Nothing is more quintessentially fall than apple picking, and there's no better use of apples than in a buttery, flaky apple pie (though a crisp cider comes close). Toronto's the Pie Shack, with three locations in the city, sells hundreds of slices a day, all made by Norma Costas and Shane Walker's Riverside Foods. Here, Walker, who estimates the partners have made close to 20,000 pies since opening in 2008, gives the secrets to baking the best apple pie.
Pick the right apple
"You can buy apples year-round, but it's much better to buy in-season apples. Right now, we use Cortland and Jonagold or sometimes even Granny Smith. Empires will be out soon and they are also a good baking apple. You want an apple that is both tart and sweet, as they will give the pie the best flavour. An apple like Red Delicious isn't as flavourful when baked and tends to fall apart."
Keep the filling simple
"To let the flavour of the apples come through, we keep the filling very simple: just cinnamon, sugar and flour. If you want to get fancier, you can add some of the earthier spices, like vanilla, nutmeg or allspice. But always make sure to only peel the apples right before use, so they don't get brown before you start baking."
Handle it as little as possible
"There's really only two components to an apple pie: the crust and the filling. The filling is the easiest part; where it gets trickier is the pastry – pastry can intimidate people. It's better to throw out an overworked crust and start again than to have a pastry that is tough. A 1/4 cup of water should be enough to bring the dough together, then start adding it by the tablespoon if it isn't forming a loose ball."
Butter is better
"You can use lard, shortening, butter, oil or some combination of the above for the fat for your crust, but we have found that an all-butter crust is what works best. The dough may not be as tender as with shortening or lard, but we've found butter imparts the best flavour to the dough."
The secret ingredient
"One surprising ingredient we sometimes use in our pastry is white vinegar. Just a tiny splash, 3/4 tablespoon, won't impart any flavour, but it does help tenderize the dough. It makes the final product a little less crunchy and the pastry … softer."
Two baking temperatures ensure everything is cooked:
"First, cook the pie at a high heat (between 400 F and 425 F) for about 15-20 minutes to get the pastry nice and flakey. Then, to make sure the filling is cooked, lower the temperature to 350-375 F and bake for another 15-20 minutes. If you want the apples softer, you can cook it for up to 40 minutes, but you have to watch the crust. If it starts to brown (or burn) too much, cover it with foil or parchment paper."