Once a baker, always a baker. That is what my old neighbor, Mr. Maus, would always say as he kneaded giant mounds of yeast dough with his enormous floury hands or rolled sheets of pate brisee for Mrs. Maus's legendary peach or apple pies. No one could crimp edges like Mrs. Maus -- perfect flutes and tucks and ripples, evenly spaced all around the outside edges of a pie tin. And her woven-lattice tops were constructed with the same care that the finest artisan on Nantucket lavishes on a lightship basket.
I would listen and watch and assist, eager to learn every trick and technique that the jolly couple would share, and I practiced and experimented, finally perfecting the best pate brisee and a most acceptable pate sucree.
I would strive to roll the dough into elegant rounds with nary a crack or tear, and I was always thrilled to discover any new method to embellish the top crust or finish off an edge. Of course, the filling also had to be of the highest quality, incorporating the finest fruits and berries, fresh eggs, and cream. I kept close track of my recipes and also photographed the best results as they came out of the oven when I was preparing to write my 1985 book "Pies & Tarts" (Clarkson Potter).
For this column, I decided to try to simplify some of those earlier decorative motifs, while maintaining the integrity and appeal of the embellished look of the pies, so they would still create that wow effect we hosts and hostesses so desire when we present our handiwork to family and friends, especially during the holidays.
Follow the easy directions and you, too, can make these spectacular desserts. I had such a good time baking them, and I know you will, too. The fillings are traditional for Thanksgiving -- apple, pear, pumpkin -- but the crusts and decorations can be used with other fillings for the same charming results throughout the year. To make these unusual piecrusts, I used a common kitchen tool in a few different shapes: a cookie cutter. I actually searched through my extensive collection of Martha Stewart cookie cutters and my Japanese cutters and chose three: a fluted round biscuit cutter, a small square cutter, and a small leaf cutter with a finely serrated edge. The Japanese cutters are especially great for this task because they are sturdily constructed, very sharp, and beautifully detailed.
One batch of pate brisee made with two and three-quarters cups of flour yields enough pastry for the bottom and top crusts of any of these pies. I usually divide the dough into two pieces, one about three-fifths of the total and the other, two-fifths. Use the smaller amount for the bottom crust and the larger piece for the top. I roll out both and chill them on parchment paper until I'm ready to use them. Cut the top crust into the desired design -- the overlapping rounds atop the apples are the easiest to make. "Gluing" with egg wash and sprinkling with bright sanding sugar yields an unusually attractive crust that is flaky, tender, highly textured, and crunchy.
The faux-lattice top crust is ingenious, and now anyone can make a crust with a woven appearance without struggling with thin strips of pliable dough and figuring out how to weave them. The look is charming, and the edge, composed of the square cutouts removed from the pastry and arranged in an overlapping row, will garner oohs and aahs. Only someone who really studies the pie will realize that the lattice wasn't made in the traditional laborious manner.
The topper for the maple pumpkin pie is the most fragile and delicate of the three, but if the dough is well made, rolled out carefully, and cut evenly directly on the baking surface (sometimes I make mine on a silicone baking mat), this fabulous crust will remain firm and crispy. Using this technique, you'll end up with a crust that looks impossible to make -- in this case, one that is superimposed atop the firm surface of an already-baked pumpkin pie that has been infused with a delicious maple flavor.
One added feature of this crust is the leftover leaves, which are cut from the dough, glazed, and baked. These leaves can be used to adorn a custard or an open-face pie or tart, or as a garnish for a scoop of ice cream or a bowl of berries for any non-pie-eaters in your group. Oh, if they only knew what they were missing!
For more holiday pie ideas, visit our Holiday Pies Photo Gallery.
Different sugars and washes brushed on the dough can alter the look and texture of a simple pate brisee.
1. Granulated sugar: The most delicate and least noticeable of sugar toppings, it adds a slight shimmer and crunch.
2. Fine sanding sugar: Creates an exceptionally elegant, sparkling effect.
3. Course sanding sugar: Adds textural contrast to any crust.
4. Turbinado sugar: Lends an amber finish, and a more homespun feel, to pies.
5. Plain water wash: Brushing on water creates a crisp, crackly surface with barely any color; work well to adhere sugar and is good in a pinch.
6. Heavy cream wash: Imparts a paler finish than egg but adds a lovely shine.
7. Plain egg wash: An egg whisked and then brushed onto unbaked pastry results in a rich golden color and a shiny surface, it also prevents sogginess.
8. Basic egg wash: This is my favorite. Made from 1 egg yolk and 1 tablespoon heavy cream whisked together, it creates the best sheen, with a lovely golden color.