On the menu for week 2:  pie dough and apple pie.

The second week of baking class began with a demonstration of pie crust and the preparation for apple pie filling. Having practiced making pie dough in our first class, we were all ready to put our previous lesson to the test.

After a rush to weigh and measure out ingredients, we started by peeling our apples for the filling. I was very impressed with how easily I was able to peel my apples with my brand new peeler. While I’ve always used a paring knife, our instructor suggested using a peeler. His reasoning was that often with a paring knife, too much of the apple flesh is removed along with the peel. This results in the loss of valuable pectin, which is a natural thickener in apples. While the peeler isn’t necessary, I removed far less apple flesh than when I usually use a paring knife. So either I become more skilled with the paring knife or I embrace my new peeler!

Once the apples were peeled and sliced, we mixed them with sugar, cinnamon and a substance I had never encountered before:  modified cornstarch. More on that later.

Because I nicked myself slightly while slicing my apples, I was a bit hampered when it came time to put the dough together. My partner (we’re paired up in baking class) and I both tried to get involved in pulling together the dough but this only resulted in us adding a bit too much liquid and over mixing. That’s the other important tip for that day’s class:  don’t over mix your dough! While our dough had come together, it was too moist.

Our instructor quickly noticed our dilemma and helped us out by throwing in a bit more flour. We were then able to proceed without any other significant problems. But the resulting pie, while tasty, did have a tougher crust than I would have liked. This is a result of over mixing and having to add more flour.

Overall I was pleased with my apple pie. I’m not used to making pie crusts with shortening, but with practice I know I can get better at it. We used Spartan apples for our pies and this was another revelation. At home we’ve always used a combination of Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and McIntosh apples. I was pleasantly surprised by how good the Spartan apple filling was and by how well the apples held together. I missed the hint of nutmeg that we always add to our pies, but that’s a matter of personal taste.

I really enjoyed this class and am looking forward to trying my new pie crust recipe and technique this summer when berry season hits. I was, however, disappointed in one aspect of the class. As I mentioned above, the apple pie filling recipe that we followed required modified cornstarch.

I had no idea what modified cornstarch was so I pulled down my new favourite book in the world, On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, and did some reading. Cornstarch is a type of starch made from the maize grain. It’s often used as a thickener in cooking in the same way that people would use flour. When a starch like cornstarch is modified, it means that it has either been made from corn that has been purposely bred to yield a grain that will result in a more reliable form of cornstarch, or that the cornstarch has been treated, possibly with chemicals, to alter the structure of the starch molecules in order to make it an even better thickener.

Our instructor explained that modified cornstarch is widely used in commercial baking because it’s so reliable and produces a consistent filling every time. When a few students noted that they had used flour in the past, the concern was raised that using flour may result in your filling having a flour-taste, even after the pie is cooked.

While the apple filling tasted good, its consistency was very different from that of the pies that we usually bake at home. My mother has been baking apple pies for 30 years and she’s always used a bit of flour in the filling. And I have never tasted the flour after the pie has been cooked. Never.

With my pie, I found that the modified cornstarch made the pie filling taste a lot like the filling you get from a can. While the apple flavour was enjoyable, the texture was sort of weird. There was a gel-like consistency to it that was slightly unpleasant, especially once the pie cooled. At the risk of sounding immodest, I’ll take my mom’s apple pie filling any day over one made with modified cornstarch.

Now don’t get me wrong. I understand that all sorts of ingredients are used in baking, especially commercial baking, that we wouldn’t necessarily use at home. But having tasted a lovely pie filling where the apples still taste like apples without being suspended in a thick, goopy sauce, why would I ever want to change that?

I’m really happy with the new pie crust recipe that I learned, as well as the mixing and rolling techniques that I’ve practiced over my first two classes. But as for the modified cornstarch … I’ll pass, thanks.

See you next class.


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