It’s Thanksgiving this weekend in Canada, one of my favourite times of year. The October air has a hazy, golden quality as the sun’s rays filter through leaves that are turning russet, amber and red. Autumn’s generous bounty ensures that our Thanksgiving table is filled with good food.
Much is made of pumpkin this time of year, and with good reason. The rich, creamy goodness of a pumpkin pie is one of the few foods that all the Offspring can agree on. There will definitely be a pumpkin pie on our dessert table this year, as every year.
But let’s not forget, it’s also apple season. Pumpkin is wonderful, but you can’t exactly stow one in your purse for an afternoon snack when you’re out and about. Apples are one of the most versatile of fruits: good eaten out of hand, stewed into sauce, baked into pies and more.
Last weekend we enjoyed a family outing to a local orchard with my two daughters and my granddaughters. This is such a wonderful way to show children where their food comes from. The Little Misses, ages three and almost two, were thrilled to pick their own apples. Little Miss’s cries of, “Look, I picked one!” were delightful to hear. And seeing Littler Miss sitting in the wagon eating a MacIntosh from one fist and a Royal Gala from the other was the best entertainment of the weekend.
Last Tuesday, I was in the mood for apple pie. I decided to make a crostata, a rustic tart with a free form crust that’s quicker to make than a traditional pie. I like that it’s not quite round, that there are cracks in the dough where the juices of the filling have seeped and caramelized. A crostata doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be good.
If I may say so, this one was ridiculously tasty. The pastry was buttery rich, scented with cinnamon and flaky. And the filling … I got inspired as I was making it, using maple syrup as the principal sweetener, and then adding vanilla bean paste. In all my years of apple pie making, I’ve never considered using vanilla before. Something still seemed to be missing, though. I usually put a hint of lemon or orange in my pies, but my house was citrus-bare that day. Instead, I finely minced some crystallized ginger to add a little bit of kick.
I confess, I was doubtful as to how the crostata would turn out. When I tasted the apple filling, it just didn’t seem that good to me. The Saigon cinnamon added a bitter note and the sugary sweetness I’m accustomed to wasn’t there. But it seemed time to stop tinkering and just go with the flavour combination I’d come up with. I feared I’d put too much maple syrup into it, as there was a lot of liquid in the bowl. Unfortunately part of the dough cracked, resulting in a big syrupy spill. (I’ve written my instructions to hopefully avoid that happening to you.) I patched the dough, sopped up the liquid with a paper towel and slid the tray into the oven, expecting a pie fail but hoping for the best.
I couldn’t have been more delighted with how the pie turned out. Through the alchemy of heat, the crust baked up golden and flaky, and the juices of apple, maple and melted butter melded with the subtle hints of vanilla and ginger with cinnamon top notes to create a tender, sublime filling.
I will be making this one again. Soon. Maybe even for our Thanksgiving Dinner tomorrow. Move over pumpkin pie, and make room for apple crostata.
Apple Crostata with Maple Syrup, Vanilla & Ginger
Make the dough first and chill it while you’re making the filling. Pre-heat the oven to 450ºF when you start on the filling. Line a large baking tray with parchment paper and set aside. The pastry and filling components of this recipe make enough for one good-sized crostata, approximately 9″ in diameter.
It’s nice to use a combination of apples when you’re making a pie or crisp. I like to use some MacIntosh apples because of their sweetness and tenderness, as well as a firmer, more tart apple. Or, I just use what I have on hand. In this case, the second type of apple was Royal Gala. Experiment with different combinations to see what you prefer. Just remember, cut firmer apple pieces smaller, so the filling cooks evenly overall.
This pie is a good reminder to me that it’s valuable to experiment in the kitchen sometime. We all have our ‘old standards,’ but it’s amazing what happens sometimes when you switch up flavours, like I did in this crostata. Maple? Vanilla? Ginger? In an apple pie? It worked!
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp golden cane sugar
- 1/4 tsp kosher salt
- 1/4 tsp Saigon cinnamon
- 1 stick minus 1 tbsp cold unsalted butter (i.e., 7 tbsp)
- 2- 4 tbsp ice water
Mix the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter in half lengthwise, then turn and cut in half again. Slice into small dice. Sprinkle over the dry ingredients and stir until the butter is coated. Using a pastry cutter, work the butter into the flour mixture until you’ve achieved pea sized bits throughout. Add 2 tbsp ice water and stir in with a fork. You want just enough water to enable you to press the dough into a ball. I added a third tbsp of water, and probably could have used a bit more.
The weather and temperature of your kitchen will make a difference, so just play it by feel as you go. Use your hands to form the dough into a ball, and press in any loose crumbly bits. Work the dough as little as possible, because the heat of your hands will soften the butter. Why does this matter, you ask? You want the butter to stay as cold as possible right until the dough goes into the oven, because that’s the secret of flakiness. (Of the dough, not the baker.) Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, press into a disk and put into the fridge to chill while you make the filling.
Apple Filling with Maple, Vanilla & Ginger
I talked about using different apple types and sizing them according to firmness in the headnotes of the recipe. Didn’t read that? Well, go back and read it now! (Please.)
- 1-1/2 lbs apples (I used MacIntosh and Royal Gala), peeled, quartered, cored and sliced
- 3/4 tsp Saigon cinnamon
- 1 tbsp cane sugar
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
- 1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste
- 1 tsp finely minced crystallized ginger
- 1 tbsp butter, cold
Toss all the ingredients except the butter in a bowl. Here’s a little secret: I use the bowl that I made the dough in. Why make another one dirty? And besides, any residual flour clinging to the bowl will help to thicken the apple filling. Genius! Thank you.
Keep the amount of flour you use for dusting as minimal as possible; enough to prevent sticking, not so much that you’re working a lot more flour into the dough.
Lightly dust a marble rolling surface or your countertop with flour. Flour your rolling pin (I prefer to use a French rolling pin). Unwrap and flour both sides of the disc of dough. Working quickly, begin to roll the dough out, keeping the shape as round as possible. Work in strokes from the centre out, all the way around the dough. This is not a geometry contest, and if it turns out somewhat elliptical that just adds interest, in my opinion.
When it’s about half the desired size, dust the top with flour and flip it over. Make sure the rolling surface doesn’t have any dough sticking to it. Sprinkle a little more flour on the top of the dough, and continue to roll until about 11 – 12 inches in diameter. If there are any tears or what looks like fjords around the edges, try to repair those as best you can.
Roll about 2/3 of the dough loosely onto the rolling pin, and transfer to the parchment-lined baking tray. Unroll. Voila, your crust is ready for filling.
Mound the apples in the centre of the dough, leaving about a 2 – 3″ edge. Carefully fold the margins of the dough up onto the filling, pleating as you go. Hopefully your dough will be pliable enough to avoid any tearing. If there are any cracks, just pinch them together as best you can. Sometimes I even use dough scraps for patching. Remember, a crostata is supposed to be rustic.
Spoon any remaining filling juices over the apples, then break the remaining tbsp of cold butter into little bits and strew it over the top of the filling.
Bake for 20 minutes, then check the apples and crust for doneness. Bake up to 5 more minutes if required.
Let the pie cool on the tray for 5 to 10 minutes. If any juices have escaped and burned, you can scrape them off the parchment. Using a couple of spatulas (or a cake lifter, if you have one) carefully, gingerly transfer the crostata to a wire rack to finish cooling and allow the juices to settle. Serve warm or cold. Prepare to accept accolades with grace.
One Year Ago: Whole Wheat Ginger Scones
Two Years Ago: Pie Time Togetherness