When my sister was a kid, she somehow acquired a cooking toy the internet tells me was called “McDonald’s Happy Meal Magic: Pie Maker.” Released in 1993 (feeling old yet?), it allowed the user – with parental guidance, to be sure – to create a small pocket snack that, at least in inspiration, vaguely approximated the fast food giant’s classic dessert. The “pies” this toy made can’t have been very good; from what I recall, they consisted of a piece of store-bought bread, crusts removed, that you rolled out thin and topped with a small hill of fruit filling (I remember applesauce; my sister recalls jam). You then folded the bread over the filling, placed it in a little box-like contraption and, upon forceful application of the lid, squashed and crimped it into submission. You could then sprinkle on some cinnamon sugar, and eat it immediately.
The problem with this, aside from the fact that it doesn’t sound very appetizing anymore, was that after going to all the trouble of removing crusts, rolling out, squashing and crimping, my mom would only let us eat one or two at a time. And I can’t imagine they would keep well.
Regardless of practicality or flavor, though, I remember this being a lot of fun. There was a satisfaction to assembly-line production of “dessert” items that, though not as prolific as Lucy and Ethel’s experience, meant we had the ability (if not the permission) to create high volumes of sweets.
This was my introduction, though I didn’t realize it, to hand pies. A sweet rejoinder to pasties, flaky dough encases a fruity filling in a single serving that, true to its name, can be picked up (once it has cooled enough, of course) and eaten straight out of hand. It can also, of course, be topped with a scoop of ice cream, or drizzled with caramel, or a dozen other plate-and-fork applications, but the glory of being able to lift one straight off of a baking sheet and walk away utensil-free is worth noting.
A mid-winter pie should be sweet, yes, but it should also be tart and bright to wake up your sluggish, post-holiday self. I decided on apple and cranberry. I always buy a few extra bags of cranberries when they are on sale in November and December, and stow them in the freezer in case I get early spring cravings for cranberry sauce.
The dough for hand pies needs to be easy to manipulate, since you’ll be rolling and cutting and folding and crimping, so I went with the cream cheese dough I’ve been dabbling with lately – it is a moist dough, so it doesn’t tear as easily as some, and the cream cheese as well as butter keeps it fairly tender even when you work it a bit.
The filling is lightly adapted from Joy the Baker’s Apple Cranberry Crumble pie. In addition to the classic procedure – toss the apples with sugar, cinnamon, lemon juice – Joy includes two extra steps: let the apples macerate for thirty minutes or so, to create a puddle of sweet, spiced juices. Rather than just dump this into a pie shell, in a stroke of genius, you bubble the juices down with some butter to create a thick, syrupy caramel, which you promptly stir back into the fruit before filling your crust. You end up with a slightly less wet filling, which is a fine thing on the mess front, and a deeper, more developed flavor. I took the liberty, and I think Joy would approve, of adding a few tablespoons of bourbon to my juice mixture before I boiled it down into a syrup.
These are lovely little pockets of sweet tartness. In the time it takes the crust to go pale gold and fluff up into pockets of flakiness, the small chunks of apples and coarsely chopped cranberries swimming in syrupy cinnamon caramel have time to cook through, but not turn to mush. Your only enemies here are time and heat – as with all butter-based pie crusts, if the butter in the dough warms up too much before it goes in the oven, the crust will not puff and flake, as the butter will melt right out of the dough before it has a chance to create layers of pastry. But you can surmount this by carefully moving back and forth between prep with the crust and the filling, making use of your fridge in between, and still put forth a dessert in about two hours. I brought one to N. to sample, and he returned ten minutes later with an empty plate and said “that was really, really good. Now I just want four more.” I didn’t tell him I’d already eaten two and was contemplating another.
Apple Cranberry hand pies
Makes 16 5-inch pies
Time: about 2 hours
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces cold full fat cream cheese
8 ounces cold unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into thin slices
3-4 tablespoons very cold water
3 large granny smith or other tart apples, peeled, cored, and cut into ¼-½ inch chunks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons bourbon (optional)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Flour, for dusting
Coarse sugar, to sprinkle
- To make the crust, pulse the flour, salt, and sugar in the belly of a food processor until evenly distributed (consider doing this in halves – my food processor could barely handle the whole quantity). Add the cream cheese and let the mixer run until the mixture is homogeneous – it will be the texture of barely moistened sand and stay together only a moment when pressed between thumb and fingertip, as in the photo above.
