​Top 5 Apple Pie Tips from Award-winning Baker & Museum Educator

by Rosemary Hickman, Semmes Foundation Education Manager and Kate Carey, Head of Education

Four Claes Oldenburg prints of an apple core turned up in a recent search of the McNay Collection Browser. Perhaps I was searching while hungry, and you know they say—we eat with our eyes. I was surprised to see apples so generously represented in the McNay Collection—Georges Braque, Walt Kuhn, Patssi Valdez, and theatre design duo Jean and William Eckart. Known for large outdoor sculpture like the iconic Shuttlecocks at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Swedish American artist Claes Oldenburg also makes soft sculpture like the Miniature Soft Drum Set in the McNay Collection. When I saw that his apple prints corresponded with each season (note how similar summer and autumn look), I got to thinking about how my education colleague Rosemary Hickman celebrates apples every year. She shares her mouth-watering baking experience below.

– Kate Carey, Head of Education

Claes Oldenburg, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter from the Apple Core series, 1990. Lithographs. Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Gift of Ann Tobin in honor of Josephine Tobin Cothren. © Claes Oldenburg

Late summer usually marks the beginning of pie season for me. Seven years ago, I entered my first Apple Pie Contest at the Kendall County Fair that takes place Labor Day weekend. I have always loved to bake, and my dad strongly encouraged me to sign up. Growing up, my parents put me in awkward situations that ultimately were great learning experiences and usually turned into moments of recognition that I wouldn’t have sought out myself. The pie contest was one of those things.

The first year, I was shocked to win second place at the fair for a sour cream apple pie. My uncle Roy always asks me to make this one for Thanksgiving. The recipe is from my falling-apart copy of The Silver Palate, a classic cook book, which along with some important foodie friends taught me how to cook. That was the beginning of a series of experiences that I would now file under ‘Pie Insanity.’

It turns out that I am a pretty competitive person. One year, I needed to know the perfect apple for pie baking that was available in Texas in late August/early Sept. I bought ALL. THE. APPLES. Baking each varietal into a pie, I gridded out sections and made a corresponding map key so I could locate each one after baking. I also read every apple pie recipe that I could get my hands on for crusts, toppings, bake times. A LOT of test pies emerged from this “research.” I joked with a friend one time, “It’s just a silly contest, said the girl who baked seven test pies.” I grilled my co-workers for feedback. (A suggestion of nutmeg did put me over the top one year.) My dad could always be relied on for honest assessment. “This wasn’t my favorite.” He will sometimes throw a pie in the ring to double our chances of winning.

Here’s what I’ve learned about pie over the years. (Warning: Pie freak flag flying!)

#1 Apples. I know you’re dying to know the results of my apple experiment. Jazz are my preferred pie apple with Granny Smith as a second.

#2 Reduce the juice. Put your sliced apples in the cinnamon and sugar and let them release their juices for around 30-45 minutes. I reduce the juice and spices on the stovetop afterward and add back to the apples.

#3 Crust. I’m throwing down the gauntlet here. I make a 100% butter crust, a version of this recipe from Bon Appétit. Use your food processor to cut the butter into the flour instead of your hands.

#4 Freeze your pie. The heat of your hands and the kitchen is going to warm up the butter as you’re working with the dough. You want the butter to be cold when it goes in the oven so it creates those little steam pockets for a flaky crust. After I assemble my pie, I freeze it for at least 30 minutes.

#5 Time. I bake my pie for a looooong time. 90 minutes, sometimes longer. I honestly think that’s the biggest mistake I see in pie baking—the pie isn’t baked long enough. I want the fruit to be jammy. You’ll have to make some creative pie shields to keep the crust from overbrowning, but you really can’t overcook a pie. I like to see the apples bubbling for 20+ minutes. (BTW put your pie on a baking sheet to catch the drips).

#6 (This one’s extra!) People love pie. You’ll make new friends and keep the old.

As far as winning recipes, a combination lattice top and streusel crumble has taken the top prize for me two times. I call it the Best of Best Worlds Pie. In 2016, my dad and I both placed, and got our pictures with the rodeo queens. We always say we’re going to retire, but by July we’re usually already planning.

Though the Fair was canceled this year, I’m still hungry for pie. It’s seems apropos to flex that pie muscle in the context of quarantine baking. I’ll have to see what dad is up to.

P.S. You don’t want my recipe. As most cooks do, they leave out steps on accident…and on purpose. If you are itching to make a pie, this recipe by Deb Perelman from Smitten Kitchen is a winner.

– Rosemary Hickman, Semmes Foundation Education Manager