Apple Pie is considered to be the quintessential American dessert. Flaky pastry crust, soft apples with a little cinnamon... great warm or cool, especially with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a little whipped cream. This pie is very simple, and honestly, the less you try to dress it up, the better it usually is- provided you start with a good batch of apples...
It should go without saying that the keys to a great apple pie are the apples. You'll need good-tasting apples that have the amount of tartness and/or sweetness you're looking for. Many people claim that you'll get better result if you combine several different types of apples, but, on the other hand, there are so many great varieties of apples with very different characteristics, that you can make your pie that much more distinctive if you stick to a single type of apple- almost the same idea as a single-malt scotch versus a blended scotch. Good apples usually look nice- but don't count out apples that have a few blemishes- they are still "good" from our perspective.
The hard part about choosing apples is that you have to taste them before you really know how good they are. When you get them home, the first thing you should do is cut one open and have it for a snack to evaluate. Today I chose a batch of fuji apples- they usually have a nice sweetness, while retaining a nice balance of acidity and floral flavors. This batch was nice and sweet, the flavor almost had hints of caramel to it that felt right for a pie. The other reason to taste your apples is to help figure out how much (if any) sugar to add. I'm not opposed to adding sugar on principal, but I'd prefer not to, keeping with the idea that the less you mess with it, the better it is... In some cases, the apples may need a little help- in those cases, try to add as little sugar as possible- but in general, if you have good apples, you probably don't need any extra sugar.
Next comes the tedious part- peeling, coring, and slicing. Consider this part to be the cost of making a great pie. Depending on how large your apples are, you'll need anywhere from five to ten apples- I can't really advise on an exact amount- just make sure you buy more than you think you'll need. You'll want to pile your pie almost ridiculously high- the apples will cook down by half or more. When you slice your apples, try your best to make your slices all about the same thickness so they cook evenly. I've found that fairly thin slices (somewhere between 1/8 inch and 1/4 inch) work best. If you have a lot of apples to go through, drop your apple slices in a bowl of water spiked with a few drops of lemon juice to keep them from oxidizing and turning that unpleasant brown color.
Many people like to pre-cook their apples in a pan, but if you slice them reasonably thin, you won't need to. Drain your apple slices, then toss them with a little flour and cinnamon- again, no exact amounts here, just use enough of each to coat them. Alternatively, you can use corn starch instead of flour. The cinnamon should be the only flavor you need to add- but if you feel the need for sugar, add a little brown sugar too.
Take a pie pan, dust it with a little flour to prevent sticking, and drape the lower crust over it (I'm cheating, using a pre-made crust!). Start piling your coated apples in, and try to lay them flat (but it isn't the end of the world if they're not). You should have a pile that is at least twice as high as the sides of your pie-pan - it will seem almost ludicrously high, but once it cooks down, you may find yourself questioning if you used enough apples. Lay the top crust over them and crimp all the edges together. I like my pies to look very rustic- so I'm the wrong person to ask if you need your pie to look pretty. The important part is to make sure the two crusts are sealed and won't pull apart in the oven, beyond that, the style part is up to you.
The final touch is to cut a few vent holes in the top crust so the steam from the apples won't cause a blowout in the oven, and dress the top of your pie. You can leave the top crust alone and get great results, or you can dress it up a little. One technique is to brush the top of the pie with an egg wash for a more glossy finish. The other is to dust the top crust with a little white sugar to give the crust a little more crunch (and some people do both) this is one place where I don't mind adding a little extra sugar. I think the sugar makes the crust look more appealing. Bake the pie in a 325 degree oven for about an hour and 20 minutes- or until the crust looks like its about as golden brown as it can get. Serve warm with a little ice cream, or let it cool down. Either way, if you've done it right, it should taste like you've taken an apple and given it the star treatment. The cinnamon and the crust are the supporting actors. As long as the apples are the star, you'll have a good pie.