Pie Lessons from Cathy Thomas

Decades of making a signature Sour Cream Apple Pie have taught this cook tricks and shortcuts.

Sour Cream Apple Pie has been in my repertoire for decades. It is a long-loved recipe that is a diary of sorts, a record of breakthrough techniques, modified ingredients, and memories of cherished friendships. I cut the recipe out of the newspaper when I was 22, never dreaming that one day I would work for that paper’s rival.

Today’s version of this scrumptious pie is a far cry from the original. It’s easier to prepare, more beautiful to look at, and yes, more delicious. Here is a record of tips I’ve learned along the pie-making way:

Pie Crust Perfected:  At 22, I made pie crust using a fork or pastry cutter to cut cold butter into the flour, making the yellow stuff no larger than peas. It worked OK—I was young and patient. In the mid-1970s, the new-to-the-marketplace Cuisinart food processor took up residence on my kitchen counter. Pie crust became a cinch to prepare. Using the on-off pulse worked butter cutting magic in about 30 seconds.

Before the food processor, I always chilled the dough before rolling it out. Now the process goes so swiftly, I found that I could roll it out quickly without having problems if the work surface was prepped and ready to use before I started making the dough.

The baked crust is flakey and tender. Nice.

On The Move: The easy-peasy technique for moving the rolled-out crust from work surface to pie pan was taught to me by my friend Marianne Carter. Marianne grew up on her family’s dairy in Cerritos along with 10 siblings. Her mother baked daily and developed what I call the “dagger approach” to pie crust transfer.

In culinary school I learned to transfer the rolled-out dough by spiraling it around the flour-coated rolling pin. But Marianne’s method cuts the sheet of dough down the middle into halves, pieces that can be easily lifted and transferred side-by-side into the pie pan. Fingers easily press together the seam that is down the middle.

Why is it a better method? The two pieces ease into place better than a large sheet. There is less shrinkage when it is baked because there is less tension at the sides. (Watch the video to see how to make a ridge and then crimp it.)

Apple High Rise: The original recipe called for a smaller number of green apples. I increased the amount from four apples to six. The more generous amount of tart fruit balances beautifully with the crunchy-sweet topping. And I figured out a dandy way to prep the fruit. The sour cream mixture is blended in the food processor, then I switch to the slicing blade and slice the peeled apples, letting them fall into that creamy concoction below. The thinness of the slices makes it possible to mound the mixture into an apple mountain atop the crust.

Pie Shield’s Rescue: Somewhere in the ’80s, I discovered an easy way to retain a nicely browned edge of the crust. In the early days of pie making, I used pieces of aluminum foil to protect the crimped edge from over-browning in the oven. It was problematic, sometimes strips of foil moving out of place, sometimes covering too much of the filling.

A pie shield became an easy solution. It’s a ring made to fit around the outer edge of crust, early models made of metal, with later renditions made of silicone. The ring is placed on the pie once it reaches the desired degree of browning, generally placed on the pie after two-thirds of the baking time.

Pie Pleasures: Making a pie can be such a joy. If time is tight (or you don’t have a food processor), use a sheet of refrigerated pie crust. You have my blessing. Most supermarkets carry the Pillsbury brand packaged in long red boxes, usually stocked close to the butter. Trader Joe’s carries its own brand. To build a high ridge to crimp around the perimeter of the crust, use a portion of the second sheet in the package to augment the ridge.

Feel the bliss.

Sour Cream Apple Pie Cathy Thomas
Cathy Thomas’ Sour Cream Apple Pie.

Photo courtesy Cathy Thomas.

Crumb-Topped Sour Cream Apple Pie

Yield: 8 servings

Crust: 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour, pinch of salt and sugar, 1 stick cold butter cut into pieces, 1/4 cup ice water (no ice in measurement) – plus flour for dusting work surface and rolling pin


1 cup sour cream

3/4 cup sugar

Pinch salt

1 egg

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

6 medium-sized tart green apples, such as Granny Smiths, peeled, cored, and cut in half from top to bottom


1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) cold butter, cut into 4 pieces

Optional for serving: ice cream

Optional garnish: sprigs of fresh mint

  1. Adjust oven rack to middle position. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Prepare crust: Dust work surface and rolling pin with flour. Place 1 1/3 cups flour plus a pinch of salt and sugar in food processor fitted with metal blade. Process for 10 seconds. Add cold butter pieces and process pulsing on and off until butter is cut into small pieces, none of them larger than the size of peas. With motor running, add iced water in thin steam. Continue to process until dough starts to come together. Do not process until it forms a ball spinning around the blade – that will make the dough tough. Roll out on floured work surface. Cut dough in half down the center into two pieces (see video).
  3. Place pie crust in a 9-inch pie pan, pinching the two pieces together in center. Pinch dough to form a high ridge around the outside edge of the pan (to make it a uniform thickness, you may need to cut trimmed pieces from dough edge where it is too large). Crimp edges to form a high ridge. Use tines of fork to pierce small holes in bottom and sides of dough. Place on rimmed baking sheet.
  4. In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine sour cream, sugar, salt, egg, 2 tablespoons flour and vanilla; pulse until blended. Remove metal blade and insert medium slicing disc; slice apples. As the processor slices the apples, they will fall into the egg mixture at the bottom of the work bowl.
  5. Pour contents of work bowl into a large mixing bowl and toss to coat all slices. Place mixture in prepared pie crust mounding it up at the center. Place pie on rimmed baking sheet. Bake in middle of preheated oven 25 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, prepare the topping: In a clean food processor bowl fitted with the metal blade, combine brown sugar, flour and butter. Pulse until mixture resembles coarse crumbs; do not process until mixture forms a dough.
  7. Sprinkle topping on top of apple mixture. (Add a pie shield if edge of crust has browned.) Bake an additional 20 minutes. Serve warm. Accompany with ice cream, if desired. If desired, garnish with sprigs of fresh mint.

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