One of the biggest challenges of cooking for two, for me anyway, has been finding ways to experiment with desserts and baked goods. Most people I know would just bake a cake if they felt so inclined, then just keep it around and gradually eat it over the course of a few days or a week. But, truth be told, neither J nor I have ever had a particularly strong sweet tooth, and although we enjoy having dessert once in awhile we tend to lose interest and let things go to waste if we have a lot of a single thing sitting around. And since we’ve been making a concerted effort to improve our eating habits over the past year and a half or so, even if I were able to produce some fantastic sweet treat that we could both eat forever without getting sick of it, we wouldn’t allow ourselves the indulgence.
Of course this doesn’t stop me from baking on a relatively regular basis, and both of our workplaces have gotten rather spoiled from being gifted with our leftovers (apparently I have something of a reputation at J’s office, and anything he brings in disappears in half an hour, tops). This is particularly easy to do when it comes to things like muffins, quickbreads, biscuits and scones, and even yeasted breads, as they can all travel well and can be either baked in individual-sized portions or divided with ease. These types of things have made up the vast bulk of my baking experiments for nearly three years.
But, there’s so many other things I want to try! I’ll always love making muffins but sometimes, I just want to do something different and challenge myself a bit. But the additional challenge is always finding a way for J and I to enjoy something new, without ending up drowning in custard and buttercream for a week.
My favorite solution to this problem is to bake in miniature.
Now, I have a particular fondness for all things tiny, so I don’t mind much that miniaturizing regular desserts almost always creates twice as much work. Some folks would balk at that, and understandably so, I think – making these itty-bitty apple pies took me a LONG time last weekend, and there are a lot of other things I could have done with that time. But the finished result was absolutely worth it: buttery, flaky, peppery crust filled with sweetly spiced diced apples and topped with decorative pie-crust cutouts, each one just the right size for a single diner’s after-dinner sugar fix. J and I were each able to have one the day I made them, and the rest were packed away in tupperware and carried into the office the next morning, to be devoured by my coworkers before 10am. I consider those hours in the kitchen to be time well spent.
Of course, I ended up making too much apple filling, and had to use it up by (you guessed it) baking muffins. I think I’ll just have to accept eventually that my destiny lies in a muffin tin.
Miniature Apple Pies
I made these pies using the excess half-batch of dough made for this weeks Barefoot Bloggers challenge, to which I had added a generous amount of kosher salt and black pepper, so my crust was savory rather than sweet. However, I very much enjoy the interplay of savory and sweet in a dessert, probably because my tolerance for sugar is a little on the low side, so I actually thought the crust was perfect for this. You can, of course, use your favorite pie crust recipe, or use store-bought. I promise to look the other way if you do.
Also, as I said, I had way too much pie filing when I made these, so I’m guesstimating on how much you’ll ACTUALLY need. I’d recommend making extra though, just to be safe, because there will always be uses for sugared and spiced apples. Put them on yogurt, or in some oatmeal, or just eat them straight out of the bowl. Or, you know. Make some muffins.
Pie Crust Dough (you’ll need about the same amount that you’d use for a single-crust pie, whether its homemade or store-bought)
2 medium-sized baking apples (granny smiths are common, but I used a couple of massive sweet Mutsus that we’d picked ourselves a couple weeks ago)
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground clove
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Spray the cups of a standard 12-cup muffin tin with non-stick baking spray (I’m a big fan of Pam For Baking, myself) or butter and flour them.
Peel and core the apples and cut into a small dice, somewhere between 1/2″ and 1/4″. Place in a bowl with the lemon juice, brown sugar, and dry spices. Stir to coat every piece of apple with the sugar and spice mixture, then set aside to macerate while you prep the dough.
Roll our your pie dough so that its slightly less than 1/4″ thick. Using a round cookie cutter thats slightly bigger in diameter than the muffin cups, cut out 12 rounds of pie dough. Collect the scraps and reroll if necessary.
At this point, if you’d like to decorate your finished pies with crust cutouts, roll out whats left of your scrap and use miniature cookie cutters to make itty bitty crust cookies (or, freehand it with a sharp knife). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place them an inch or two apart. They can be baked as-is or brushed with an egg wash and sprinkled with sugar for a crunchy sweet topping (this is what I did). I recommend turbinado sugar.
Now here is the slightly tricky part. Carefully lift each round of dough and place into one of the cups of the muffin tin, and use your fingers to very gently press it into the bottom of the cup, making sure its flush to the bottom and sides with no air bubbles but not tearing it. You may need to work the dough further up the sides of the cups by pressing it upwards with your fingers. I won’t lie, this is a fiddly bit of work and its very easy to end up with holes. The good news is that its easy enough to patch those holes by tearing off little bits of dough from your inevitable pile of scrap and just pressing them into the crusts to seal. Just be sure that you do patch any holes that appear, or you’ll have pie filling running all over the place when the pies are baked.
Once all your little dough rounds are in and you have a tray full of mini pre-pies, take a fork and prick the crusts all over to allow steam to escape – this is called “docking” and will prevent bubbles from forming in the crust when you parbake it. But don’t worry, these holes won’t be big enough to cause filling-leakage.
Slide the muffin tin (and the baking sheet with your cutouts, if you made them) into the oven and bake for about 10 minutes, until the crusts are just starting to crisp up and take on some golden brown color – this will prevent them from getting soggy bottoms when they’re baked with the filling. Remove from the oven and set the baking sheet with the cutouts aside to cool. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of apple filling into each crust (or more, if necessary – you want the filling to be rather mounded, as it will cook down and become more compact after it bakes, so if you need to go back and add a bit more to each one after filling them all, go ahead). Spoon any syrup that’s collected at the bottom of the bowl over the pies for a little extra moisture and flavor.
Return to the oven for another 15-20 minutes, until the filling is hot and bubbling and the edges of the crusts are a nice rich golden brown. Remove from the oven and let stand in the muffin tin for a moment to cool – now would be a good time to add the crust cut-outs, so that they’ll stick while the filling is still warm and gooey. Then remove the pies to a wire rack to cool completely. Or, eat immediately, if you’re so inclined. Mmmmm, warm-from-the-oven apple pie.
Remember, these are designed specifically for sharing, so spread the love! Give some to a neighbor or invite some friends over, or just do what I did and bring them into work. I guarantee, people will love you.
Optional: If the pie-crust cutouts are a little too fussy for you, you could bake the pies “naked” or make a streusel topping from some cold butter, flour, brown sugar, and oats if you like them. Just top the pies with streusel when you fill them, and they’ll bake up with a sweet and crunchy topping that everyone will love. I do not, however, recommend actually making these double-crust pies – in their diminutive size, the ratio of crust to filling would be way off.