slice of pie

Upping Your holiday pie game

Tiz the season to be baking; and I’m turning my focus to breads and holiday pie!

More bread to come; but be honest, who doesn’t love pie?

To help you dive into the pie dough, here is a recap and blending of several pie posts I’ve done in the past. Now you can find all of the holiday pie help you need in one easy to find resource.

I found the inspiration for this holiday pie blog post this morning on my instagram feed.

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Take a look at this fun pie crust from @Nik_Gallo. Its unclear if Nik baked the pie or just photographed it, but it really doesn’t matter.

If you like knitting and baking, this is, I think, the pie for you.

If you like fishing, or are baking for someone who likes fishing, use the same whimsical technique to mimic fishing line, a fishing pole and maybe a little pastry fish peeping out of the water of a blueberry pie filling. Trust your imagination, the possibilities are endless!

Now that we are all properly inspired… let’s start with a revisit to a holiday pie post I did last year as the base for this post and I’ll add in some extra tips, photos and recipes for sweet and savory pies, as we go.

Eye on the Holiday Pie

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Nothing like the aromas of a homemade pie baking in the oven.

Baking pie is, well, as easy as…you know.

High quality refrigerated crusts , make it nearly as good as homemade without all the fuss and frustration. I’m not here today to tout anyone particular brand and this is not a sponsored post. If you know me, you know I do like an organic option; and the fact that its already done and ready to roll, just seals the deal.

But if you want to make your own, I’ve found a splash of vodka to be a full proof tip. Not for the cook, but for the dough. The alcohol helps to keep the dough colder than just plain water will and it cooks away as the pie crust bakes. And because the crust is colder the butter or lard reacts better with the flour to make things lighter and flakier.

pie dough in pan with rolling pin

Easy Vodka Holiday Pie Crust

It’s the Vodka that keeps it light and flaky – who knew? I love keeping this a local choice as well and always now use TOPO Distillery vodka from Chapel Hill in all my homemade pie crust recipes. Give it a try, you’ll love the results.

2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp  salt

1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces

3/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices

1/4 cup your favorite cold North Carolina vodka  

1/4 cup cold water
Use a food processor fitted with the metal blade to pulse together  flour and salt. Add butter and shortening and process until blended just the dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, but there is no trace of the flour.

Add the cold vodka and cold water over mixture. Pulse again with the processor just until the dough forms a ball. Remove from the bowl. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days, the roll out to 1/4 inch thickness and use in your favorite pie recipe.

Simply substitute either the TOPO gin or vodka for the ice water called for in your favorite pie crust recipe for  incredibly tender and, oh so, flaky results.

A tip for baking with local spirits & a Great Gift idea as well!

Make your own homemade vanilla use a pint of your favorite local vodka, gin, rum or bourbon and 2 split vanilla beans. Place the beans in the vodka in a decorative jar or bottle and all it to sit for 2 weeks. As you use your hand crafted vanilla, add more vodka, gin, run or bourbon to top off the bottle. As the color begins to lighten, add another split bean.

Heidi Billotto

Now, lets talk about some easy-peasy shortcuts that help moved the pie making process along.

Life (and Holiday Pie) is how you Bake It

Back in the holiday season of 2019, I shared a couple of these easy tips for making pies – on WCNC’s Charlotte Today. Tips and fun simple shortcuts here include how to work the crust to a fun faux lattice top. Watch the video and then read the details below.

In Pie We Crust

The beauty of working with refrigerated pie dough is in the convenience. You can keep the package at an arm’s reach in the fridge; or freeze one of both of the crusts in the box for use another time. The dough will stay good in the refrigerator until it reaches the expiration date on the box – another important reason to read the label.

Ready made rolls of pie crust dough do well kept frozen for up to two months, but be sure to bring it to room temperature before attempting to roll it out. The direction on the box always say “For best results, thaw overnight in your refrigerator.” But, you and I both know reality is.

So, if you forget to pull the box out in advance, just place it on your counter and let it defrost there. Don’t put it in warm water or in the microwave to try to speed up the process; the likelihood is great you’ll cook it or partially cook it that way.

For a quicker defrost

Instead, just take the rolls of pie dough out of the box, put them on a warm spot on your kitchen counter. Flip them over every once in a while. You still can’t rush the process, but you can really speed it along.

While it is always important to keep pie dough cooler than not, its best to bring a commercial refrigerated pie dough to just this side of room temp for the most carefree experience as you unroll the dough.

If the dough is too cold – or still frozen – it will crack. If that happens it’s still ok – you can easily fix it. Remember, you are smarter than the pie dough ( insert smiley face emoji here)

Don’t force it. Nothing likes to be forced to do anything. Just give it another 5 minutes or so at room temp, and then make another attempt to gently unroll. If you have cracks, you’ll be delighted to know that pie dough is just like Play Dough in this regard – you can just pinch the cracks together, roll over it with a rolling pin and voila, you’ve solved the problem.

