crust with a sprinkling of brown sugar. Depending on the juiciness of the apples and the amount of sugar you will be adding later, sprinkle one to three tablespoons of flour over the brown sugar. (This is hard to judge. Sweet, juicy apples need more flour but less sugar. Tart, juicy apples need more flour and more sugar… etc.)

Slice in your apples. Keep slices thin and smallish, but not so much so that they are completely dense. Northern Spies are my favorite baking apple by far, but they are hard to get. Grannies work well, as do many others. The overall texture of the finished pie is predicated by the apple you choose. Fill the crust to a gentle mound when viewed over the edge of the pie plate.

Over the apples, add 3/4 to 1 1/4 c sugar, depending on the sweetness of the apples. Remember that the sugar will sweeten AND draw the juices out of the apples, so it has to have been properly compensated for by the flour below! Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste. Be careful to keep cinnamon and sugar away from the edges that will be sealed to the upper crust!

Top with four or five pats of butter. Apply top crust, cutting to vent and sealing the edges well. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then drop to 400 for another half hour.

Pies are judged as follows:
Crust quality - thin, tender and flakey is best.
Juiciness when cut - pie should be quite moist but not “run” when a piece is removed.
Sweetness - pie should neither pucker you or curl your toes.
Taste - is it wonderful? Did you add enough or too much cinnamon and butter? Where the apples good ones for pie making?

That’s it! Very simple stuff… or so it seems.

"We ought to make the pie higher."
George W. Bush - South Carolina Republican Debate, Feb. 15, 2000

Well, there you have it.

BTW, thanks for the recipe.

Huh. I promised not to talk politics here anymore… and now my pies are political. I guess that shouldn’t be a shock, huh?

I did try.

Pete, what makes those apples so good for baking?

It is nothing more or less than the percentage of “perfect pies” that result from them. They are not a great eating apple - almost mealy. They are also UGLY, and go bad extremely fast, which is why you can only get them for a few weeks in the Fall. They bake easy, don’t go soupy or mushy, aren’t overly sweet or tart, and just taste incredible.

The bottom line, Tom, is I don’t know why. I do know that once you use them for pies or sauce, nothing else (in this area) compares. I’m sure this would be different for other regions. I use other apples when they are not available… but when they are - YOW.

I baked a Spy Pie last night - it was in the oven when I posted this. Breakfast proved it perfect. Add one to the win column!

Hey Pete,

Thanks for the recipe. One problem for me though. I’m in Alabama. Northern Spies were all shot or hung back during the war. Dang hard to come by 'round here! :p :p I CAN get Washington Reds or Granny Smiths. How do they stack up? I SERIOUSLY LOVE a good apple pie! Plop some vanilla ice cream on a steamy piece of apple pie…oh boy…is that great eating! Granny pies sometimes seem too tart for me. Is more sugar the only way to overcome that? Or just find Grannies that don’t curl the toes when you bite 'em? I’d like to try my hand at this. My wife will be shocked. (Hopefully pleasantly shocked!)


Grannies make a delicious pie, but getting the consistency issues right is VERY touchy, as they are a very juicy apple. There’s no real rule of thumb beyond what I’ve laid out… you just do it, get it wrong, eat it, and do it again. It is an endless cycle.

I’m told by a southerner that those little green apples that used to grow wild everywhere are wonderful baking apples too. Washington Reds work. Heck - ANYTHING will work - but each will be different and bring its own challanges. Even good old Macintosh will make a good pie - though it will be more sauce-like than others.

Just do it!