You’ve undoubtedly settled on your Thanksgiving menu by now, but I’m of the mind that there is always room for another pie, especially if it’s a sweet and complex, chai spiced apple pie in flaky, buttery pastry.
My Grandma Ruth would have celebrated her ninety-fifth birthday today. Firmly rooted in my memory is the image of her, with her big glasses, and yellow apron, at home in her cheerful kitchen, happily fussing about, prepping family Thanksgiving recipes. Candied yams, and oyster dressing, roast turkey and fluffy rolls, homemade cranberry sauce, and her stellar gravy…
She reigned over the kitchen all year round, but was the queen of Thanksgiving, and especially in her element preparing the family holiday dinner each year. She loved being in the thick of it.
It’s filed next to the day that Summer at least fifteen years ago, my teenage awkwardness in overdrive, standing in my grandparents’ antique-laden kitchen in West Virginia, pouring over a smudged copy of The Joy of Cooking, gathering up ingredients to make a fresh peach pie. Listening to early jazz on public radio while we worked, the humid landscape buzzing with that classic Southern harbinger: cicadas, all too happy to provide the harmony.
It came out of the oven a bit lopsided, the crust patched here and there with my inexperienced fingers, but even the ugliest pie, filled with sugared and spiced peak-season fruit will always taste sweetly of summer. And as we gobbled bites of warm peach pie, and fireflies flittered and twinkled outside, she made me feel like I could bake – or cook – anything.
This chai spiced apple pie isn’t my Grandma’s recipe – she wasn’t actually an avid baker, save for German pfeffernüsse spice cookies and fruit cake during the holidays – but it’s the sort of wonderfully cozy homemade dessert that enduringly reminds me of family, and is best made for someone you love.
She would have adored the classic simplicity of the apple filling, the heavy dose of brown sugar, been intrigued by the chai spices, the cardamom in particular. She would have oohed and ahhhed over the braided crust and carefully cut out leaves – in the most wonderfully grandmotherly, yet truly genuine way – but the brown sugar oat crumble topping was more in keeping with her unfussy approach to cooking.
She taught me to cook by taste and smell, mostly without recipes. The joy of good ingredients, and a great pot roast. Of savory soups with a good hunk of crusty sourdough. She was famous for pocketing a leftover roll from the bread basket at restaurants, a holdover from growing up during the depression. The simple perfection of a “good piece of fish” with lemon and butter, or a wedge of triple cream brie. The importance of curly parsley, and fine china, and carefully handwritten place cards. Of quick wit, and gumption, and hope. Of patience and generosity.
She called me liver lips when I pouted, and she loved me. When she passed away barely shy of her ninety-fourth birthday last year, it happened quickly, and likely without pain, after a very good, very long life, and we were so thankful for that. That she was reunited with my Grandpa. But selfishly, I still miss her something fierce, and think about her often, especially when I’m by myself in the kitchen.
I couldn’t write about it at the time. I still have trouble talking about her, saying the words out loud, without tearing up. I wish beyond all measure I could’ve said a proper goodbye. That she could meet our little ones someday. So thankful that she met my husband, that she loved him too, that she watched me walk down the aisle.
She read this blog up until the end, and we’d chat often about my newest recipes, what was in season, Ina Garten, and what I was working on next in the kitchen. She gave me that blue, well-worn copy of The Joy of Cooking, and her yellowing, dog-eared binder of handwritten recipes when she passed away, and I’ve started to cook from it, listening to her voice in my head as I read the smudged pages, dotted with her distinct, scrawling notes, ingredient substitutions, and dinner party menus, feeling a little like I’m still cooking alongside her.
Happy Birthday, Grandma! We miss you. Thank you for giving me love, and laughter, and so many good meals…
Now, about these chai spiced apple pies.
Both start with a flaky, all-butter pie crust, and are filled with sweet-tart apple slices dusted with brown sugar, vanilla, and a heavy dose of warming, wintery chai spices – cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom.
While the apple filling is the same – sweet, and fragrant, and wonderfully spiced – I top one with a braided lattice crust, and the other with a brown sugar oat crumble topping. The first is more traditional, the latter reminiscent of an oatmeal cookie, atop tender, syrupy apples.
The way I’ve written the recipe, you can choose between the two, or double the recipe and make both. Basically, the best of both worlds.
Do note, that if you bake both pies at the same time, it may take some jockeying, depending on the size of your oven. Our oven has a habit of being difficult, it’s touchy, with a few hot spots, so I swapped the two around every ten or so minutes, and covered the necessary exposed areas with little strips of foil. Like a crazy person.
And while my manic pie shuffling did yield a beautifully even, golden crust in the end, even wonky pies have a habit of still tasting delicious. Pastry, and sugary, spiced apples… it’s pretty hard to go too wrong.
Lastly, I’m so thankful for you sharing this space with me, for reading and cooking alongside me. From our family to yours, I wish you a wonderful holiday with family and friends, and of course good food. Happy Thanksgiving!
