Pros share their best pie-making secrets in the lead up to the holidays

Three Canadian experts talk ingredients, trends and how to make a better pie.

Three Canadian experts talk ingredients, trends and how to make a better pie

(Courtesy of Milk & Honey Pie Co., photo by Christine Lim)

For holiday parties and Sunday night dinners alike, it can be argued that there's nothing quite as comforting and delicious as freshly-made pie for dessert. Whether you're someone that bakes once a year, or you're the unofficial pie-maker in your extended clan, there are always new recipes to test, and buzzy trends to try when it comes to both filling and crust.

Ahead of the holiday season (aka pie prime time!), we spoke with three Canadian dessert and pastry experts — Marla Boehr of Milk & Honey Pie Co., Stephanie French of The Pie Shoppe, and baking maven (and CBC "Princess of Pie") Arlene Lott — to find out their pie-making secrets, must-have ingredients, and top tips for improving your next homemade pie. After all, with such a simple-seeming dessert, it's all about skillful execution and precise use of the best ingredients. 

Bake with in-season fruit — and the right kind of apples

"The best apples come out this time of year, and the hard ones are really good for baking," explains French, who runs The Pie Shoppe in East Vancouver with her sister, Andrea. "You've got eating apples, and then you have baking apples — out East, I would go for a Cortland apple, which is one of my favourites." For Toronto-based baking-expert Lott, too, using the right apples makes a difference, "I prefer Northern Spy; spy is for pies, as Mom used to say."

For something very seasonal, runway model turned pie entrepreneur Boehr recommends baking with cranberries. "I love using cranberries at Christmas time because they are so vibrantly red," says Boehr. "They pair well with pears and apples, and you can also sugar them for an elegant topping on a custard or pumpkin pie."

Don't be afraid to experiment with new recipes and unexpected flavours

(Courtesy of Milk & Honey Pie Co., photo by Christine Lim)

At Milk & Honey Pie Co., Boehr bakes both classic fruit pies and more unique offerings like Lavender Mixed Berry and Chai Apple. "We love experimenting with new flavour profiles," says Boehr, who recommends these fresh ideas for making a classic pie more exciting: adding spirits such as whisky or bourbon to a recipe for flavour, incorporating a hint of savoury herbs like sage or basil to fruit fillings, and garnishing pies with interesting toppings like salted caramel (on an apple pie) and marshmallow cream (on a sweet potato pie).

Buy the best ingredients you can find

This might seem like an obvious point; but, as French points out, since pie-making involves such small quantities of a handful of ingredients, it doesn't actually cost much more to splurge on nicer ingredients like organic flour. "You don't need a big bag of flour, you just need a couple of cups to make a pie," says French. "Organic flour costs a buck or two a pound, but doesn't have bleach or chlorine in it."

At The Pie Shoppe, French sources produce and many pie components directly from farmers and makers, including distilleries and salt harvesters. She strongly advocates for that approach when it comes to ingredients, whether it's buying local products from the corner store or visiting holiday crafts markets for artisanal honey or salt. "[We use] organic flour and the best ingredients we can find, and that's what we believe in — we believe in these artisans and craftspeople making nice stuff," says French. "Across Canada, there's an incredible insurgence of makers who are just honing in on their craft, and whatever city you're in I think it's important to find those people and incorporate them into your holidays."

These pros prefer butter

"I grew up making lard crusts, which are delicious and ever so flaky — my grandmother had the best recipe!" says Boehr. "Now, I generally prefer an all butter crust because you can't beat its depth of flavor or the way it browns in the oven." 

French, too, espouses the benefits of rendering lard — or sourcing it from one's local butcher shop — to make pastries, but prefers to use butter for many of The Pie Shoppe's creations because not all of her customers can consume pork products. "Sweet butter is nice, one without added salt; when you're making your pastry just add a pinch of salt," French advises. "And you don't have to buy the good stuff [like the organic] or grass-fed butter, or the butter from France, just go to your local shop and buy some fresh butter."

(Courtesy of Milk & Honey Pie Co., photo by Christine Lim)

...but it's also possible to make a good, vegan pie crust

For vegans and individuals who are lactose intolerant, French recommends Earth Balance products as an alternative. "It's a really nice butter substitute that's a vegan product, it's plant-based and you can get it at most health food stores," says French. "You can make a buttery-textured pastry with it; it tastes nice, is not super oily, and makes a nice crust."

Make the freezer your friend

Boehr recommends using your freezer for dough preparation and storage. "Always keep butter as cold as possible; freeze rolled out and fluted crusts for at least 30 minutes before baking so they maintain their shape in the oven," she says. Boehr also suggests batch-making your dough in advance for convenience: "Freeze it either in balls or rolled out and crimped in the pie tin, double wrapped with plastic wrap. That way, it is so much easier to whip up a pie, or quiche, when the mood strikes." 

Whatever you do, don't overwork your dough

At The Pie Shoppe's hands-on pie-making workshops, which are held seasonally, the most common questions and challenges have to do with making a great, flaky crust. "People really tend to overwork their pastry; they work it so hard and it turns into cardboard," says French, who advises that you keep an eye on the texture of the dough, try not to add too much water, and move gently when you're breaking up butter or mixing dough with your hands.

Lott agrees that you should treat pastry with care, but also advises showing it who's in charge. "Don't over handle it; you want to be really light with the touch," she says. "It's more about being confident with it, because the worst that can happen at the end of it all is that you still have a pie — so don't panic."

For easy decoration, use cookie cutters...

For novice bakers, Lott recommends using cookie cutters to decorate your pies. "If you're afraid of getting the top crust right, just roll out your pastry, use your cookie cutter, and cut out a bunch of shapes and lay those on top of your pie," says Lott. "That will take the stress out of trying to move pastry around, or laying the whole thing over without tearing it." She also recommends simple geometric arrangements to start. "Think of your pie like a clock: place your cookie cutter shapes at 12 and 6, 3 and 9 — just start evenly spacing them out and it will automatically look like you know what you're doing." 

For a more advanced creation, use cake decorating tools

On social media at least, Lott has noticed the appearance of many ornate, decorative pies. "The pie game is out of control right now; people are using what are normally cake decorating tools in the pie ornamentation world," says Lott. "Things like fondant cutters and little things that will make fondant or gum paste details like you might see on really elaborate wedding cakes, people are starting to use those to press their pastry, and use them as decorative elements on their pies."

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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