Pie Baking Tips for Thanksgiving

By Kristin Boza 

Baking the perfect pie takes practice and patience and a bit of scientific strategy to nail down the ultimate ratio of flavors in the filling. So, making a pie isn’t exactly as “easy as pie.” 

Beverly/Morgan Park resident Reba Cafarelli is a self-proclaimed amateur baker, but she has truly perfected the art of pie making. Her love of baking began as a child when she helped her mother in the kitchen.  

“A lot of my baking know-how and instinct can be traced back to my mom. I became interested in pies on my own when I opened up one of my Bon Appétit magazines and saw a recipe I knew I had to try,” she said. “I have been going back to that same recipe over and over again, and it’s been a great tool to hone my crust making skills.” 

Cafarelli’s signature pie from that magazine is a blueberry-ginger double crust pie. “The crust recipe is so delicious and buttery, and is described as ‘rustic’ which appeals to my Type B personality,” she said. “The best part about it is that other filling combinations follow the same formula of fruit/sugar/cornstarch/acid, so the door is open for experimentation.” Despite being a “rule follower,” she has created delectable strawberry-lemon and triple berry-basil fillings based off of that recipe. 

Thanksgiving at the Cafarelli house is filled with the scents of pie, particularly the crowd-pleasing pumpkin. But she’s most excited to perfect her apple pie. “I absolutely love the aroma of any type of apple and cinnamon pastry baking in the oven this time of year. It evokes feelings of comfort, coziness, and I think it’s the way to end a Thanksgiving feast,” she said.  

Troubleshooting Pie Mishaps 

Cafarelli cautions that the crust is the most difficult part of making a stand-out pie, and it takes a lot of restraint to proceed slowly. “It’s essential to keep the ingredients as cold as possible while working with them. I have found that the extra step of using a stainless steel or metal bowl that has been chilled in the fridge helps to keep ingredients cold,” she said. “I also like to find a ‘cold spot’ on my counter when rolling the crust. One time I was having a lot of trouble with this step and it turns out I was trying to roll out the crust above the running dishwasher, which was heating up the counter.” 

Even the forks and pastry cutters used to mix the dough must be kept at an icy temperature, and Cafarelli stresses to move fast if you’re using your hands to knead the dough. However, she found that using her hands is better to flatten out the chunks of butter into flat disks, resulting in a coveted flaky crust. She avoids using frozen fruits, as she found through trial and error that that results in a soggy crust due to an excess of water released during baking. 

Another common mistake is overfilling the pie crust. Cafarelli admits it’s tempting to pile the filling in high, but it often results in a lot of spillover into the oven. Always place a cookie sheet in the oven, underneath the pie dish, to catch any drippings that may bubble over. 

Finishing Touches 

Cafarelli prefers to use a double-crust pie, where a second layer of crust is placed over the filling. “It keeps things simple and gives a more buttery crunch in every bite of pie,” she said. A great finishing touch is adding cut out shapes made of the dough to the top of the pie. “For Fourth of July, I used a star-shaped cookie cutter to create an overlapping star pattern all over the top of the pie. For Thanksgiving this year, I may try to do the same with a leaf-shaped cookie cutter,” she said. 

One finishing touch Cafarelli insists upon is using Demerara sugar, which is a large-grained, brown colored, and raw sugar with a caramel-like flavor. “Before placing the pie in the oven, I brush the crust with an egg wash and sprinkle it with a generous amount of Demerara sugar. It helps to create a beautiful golden-brown finish and adds extra crunch and sweetness to every bite,” Cafarelli said. 

Ready to make a pie? Look for Cafarelli’s favorite pie crust recipe at www.bonappetit.com