Whoever coined the cliche “as easy as pie” obviously never made one.
Perfect crust — flaky yet sturdy — eludes even gourmet cooks. Too much mixing or molding, and it’s like cardboard. Too little — or a water deficit — and it’s impossible to roll out so it will fit the pan.
My mother taught me how to make crust, just as her mom taught her. I’m fairly proficient now, but the road to competence was rocky: During one particularly frustrating session, I was poised to throw a large dough ball at the kitchen wall until my husband intervened.
Fruit filling is also fraught with pitfalls. How small should the pieces be? With peels or without? How much sugar will make it sweet enough, yet won’t produce too much juice?
So given all the elements you must consider, it’s also no piece of cake to choose the perfect apple pie from several contenders.
But that was our task for the latest Omaha’s Great Grub search. In honor of fall, we tried six apple pies to determine a favorite.
The team this month had a special guest: My husband, James. Think of it as a reward for successfully defusing my long-ago pie tantrum without getting coated in dough. Apple, he says, is his favorite pie by far. (Mine is rhubarb.)
He joined me and two other regulars: World-Herald colleagues Kiley Cruse, a reporter and editor, and Nick Cavallaro, projects manager.
Our pie preferences didn’t always mesh. James likes traditional crust — he’s not fond of crumb toppings or caramel glazes.
“I am an apple pie purist,” he said.
Kiley likes spice — especially cinnamon — but not too much. But she’s not a fan of cloves (more on that in a bit.)
Nick pays attention to the crust, but is more focused on the fruit.
“I’m a real fan of apples,” he said.
And I won’t turn down a piece of apple pie, but it’s not my go-to. I usually find it too sweet.
Despite all that, we agreed that two pies stood out from the crowd, though all six had certain qualities that would make them someone’s favorite.
Both came from cottage bakers, people who create in their home kitchens.
Linda Lichtenwalter calls her business The Pie Fairy, and her $35 salted caramel apple pie is indeed magical. It had the most flaky and buttery crust of any we tried and a deep brown caramel topping that clearly wasn’t plucked off a grocery store shelf.
The apples were cut thin and remained a bit crisp after baking, which pleased Nick. They also were placed in meticulous layers, which pleased Kiley. The extreme buttery taste pleased James — it definitely made the crumble top unlike any he had tried.
And the bottom crust was perfectly cooked and flaky, which pleased us all.
“This is a pie where all the components add great flavor but allow the apples to shine,” Kiley said. “It held together so well, you could have picked it up and eaten it by hand.”
I was a big fan of the caramel, which was latticed across the top of the pie. Maybe apple pie is my favorite, I thought as I devoured it.
Lichtenwalter said she makes the caramel from scratch, slow-cooking sugar until it’s liquified, then adding butter, cream and vanilla extract.
She learned how to bake from her grandparents and her great-grandparents, who were all professionals. Then she fine-tuned that education as the pastry chef at Modern Love for five years. She’s been out on her own since 2016 and now operates The Pie Fairy with her fiancé, Chris Larkin, who’s also a baker (he specializes in savory treats). They make much more than pies — cakes, cookies, bread, etc.
She revealed one secret to her pie success.
“I am a fan of the all-butter crust,” she said. “I know some who do half butter, and my grandmother probably used lard. That was common back then.”
The Cake Rendezvous pie had an equally excellent crust.
“In my mind this was one of the top pies in terms of looks,” Kiley said. “It was decorated with mini leaf cutouts and was perfectly and evenly golden brown. (And the crust) was probably the best we tasted — just enough salt to bring out the flavor, and super-flaky.”
It’s also “super, super simple,” said baker Brittany Gubbels, who makes pies on request but actually specializes in wedding cakes (hence the name of her business.)
“I feel like less is more. You don’t need many ingredients in the crust,” she said. “The key is in the mixing. With pie dough, you don’t need to overmix. (Ingredients) should be fully incorporated but not too much.”
She also liberally uses a spice most of us struggled to immediately identify, though James knew it from his first bite.
“It’s cloves,” he said.
She was reluctant to give away secrets, but Gubbels verified that when I told her what we thought it was.
James, she said, “has good taste buds.”
The spice was somewhat divisive for the team. It kept Kiley from giving the pie unconditional love — “the tingle of the cloves hung on my tongue for a while after we were done,” she said. Nick also found it a bit overwhelming but was a big fan of the crust.
James, on the other hand, was startled by the cloves at first but said the taste grew on him the more he ate.
“Definitely not a deal-breaker,” he said.
The pie was his clear favorite, partly because it had a traditional crust and not crumbles on the top. For me, it was tied for first.
Gubbels said she loves old cookbooks and that’s where she found the recipe. She decided to up the spice ratio to make it her own. She also uses a mix of apples, both tart and sweet.
“I am definitely about the old school,” she said. “I might be younger but don’t underestimate me.”
At $39, her pie was among the most expensive of the six.
We found plenty to like in the other pies we tried.
Vala’s Pumpkin Patch has a $30 salted caramel apple pie that’s popular with social media posters. We would try it again.
Even with the caramel, James said he thought it was a contender.
“It has a balanced apple taste, cinnamon-y but not too much,” he said.
“If you love caramel,” this is definitely your pie,” Kiley said. “The little bit of salt on top cut the sweetness perfectly.”
She also said the crust on top didn’t get too soggy despite the abundant sauce. The bottom, however, would have benefited from being pre-baked, she said.
We all agreed that the filling was the most mushy of all of the pies — the apples were definitely well-cooked.
The Pie Whole offers a $40 lattice-top pie that’s beautiful, with cutouts of hearts and butterflies on top. It was almost too cute to cut.
We all agreed it could have used more spice, but thought the apples were among the most appealing of all we tried.
“Despite being sliced thin, they still had a nice crunch,” Kiley said.
Nick — the big apple fan — agreed.
“These were some of the best,” he said. “The cook on the apples was perfection.”
A couple of people on the team thought the crust tasted like it had wheat flour in it and weren’t thrilled. But others found the crust just fine.
Gnome Baked Goods was a late entry into the search. The owner had a couple of 5-inch pies left over from the Omaha Farmer’s Market on a rainy day and was offering on Facebook to deliver them to a buyer for $20.
Why not, I thought.
It was a good move. The tart apple filling was a hit, especially with James and Nick, who said the pie was one of his favorites.
And we all thought they paired well with the crumb topping.
“These mini-pies are adorable,” Kiley said. “The proportion of apples to crumb topping was spot on.”
The crust itself could have used salt, and it was too thick around the edge of the pie plates, we agreed.
Breeze Bakery’s $24 pie was in a round aluminum cake pan, making it difficult to cut in one piece because we couldn’t slide the pie server under the bottom crust. It was also extremely juicy, which made that crust nearly disappear in some places.
That didn’t matter to some.
“Despite the excess moisture, this pie still had a lot to offer,” Nick said. “The classic elements are all accounted for, and the apples were nice and crispy.”
It lost a few points with Kiley and James because the apples still had their peels, but that wasn’t an issue for Nick or me.
Our cordial agreements ultimately were not surprising, considering what we learned on our two-week journey:
There are as many opinions about pie as there are varieties of apples.
People usually don’t budge on those beliefs, even when pressed. That makes consensus difficult.
But in the end, there are way worse ways to spend a workday than eating — and talking about — pie.