- Dump in the slices of butter and pulse in 1 second intervals until most of the butter is broken up and, when tested, the mixture stays together when pressed between thumb and fingertip.
- Drizzle in 3 tablespoons of the cold water and pulse again briefly once or twice. We are looking for the mixture to just start to come together into a rumbling ball in the belly of the machine. If the mixture seems too dry, add the last tablespoon of water and pulse again briefly to bring together.
- Stretch out a piece of plastic wrap on your countertop and dump the contents of the food processor onto it. Remove the blade and use the plastic wrap to help you shape the dough into a disc about 6 inches in diameter. Try to handle it as little as possible to keep it tender. Wrap it up and stow it in the fridge for at least an hour.
- While the crust chills, make the filling. Combine the apple chunks, lemon juice, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and ¼ teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Toss with a spatula or your fingers to evenly distribute the spicy, sugary coating. Gently maneuver the apples and their sugar and spice mixture into a fine mesh sieve and position this over the large bowl you were using, then set aside for at least 30 minutes (Joy says up to three hours, though I didn’t leave mine this long). The objective here is to catch the drippings.
- While the apples drip, preheat the oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove the pie crust disc from the fridge. Lightly flour a large board and a rolling pin, then unwrap the disc, divide it in half, and set half on the floured board. Pop the other half back into the fridge until you are ready for it. Using firm and deliberate strokes, roll out the first half of the dough into a rough circle about ¼ inch thick. Every few rolls, shift the dough circle around, flipping it and adjusting it on the board – this will minimize sticking. You can also add more flour if needed.
- With an even ¼ inch layer of dough, use a floured cutter or lip of a glass to cut the dough into circles. I went with 5 inches in diameter. To avoid extra stickiness or tearing the dough, press straight down without twisting. Once you have cut all the way through the dough, then you can twist the cutter a bit to loosen the round from the board.
- Once you have made all the circles you can, gather together your scraps and re-roll them – you want to do this as quickly as you can to prevent the butter from softening too much. Roll out and cut again, then repeat with the other half of the dough. Position your dough circles on the prepared baking sheets (it’s okay if they overlap – they won’t stick), and put them into the fridge to chill out again.
- Now turn back to the filling. When you have at least ½ cup of liquid from the apples, pour it into a small saucepan along with the 2 tablespoons butter and the bourbon, if using, and cook over medium-low heat until it becomes thick and syrupy, and only about ⅓ cup remains.
- While the apple drippings cook down, plop the apples back into the original large bowl. Using the same food processor you used for the crust (you can wash it out if you want – I usually just scrape out any big lingering bits), pulse up the cranberries until they are coarsely chopped. You can do this by hand if you want, but it is fairly messy.
- Add the cranberry pieces to the apple chunks in the large bowl, and toss them with the cornstarch until the cornstarch is no longer visible.
- When the apple drippings are reduced to a thick, syrupy caramel, pour it back over the fruit and toss gently to combine.
- Now, pull the prepared dough rounds out of the fridge (I’d do one baking sheet at a time), and add 1½-2 tablespoons filling to each 5-inch round of dough. You will be tempted to add more. Don’t do it! 1½, or a scant 2, tablespoons is all that can safely fit. If your rounds are smaller, you will, of course, need less filling. When all rounds are filled, you’ll likely have a tablespoon or 2 of filling left over.
- As you place each tiny pile of filling in the middle of the dough round, fold it in half and press the edges together with your forefinger and thumb. To seal each little half-moon package, set it down on the floured board or on your baking sheet and press down on the edges all the way around with the back of the tines of a fork.
- Settle each crescent evenly spaced on your baking sheet – you should be able to fit 8 per sheet without them touching each other. Slash the top of each one lightly with a knife to give an escape valve for steam, and if desired, sprinkle on a pinch or two of coarse sugar before levering them into the oven.
- Bake at 400F for 25-30 minutes, until the crusts are puffed and golden brown, and possibly a bit of gooey syrup escapes from the less-carefully-crimped edges.
- Cool for at least 10 minutes before digging in. They are perfect on their own, but I suspect a scoop of vanilla ice cream wouldn’t hurt matters…