Pie pans and tart shells

Lots of options here and a huge range of choices of sizes. A regular or deep-dish glass or ceramic pie pan is, of course, the classic. I tend to like the look of a ceramic pan over the tried and true glass, only because it lends a more finished presentation to the final product, but both work well.

My other go-to is the French tart pan.

I love these pans with the removable bottom because it makes getting the pie out of the pan super easy. French tart pans come in round and square or rectangular shapes.

Want a smaller version for an individually-sized pie? Use this fun trick.

Clean the metal lids to glass canning jars in the dishwasher. Reassemble them so the metal side of the lid is in the inside and then use the lid and the ring as you would a tart pan.

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For a individualized mini pie, use this DIY trick and transform the lid and ring made for a canning jar into a mini false bottomed pie pan

Its a fun trick and kids love it, too. While you are baking the pie for the family. Give your kids each a square of pie dough and let them fit it their own jar lid and ring, just as you fit the larger round into an 8 to 10 inch pan. They can fill and top it exactly the same way.

To bake, place the mini canning jar lid pies on a baking sheet and bake for about the same time as the larger version. You’ll know they are done when the crusts are golden brown. Allow them to cool and then push up on the bottom to pop them out of their little pans.

Feast your pies on this

two apple pies

Not all pies require a bottom crust. For those that do, here is an easy way to get the bottom layer of dough in the pan. Just divide (the dough into quarters) and conquer.

Aside from the pie pan, the only equipment you need is a rolling pin and a sheet of parchment paper.

Rolling the dough out on a parchment paper covered work surface will help enormously with the transfer. For a bottom crust, roll the dough out 1-2 inches larger than the diameter of your pie pan.

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Fitting your rolled out pie dough into your pie pan is as easy as one-two-three!

The use the parchment to help you lift and fold the dough gently in half. Do not press or pat it together. Then, one again gently fold the half round of dough in half so that is a quarter round.

Pick the quarter round of dough up off the parchment. Place the point of the quarter into the center of the pan.

Then simply unfold till your round of dough fills the pan.

In a glass or ceramic pan, leave the pie crust lapping over the edges, until you’ve filled the pie and are ready to finish.

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For a French tart pan, use this clever ( if I do say so myself) little trick. Press the dough into the bottom edges of the pan with your fingertips. If you have long nails, that won’t work so well – instead use your knuckles.

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Once the dough is in the pan, use the rolling pin to roll over the edges.

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As if by magic, you have a perfectly finished edge – no fuss, no muss. Then fill the unbaked pie crust as the recipe suggests.

Upper Crust Honors

Once the dough for the bottom crust is in place, you are ready to fill your pie. You can make your holiday pie sweet or savory. Sweet for dessert or a snack; and savory for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

It seems this 2020 holiday season, folks are rediscovering all the flavor caramelized onions can bring to the table. Use slices of potato and caramelize onions in the galette recipe I shared with you earlier this year and you’ve got a winning combo. or layer the potatoes ( thin sliced and uncooked), with the caramelized onions in a deep dish pan and cover with a top crust just has you would a sweet apple or pecan holiday pie.

Here’s the How To: Caramelizing Onions:

Peel and thin slice 4-5 large white or yellow onions. Heat a mix of 2 Tbsp. butter and 2 Tbsp. EVOO ( or use just one or the other) in a large saute pan. Add the onions when the fat is hot. Sauté the onions as you toss them in the pan to cover them in butter and oil. Reduce the heat to low, add a sprig of fresh rosemary if you would like. Allow the onions to slowly brown ( or caramelize) – Don’t rush it or they will burn. Also – avoid the temptation to add sugar or balsamic vinegar to the pan. In time the onions will caramelize all on their own. They don’t like to be rushed.

How To Tips be Heidi Billotto

The easiest way to top your pie is with a crust that offers full coverage. Just roll out another round of dough, not quite as large as the first one; and place it on top of the pie. Finish the edges by folding the rim of the bottom crust up and over the edge of the top crust.

Gently pinch the two layers of crust together using your fingers to create a fluted edge. Or, use a fork to press down in the double layer of dough to create a crimped edge. Then cut a few slits in the top of the pie to create an escape route for the steam that builds up inside while the pie is baking. Or, use the hand crafted pie birds I mention below. With that, you are ready to go.

If you are not using a pie bird, instead of cutting boring straight slits with a knife, make it more fun. Use a zigzag pastry wheel to cut happy zig zag slits in the top of the pie.

To finish it all off, an option for better, more even, browning, is to lightly brush whole milk over the top crust. Place in the oven and bake according the recipe.

Let Us Lattice, and the Faux Version Thereof

If you really want to show some pie chops, then you need to master the lattice crust.

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Its simple really, and nothing more than a basketweave pattern. Just cut the top crust into long strips. Then lay 4-5 strips over the pie filling, side by side, leaving an inch or so between each one.

Next take another set of dough strips and, this time going horizontally, begin to weave them into the first row of pie dough strips. It’s just like you used to make those homemade potholders when you were a kid (Whoops, I might be dating myself!)

