Homemade pie fillings prove easy. Crust not so much.

Practice makes perfect. With every pie, our skills improve. It’s an acquired art to turn out flaky, beautiful crust. My mother regularly reminds us of her early crust adventures — many of which ended in the garbage can. No worries, she says, the crust ingredients cost far less than the filling.

So, when time allows, we practice making pie crust hearing her voice remind us to use a gentle hand when gathering the moist dough into a ball and later when rolling it out. Mom always uses a floured rolling cloth on the board and on the rolling pin. These days, I prefer to roll between two sheets of floured wax paper. We factor in plenty of time to refrigerate the dough so it’s at the perfect stage for easy rolling. The chilly rest also helps prevent shrinkage in the oven.

I’ve been using the same pie dough recipe for years now. I like the flakiness I get from vegetable shortening and the flavor of butter, so I use some of each fat. A bit of salt in the crust helps balance sweet fillings.

The dough can be made in a few days in advance. Soften it at room temperature until pliable enough to roll, but not so soft that it sticks to your work surface.

Double-crust fruit pies challenge us to get the thickener amount just right so the pie is not soupy when cut. I’m a huge fan of instant tapioca in most fruit pies because it thickens the juices without adding flavor or a cloudy appearance. In general, I use 1 tablespoon instant tapioca for every 2 cups cut-up raw fruit.

Pretty, lattice-topped pies have the added benefit of allowing more fruit juice evaporation while the pie bakes. Precooking the fruit for any pie helps ensure that the thickener is cooked through; I especially employ this technique when working with cornstarch or flour-thickened pie fillings. This also allows the cook to work in advance — a bonus around the busy holiday season.

We are loving the combination of juicy, sweet Bartlett pears with tart cranberries for a gorgeous pie with hues of pink; a few crisp apples and chewy dried cranberries contribute contrasting textures. Feel free to skip the lattice work and simply add a top crust; pierce the top crust in several places with a fork to allow steam to escape.

The nut-free ginger praline recipe is a riff on a longtime favorite pumpkin pie from Jane Salzfass Freiman, a former Chicago Tribune recipe columnist. She taught us to gussy up the edge of pumpkin pie with nuts, brown sugar and butter. We are employing store-bought ginger snap cookies and crystallized ginger in place of pecans for a spicy, candied edge to contrast the creamy pie interior.


Start to finish: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Servings: 10

21/2 cups flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, very cold

1/2 cup trans-fat free vegetable shortening, frozen

Put the flour, sugar and salt into a food processor. Pulse to mix well. Cut butter and shortening into small pieces; sprinkle them over the flour mixture. Pulse to blend the fats into the flour. The mixture will look like coarse crumbs.

Put ice cubes into about 1/2 cup water, and let the water chill. Remove the ice cubes, and drizzle about 6 tablespoons of the ice water over the flour mixture. Briefly pulse the machine just until the mixture gathers into a dough.

Dump the mixture out onto a sheet of wax paper. Gather into 2 balls, 1 slightly larger than the other. (Use this one later for the bottom crust.) Flatten the balls into thick disks. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour. (Dough will keep in the refrigerator for several days.)

Nutrition information per serving: 291 calories, 20 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 24 mg cholesterol, 25 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 3 g protein, 235 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.


Start to finish: 3 hours

Servings: 10

1 double-crust pie dough (see recipe above)

21/2 pounds ripe, but still a bit firm, Bartlett pears, about 6

11/2 pounds Honeycrisp or Golden Delicious apples, about 4

2 cups fresh cranberries, about 8 ounces

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup (4 ounces) dried cranberries

1/2 teaspoon grated fresh orange zest

1/8 teaspoon salt

Cream or milk

Coarse sugar or turbinado sugar

Whipped cream or ice cream

Make the pie dough, and refrigerate it as directed. Working between 2 sheets of floured wax paper, roll out the smaller disk into a 12-inch circle. Remove the top sheet of wax paper, and use the bottom sheet to flip the crust into a 10-inch pie pan. Gently smooth the crust into the pan, without stretching it. Roll the edge of the dough under so it sits neatly on the edge of the pie dish. Refrigerate.

