You Don't Need to Be a Pastry Chef to Make Impressive Pies
I will never sit here and tell you that making a pie isn’t intimidating, especially for less experienced bakers. Compared to a more approachable dessert, like chocolate chip cookies or brownies, pie has a lot of moving parts to get right. The bottom crust needs to be flakey and not soggy, the top crust should be cooked through but not burnt, the filling shouldn't be soupy but also not overly set and gelatinous or goopy. And on top of all that you’re supposed to make it look nice too??
I get it, it’s a lot. That said, making a pie that’ll impress the pants off of anyone you serve it to (including yourself) is not unattainable, even for a first-time pie maker.
As long as you have a dependable recipe in hand to guide you, baking up something special really comes down to the details. And the good thing about making pie is that unlike say, doing your taxes, the details are legitimately the best part—and totally subject to your creativity. There are plenty of easy ways to set your pie apart from the pack that don’t require a culinary degree. Here are a few of my standbys:
Don’t Forget the Finishing Touches
If you’re already comfortable with your dough-working skills to pull off a classic double-crusted pie, with or without lattice work, two of the tiniest finishing touches imaginable can take your work of pastry art to another level.
- Egg Wash: Simply whisk one egg with a splash of water in a small dish. Before your assembled pie makes its way into the oven, use a pastry brush to shellack the exposed crust (i.e. the top crust and crimped edges) with a light coating of the egg wash. It will give your pie the beautiful golden-brown sheen that pies in bakery cases and magazine photos have. You can achieve a similar effect after the pie has baked using apricot jelly that’s been thinned with a bit of warm water.
- Turbinado Sugar: To take the glitz a step further, after you’ve brushed your pie with egg wash, sprinkle evenly with a couple pinches of turbinado sugar. The coarse sugar granules will make your pie dazzle and provide crunchy textural intrigue.
Go for a Less Fussy Topping
Yes, I believe you can make a beautiful lattice top on your next fruit-filled pie if you want to, but you may not feel like tackling and mastering that play right now, and that's totally fine. You still deserve a gorgeous pie that summons “oohs” and “ahhs” from a crowd. And that’s what ye shall have! Give one of these topping tricks a try:
- Streusel: Besides being way-easy (definitely easier than dealing with any form of top crust) and aesthetically appealing, a streusel topping, particularly for a fresh fruit pie, makes your pie more delicious than even the fanciest lattice could. Look, buttery sugar clumps are a delicious thing… especially when you throw a dash of cinnamon and some nuts into the mix. So you’re following a blueberry pie recipe that calls for a second crust on top—so what? It’s your pie and if you don’t want to fuss with that second crust, toss your second dough disc into the freezer for another time and pile this simple pecan streusel on instead.
*Note: If using a streusel topping for a fruit pie, wait until the last 25 minutes of baking to add the topping or plan to cover the pie with foil after about 15-20 minutes of baking.
- Cut-Out Shapes: An easy (and fun) way to apply a top crust that’s just as visually stunning as a lattice, is to roll out the dough and cut out shapes that you can layer onto the top of your pie. You can do this using small cookie cutters or freehand it with a sharp paring knife. You can cover the entire top of the pie (the small space between the shapes will be enough to allow steam to escape) or just a portion. It’s your party, cover what you want to.
- Other Edible Embellishments: You can dress up pies that traditionally don’t call for a double crust (like custard-filled pies) by arranging edible garnishes on top. Even the simplest ingredients can become a wowing pie accent when decoratively applied. The look and level of precision you feel like applying is entirely up to you. For example, a simple border of sliced almonds gives this Chai Carrot Pie an elegant boost. Or take a page from Lauren Ko with her geometric fruit designs and create a similar abstract effect with pieces of chocolate bark. Lean in hard to your Type-A side for a precise pattern like with this Chessame Pie. Layer on some sliced citrus. Or even just a dollop or swoosh of whipped cream can add major curb appeal to your pie.
Skip the Premade, Refrigerated Dough
Even if you’re the least confident pie baker on the planet, I can promise you that you’re going to be better off if you bypass the refrigerated box of roll-out crusts. That doesn’t mean you have to make dough from scratch, though. As we learned in our premade pie dough taste test, the real pro move is (when you don’t want to make a pie crust) grabbing a Mrs. Smith’s deep-dish frozen pie shell. This saves you from any crust crimping anxiety, and if you don’t tell anyone it’s not from scratch, they’re not gonna ask. Plus, you can apply one of the easy toppers mentioned above, like a nice streusel, to give your dessert a real homemade touch. The result is a pie that looks and tastes like a professional made it, but it low-key took you like ten minutes to throw together. NICE JOB, Chef.
And if you want a happy medium between making a pastry crust from scratch and going store-bought, consider making a crumb crust pie. And then, consider adding something a little something special to your crumbs. For example, add cheffy umph to a cookie crumb crust by adding some crushed nuts to the mix, like we do here in our perfect key lime pie.
Use Tiny Tweaks for Tastier Filling
There are certain little rules of thumb I’ve picked up through baking so many pies, and I usually apply them to whatever recipe I’m following. These tiny changes aren’t risky to the success of your pie, but they will set it apart from other pies.
- Amp up the vanilla: Whatever the filling, as long as it feels right, increase the amount of vanilla extract called for by up to a quarter teaspoon. That’s enough to gracefully matter, but not draw too much attention. If your recipe doesn’t call for vanilla at all (again, if it feels right), add a splash. What’s the worst that could happen?
- Add more salt: The majority of baking recipes you will encounter in life could stand a pinch more salt. After all, it intensifies the other flavors. Rather than a perfectly measured ½ teaspoon, make it a slightly heaping one. You’re not gonna overdo it, I promise.
- Get zesty: Most fruit pie recipes will call for a little bit of citrus juice, likely lemon. That’s great, and while you're at it, add the fruit’s zest to the filling too. This provides the more delicate floral notes that citrus fruit has to offer.
- Swap your thickening agent: Especially in fruit pies, I highly recommend the all-purpose flour used for thickening the fruits’ juices in your filling for tapioca starch (you can do a one-for-one swap). Tapioca starch leaves no trace of flavor as flour often does.
See, most people aren’t going off-book when it comes to baking; however, you aren’t most people and you now have a few low-risk, high-reward tricks up your sleeve. So get after it, you lean, mean, pie-baking machine.