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Cook the apples, lose the gap! Mastering a better apple pie

Any number of tasks may strike you as easy as pie, but anyone who’s ever actually made a pie can tell you that it actually requires some care if you want it to turn out well.

Consider apple pie. Its ingredients are few and elemental: apples, of course, along with sugar, flavoring and pie crust. But choosing the right apples is a serious business. Likewise, you’ll want to do what you can to prevent the apples from shrinking in the pie shell as they cook, which simultaneously makes the bottom crust soggy and creates an unsightly gap between the filling and top crust.

Let’s start with the apples. Some are tart and some are sweet. Happily, autumn is apple season, which means farmers’ markets (and, to a lesser extent, supermarkets) should be bursting with choices. Buy an assortment, taste each kind and take notes about their flavor, paying particular attention to their sugar level. An apple’s flavor intensifies as it is cooked. Unless you’re nuts about one particular variety, I’d advise you to pick a mix for your pie. The complexity of the flavors will make the pie that much more interesting.

Some apples turn into mush when they’re cooked, while others hold their shape for days. If you’re not sure which way a given variety will go, here’s a test: Cut a wedge into cubes, combine it with a pinch of sugar and a tablespoon of water, then cook it, covered, over low heat for about 5 minutes, or until just tender. Most varieties will hold their shape, but McIntosh, Macoun, Cortland and Empire will fall apart and turn into applesauce. I recommend adding a few of the fall-apart varieties to your pie. Their sauciness will moisten and bind the rest of the apples in the filling.

Now, how to prevent that gap? Simple. Gently pre-cook the apples, which drains them of liquid and shrinks their bulk. They’ll shrink no more once they’re added to the pie, which means there’ll be no gap between the filling and the top crust. But don’t toss out that liquid! If you boil it down as detailed below and add it back to the apples, you’ll amp up the apple essence.

DEEP-DISH APPLE PIE

Start to finish: 3 hours

Servings: 8

4 pounds firm apples, (a mix of sweet and tart) peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch-thick wedges

1 pound applesauce apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch-thick wedges

1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, divided

1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon table salt

1 to 2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

Double batch of pie dough, refrigerated

1 tablespoon heavy cream

In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, toss together all of the apples, 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar, the brown sugar, salt, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice and lemon zest. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the firm apples are just tender when poked with a knife, about 15 minutes. Transfer the apples to a large colander set over a bowl and let them drain for 15 minutes, shaking the colander every so often.

After the apples have drained, add the juices from the bowl to the Dutch oven and simmer until reduced to about 1/2 cup.

In the bowl, combine the reduced juices with the apples. Taste for seasoning and add additional lemon juice if necessary. Cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, remove 1 disk of dough from the refrigerator and roll it out between 2 large sheets of plastic wrap into a 12-inch circle, about 1/8 inch thick. If the dough becomes soft and/or sticky, return it to the refrigerator and chill until firm. Remove the plastic wrap from one side of the dough and flip it onto a 9-inch pie plate. Remove the second layer of wrap. Ease the dough down into the plate and press it into the bottom and sides gently without stretching it. Leave the dough that overhangs the plate in place; chill until the dough is firm, about 30 minutes.

Roll the second disk of dough between two large sheets of plastic wrap into a 12-inch circle, about 1/8 inch thick. Chill, leaving the dough between the plastic sheets, until firm, about 30 minutes.

While the dough chills, adjust the oven rack to the lowest position, place an empty rimmed baking sheet on the rack, and heat the oven to 425 F.

Remove the pie plate lined with the dough from the refrigerator and spoon the apple mixture into it. Remove the plastic from one side of the remaining dough and flip the dough onto the apples. Remove the second piece of plastic. Trim the excess dough hanging off the edge of the pie plate so it is flush with the edge. Pinch the top and bottom dough rounds firmly together and press them with the tines of a fork.

Cut four 2-inch slits in the top of the dough. Chill the filled pie for 10 minutes. Brush the surface with the heavy cream, then sprinkle evenly with remaining 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar. Bake the pie on the heated baking sheet until the crust is dark golden brown, 40 to 45 minutes. Transfer the pie to a wire rack and let cool until ready to serve.

Nutrition information per serving: 550 calories; 240 calories from fat (44 percent of total calories); 27 g fat (17 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 70 mg cholesterol; 210 mg sodium; 76 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 38 g sugar; 5 g protein.

PIE DOUGH

Start to finish: 20 minutes, plus chilling

Makes 2 crusts

2 2/3 cups (11 1/2 ounces) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon table salt

18 tablespoons (2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

4 to 6 tablespoons ice water

In a large bowl, stir together the flour and the salt, then add the butter. Working quickly with your fingertips or a pastry blender, mix the dough until most of mixture resembles a coarse meal, with the rest in small (roughly pea-sized) lumps. Drizzle 4 tablespoons of ice water evenly over the mixture and gently stir with a fork until incorporated. Gently squeeze a small handful: it should hold together without crumbling apart. If it doesn’t, add more ice water, 1/2 tablespoon at a time, stirring two or three times after each addition until it comes together. (If you overwork the mixture or add too much water, the pastry will be tough.)

Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and divide into several portions. With the heel of your hand, smear each portion once in a forward motion on the work surface to help distribute the fat. Gather the smeared dough together and form it, rotating it on the work surface, into two disks. Chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, at least 1 hour.