Roll the second disk of pie dough between the sheets of floured wax paper into an 11-inch circle. Slide onto a cookie sheet, and refrigerate while you make the filling.

Peel and core the pears. Slice into 1/4-inch-wide wedges; put into a bowl. You should have 6 generous cups. Peel and core the apples. Cut into 3/4-inch chunks; you should have about 31/2 cups. Add to the pears. Stir in the fresh cranberries.

Heat the butter in a large, deep skillet over medium-high until melted; add the pears, apples and fresh cranberries. Cook, stirring, until nicely coated with butter, about 2 minutes. Cover, and cook to soften the fruit, 3 minutes. Add the sugar and cornstarch; cook and stir until glazed and tender, about 5 minutes.

Remove from heat; stir in the dried cranberries, orange zest and salt. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet; cool to room temperature. While the fruit mixture cools, heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Pile the cooled fruit into the prepared bottom crust. Use a very sharp knife to cut the rolled top crust into 18 strips, each about 1/2 inch wide. Place 9 of those strips over the fruit filling, positioning them about 1/2 inch apart. Arrange the other 9 strips over the strips on the pie in a diagonal pattern. (If you want to make a woven lattice, put one strip of dough over the 9 strips on the pie and weave them by lifting up and folding to weave them together.)

Crimp the edge of the bottom crust and the lattice strips together with your fingers. Use a fork to make a decorative edge all the way around the pie. Use a pastry brush to brush each of the strips and the edge of the pie with cream or milk. Sprinkle strips and the edge with the coarse sugar.

Place the pie on a baking sheet. Bake for 25 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Use strips of foil to lightly cover the outer edge of the pie. Continue baking until the filling is bubbling hot and the crust richly golden, about 40 minutes more.

Cool completely on a wire rack. Serve at room temperature topped with whipped cream or ice cream. To rewarm the pie, simply set it in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes.

Nutrition information per serving: 540 calories, 24 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 34 mg cholesterol, 80 g carbohydrates, 43 g sugar, 4 g protein, 270 mg sodium, 7 g fiber.


Start to finish: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Servings: 8

Half-recipe double-crust pie dough (see recipe above)

For the filling:

2 large eggs

1 can (30 ounces or two 15-ounce cans) pumpkin pie mix (with sugar and spices)

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

2/3 cup heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons dark rum or 1 teaspoon vanilla

For the topping:

3 tablespoons butter, softened

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger, about 11/2 ounces

1 cup roughly chopped or broken ginger snap cookies, about 2 ounces or 12 cookies

Whipped cream for garnish

Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Roll the pie dough between 2 sheets of floured wax paper to an 11-inch circle. Remove the top sheet of paper. Use the bottom sheet to help you flip the dough into a 9-inch pie pan. Gently ease the dough into the pan, without stretching it; roll the edge of the dough under so it sits neatly on the edge of the pie dish; flatten attractively with a fork.

Line the bottom of the crust with a sheet of foil; fill the foil with pie weights or dried beans. Bake, 8 minutes. Remove the beans using the foil to lift them out of the crust. Return crust to the oven; bake until light golden in color, about 2 minutes. Cool. (Crust can be baked up to 1 day in advance; store in a cool, dry place.)

Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Whisk the eggs in a large bowl until smooth. Whisk in the pumpkin mix and ground cinnamon, ginger and cloves until smooth. Whisk in the cream and rum or vanilla.

Mix the soft butter and brown sugar in a small bowl until smooth. Stir in the crystallized ginger; gently stir in the cookies to coat them with the butter mixture. Set aside.

Carefully pour pie filling into cooled crust. Set the pie pan on a baking sheet; slide into the center of the oven. Bake, 40 minutes. Remove pie from oven. Gently distribute the topping evenly around the outer rim of the pie, near the crust. Return the pie to the oven; bake until a knife inserted near the center is withdrawn clean, about 40 more minutes.

Cool on a wire rack. Serve cold or at room temperature with whipped cream.

Nutrition information per serving: 481 calories, 27 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 96 mg cholesterol, 58 g carbohydrates, 9 g sugar, 6 g protein, 433 mg sodium, 9 g fiber. 

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