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
- 2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
- 2 Tbsp organic cane sugar
- 1 tsp fine grain sea salt
- 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 7-10 Tbsp ice water
- 3/4 cup rolled (old-fashioned) oats
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled
- 1/3 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp fine grain sea salt
- 5 Tbsp cold unsalted butter, cubed
- 5-6 medium apples, peeled, cored, and sliced³
- 3/4 cups (packed) dark brown sugar
- 1/4 cup organic cane sugar
- 2 Tbsp arrowroot starch⁴
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp ground cardamom
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- optional: 1/4 tsp orange or lemon zest
- optional: egg wash (1 egg plus 1 Tbsp half-and-half or whole milk)
- optional: Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
- !All Butter Pie Crust:
- Cut the butter into quarter-inch cubes. Place the butter in the freezer for at least ten minutes or until ready to use.
- Pulse together the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor, once or twice until just combined. Add the butter cubes to the flour mixture and pulse a few times until the butter is evenly distributed, with the largest butter bits about the size of large peas.
- Add the vinegar and ice water, pulsing once or twice between each tablespoon addition. The dough is ready when it appears crumbly, but will easily hold together when pinched between two fingers.
- Turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured work surface and divide into two halves. Form each half into a round disk, working quickly and being careful not to over-handle the dough.
- Wrap each disk tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes prior to rolling it out. The pastry may be made in advance and stored for up to a day in the refrigerator or - if wrapped very tightly in plastic wrap - about a month in the freezer.
- Prepare the bottom crust: Remove one disk of dough from the fridge. Wait about 5 minutes for the dough to warm slightly and become pliable. Meanwhile, generously butter the pie pan. Set aside.
- Place the dough in the center of a clean, lightly floured work surface. Using a rolling pin - I prefer to use a French (tapered) rolling pin - start in the center of the disk, and roll outwards, with firm but gentle pressure. Turn the dough and continue rolling towards the edges. As you work, don't be afraid to sprinkle additional flour on top of the dough and underneath, as well as on the rolling pin to avoid sticking.
- Continue rolling until the dough is about 2-inches larger in diameter than your pie pan and about 1/8-inch thick. As the dough gets larger, be careful to apply even pressure with the rolling pin across the entire surface of the dough.
- Gently transfer the dough to your buttered pie pan, being careful not to pull or tear the dough. Use your fingers to gently fit the dough against the sides and bottom of the pan. Using kitchen shears, trim the overhanging dough, leaving about an inch of excess (from the edge of the pan). Place in the fridge while you prepare the filling.
- Prepare the apple filling: In a large mixing bowl, stir together the brown sugar, sugar, arrowroot starch, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamom, until combined. Toss with the sliced apples. Drizzle with the vanilla, and zest, if using. Set aside while you roll out the top crust (about 10 minutes).
- Prepare the top crust: Roll the second disk of dough out as directed above, to about 10-inches in diameter and 1/8-inch thick. Use a pastry cutter, sharp knife or pizza wheel to cut out 8-10 equal-width strips for a traditional woven lattice top.
- For a braided lattice crust, roll out a third disk of dough as well, and cut thin (1/4-inch) strips of dough, to braid together three at a time. Set aside. then place on top of the pie, leaving just a small gap between the braids.
- OR Prepare the oat crumble topping: In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the oats, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt, until combined. Add the butter, and use a pastry blender or your fingers to cut the butter into the dry ingredients. Continue until the butter is completely incorporated, and the mixture comes together into a chunky crumb.
- Assemble the pie: Remove the bottom crust from the refrigerator and sprinkle with 1 tsp each sugar and flour. Fill with the apple mixture. Weave your lattice crust across the pie, tuck the ends under, and crimp the edges, OR top with the crumble mixture. Place the pie in the refrigerator to chill for 10-15 minutes.
- Bake the pie: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Brush the pie pastry with the egg wash, being careful not to drag any of the fruit filling onto the pastry (it will burn). Sprinkle with Demerara sugar (if using).
- Bake for 20-25 minutes on a nonstick or parchment paper lined rimmed sheet pan on the bottom rack of the oven until the crust is golden brown.
- Turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees F., move the pie to the middle rack, and bake for an additional 30-40 minutes until the filling is bubbly and the pie is golden brown and cooked through. Use a pie crust shield or aluminum foil tent as necessary to prevent the crust from burning.
- Remove the pie from the oven and let sit on a baking rack to cool for at least an hour before slicing. It will take a few hours to completely cool to room-temperature and fully set up.
- Serve warm or at room temperature with big scoops of vanilla ice cream. Will keep for up to a day at room temperature or up to week in the refrigerator.
² For an oat crumble topped pie, halve the pie pastry recipe, as you’ll need just one 9-inch bottom crust.
³ Look for firm, tart, and crisp varieties such as Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, Granny Smith, or a mix. Aim for thin, equal slices for even baking.
⁴ I’ve tested multiple pie thickeners, and have found that arrowroot starch (a natural plant starch) works the very best. Unlike cornstarch, which can become cloudy and gummy, arrowroot starch creates a smooth, shiny sauce without a noticeably added taste. As a second choice, you can also substitute (blended) instant tapioca pearls. Or, simply don’t worry about it, and enjoy a saucier pie!