The whole over, under, over, under process is actually sort of soothing for me. But if time is pressing, here is a faux basketweave plan that works every time.

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Use a square or rectangle cooking cutter to cut square or rectangular shapes out of the top crust. As you cut, leave about an inch of dough between each of the squares. If you are feeling more creative use a circular cutter for a fancier spin on things.

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Once you’ve cut out all the squares, toss them to the side, and what’s left behind is a lattice-like piece of dough.

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Lift it off the parchment covered work surface and transfer it over to the top of your pie. Works like a charm and helps to take your pie topping skills to the next level!

Note: Remember to always work on a parchment paper covered surface and you won’t have any problems with the pie crust sticking before you need to lift and transfer.

Now, on to Holiday Pie Recipes

Start with the local harvest and work your pies around that. You can never go wrong with local North Carolina apples as the start for your pie; but, if you are enjoying the harvest of local pecans this holiday season, then perhaps instead of apples, you’ll want to try my recipe for chocolate pecan pie – it’s swell!

apples for pie

Of course, there are no hard and fast rules, but generally speaking, most pies made in the false-bottom tart pans don’t call for a top crust. Seems a shame, because the soft flaky crunch of the top crust is so delicious.

pie

Not wanting to give up on a top crust all together, I’ve reinvented the topping for my go-to pistachio Cream Apple Pie; whichm by the way is also very good with North Carolina pecans.

I started with thin sliced of apples and placed them in an overlapping circle around the edge of the pie on top of the pistachio cream.

Then, instead of my traditional center round of apples, I did a center round of pie crust.

Again, I used a cookie cutter – a round one this time, to cut pie dough circles. Next, I cut each dough circle in half so that they resemble the slices of apples.

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Heidi Billotto’s Pistachio cream and NC Apple Tart with a center pie crust. After baking this pie is finished with a delicious drizzling of a honey butter glaze, yes please.

And they lived Apple-y Ever After

This year the center circle of my Pistachio Cream and Apple Pie, is crust. Finished off in the center with a full round of dough pinched into a flower sort of shape. To give it even more interest, I made the concentric circles of apples and pie crust go in two different directions.

Dough for one nine-inch pie

FOR THE PISTACHIO CREAM:

1/2 cup powdered sugar

4 Tbsp. butter, softened

1 1/3 cup ground pistachios

2  eggs

3 Tbsp. cream, for glazing

FOR THE HONEY BUTTER:

2 Tbsp. honey

3 Tbsp. butter

¼ cup apple cider

Here’s what to do:

Roll the dough out on a sheet of parchment paper and then fit into a 9 or 10-inch false-bottom tart pan. Chill the pastry shell in the refrigerator.

To make the pistachio cream: Combine the sugar and butter and beat until creamy. Gradually add the ground pistachios and the  egg.

Spread the pistachio cream in a smooth layer in the bottom of the pastry shell.

Cut the apples into thin slices and arrange then in concentric circles on top of the pistachio cream.  Bake the tart on a baking sheet in a preheated 400-degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove from oven drizzle with honey butter cool slightly  and serve

For the Honey Butter: In a saucepan combine the honey, butter and the sweet white wine. Stir to mix. Bring the honey mixture to a boil and cook until it has reduced by half.

Four and Twenty Black Birds in your Holiday Pie

Pie birds always make me thing of that old nursery rhyme, plus they just make me smile. I found this pair (sold separately) on a trip to Seagrove NC.

Potter Anne Partna at Blue Hen Pottery has lots of fun and beautiful pottery for your home and your table. And now, these cute pie birds are available for holiday gift giving. You can watch an IGTV interview I did with Anne here; and check out her Blue Hen Pottery online shop here. Use one pie bird per pie. Stand the pie bird in the center of the bottom crust. Add Pie filling around it; and then cut a whole in the center of your top crust and fit it around the pie bird as you shape it over the pie. The pie bird is a way for the steam that will build up in the filling of the pie, to escape. then you serve the pie with the pie bird peeping out as you serve each slice!

Heidi’s Two Crust Apple Pie

½ cup sugar

¼ cup brown sugar

3 Tbsp. flour

2 Tbsp cinnamon

1 Tbsp. cardamom

Pinch of salt

8 cups peeled and cord apples, cut into chunks

¼ cup butter, melted

Dough for two 9-10 inch rounds

Combine sugars, flour and spices with apples and butter, toss well. Reserve.

Fit a 9-inch deep dish pie pan with a pie crust. Spoon filling into crust, mounding it slightly in the center. Top with another crust, this one slightly bigger so that you have about an extra inch of crust around the edges.

Fold the top crust under the edge of the bottom crust to seal and then crimp edges with your fingers or a fork to give a decorative finish. Cut decorative slits in top crust to allow steam to escape while baking. Place pie on a baking sheet – to catch any juices that might come out during baking – brush top crust lightly with milk and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 1 ½ hours, or until crust is a delicious golden brown.

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