Some days on our homestead, apple pie is not just desired, it’s required.
This takes a little setup, so bear with me and we’ll get to what I’d stake is the true great American apple pie.
First, because I don’t believe in presenting an incomplete picture of life on Shuddering Squirrel Acres, since not everything is serene and beautiful all the time, I want describe how I came to bake this one.
I was out in the winter drizzle, mucking out the chicken run (a revolting chore even in bright sunshine), and noticed an unusual number of large birds enjoying flight high overhead. When you keep chickens, it’s good to have an eye on the sky for hawks, especially when there’s no light to cast a shadow and tip off your largely helpless flock. These, though, weren’t hawks.
A kettle of vultures swooped and circled and rose and fell with an easy grace that betrayed none of their grim intentions. They hovered over the steep embankment that leads down our holler. Other than that, I could know nothing else about their focus or their mission. I got the impression they were waiting for something to happen.
It was midafternoon but the sky lowered in shades of dark gray, and it may as well have been dusk.
I tried hard to take a suitably appreciative photo or two of this vulture dance, framing it between branches on one of our trees. Turns out skill didn’t match ambition, and the ominous birds are no more than smudges on a canvas of gray. They look like black-and-white photos, but were shot in color.
And they are as good as any to show what winter feels like on Shuddering Squirrel Acres. It can unbind whatever force it is that clutches your heart and creates descent and sadness, and it can get grim.
So we devise ways to distract ourselves from the wet grayness outside our doors. Grappling with the economy while trying to make a living is one thing that works, though the jobs market offers no cheer. Anticipation, yes. Excitement, if it slips through the defenses we formed long ago in the hunt. You send your hopes by email, and allow yourself to wish that this time will be different, but it never is. By far the most common response is no response at all, so you have no idea whether to keep hope alive for this one, or the last one, or the dozen others that were recently dispatched.
Cooking is another thing. It’s nearly impossible to have a bad time in our big farm kitchen. One of the top selling points for this house, it has a long center island, triple sink, a mile or two of counter space, and a big ol’ 6-burner natural gas stove. We’re both avid cooks, and accomplished. Vicki is the most natural, wise, and skilled of home cooks, and she has yet to fix us anything but deeply tasty, thoroughly satisfying meals.
My food goes off in different directions from many years as a food writer and restaurant critic. I took it seriously and constantly researched and studied and learned new cooking skills to back up my opinions with knowledge and experience.
I’m a good bread baker, and a wood-fired clay oven is a priority outdoor project. I’m as comfortable cooking game as pork, beef, poultry, some organ meats, fish and shellfish. I like to tackle challenging dessert recipes, including pastries, and have developed a few really good ice cream recipes. I make French-style preserves, and enjoy other canning. We can get into that in another post.
Baking something well tested and certain to give us pleasure is one dead-bang method I use to shut out the grayness.
The following recipes are adapted from the reliable, encyclopedic Pie by Ken Haedrich. Once I discovered his recipe for lard crust, I’ve never used another. Lard has a bad rep, but I’m not trying to Paula Deen you. Just follow the dictum, “All things in moderation,” and don’t deprive yourself of this occasional pleasure. Besides producing the flakiest crust, lard dough is also easier to handle than those using other fats.
The pie recipe is essentially that of one Rose Calello, two-time winner of the Best Apple Pie in New England Contest. I took some liberties, using Granny Smith apples instead of Golden Delicious because I like their tartness. I doubled the amount of lemon juice to brighten it up a bit more, and thick-cut the apples so they hold their shape. The result is a picture perfect, with exactly the amount of sweet tartness an apple pie should have.
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (7 ounces) chilled lard, cut into pieces
1/3 to ½ cup ice water, as needed
If you have a food processor, this couldn’t be much easier. If not, it’s only a little more work to cut the lard into the dry ingredients using a pastry cutter, a fork, or by rubbing the flour and fat between your fingertips. Use your hand to mix in the water. Otherwise, the steps are the same.
- Put flour and salt in the food processor and pulse 3 or 4 times to mix. Scatter the lard over the dry ingredients and pulse 5 or 6 times to cut it in. Using a fork, fluff the mixture from the bottom of the bowl.
- Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of ice water over the mixture. Pulse 5 or 6 times. Fluff the mixture again and sprinkle with another 2½ tablespoons of ice water. Pulse 3 or 4 times until the dough starts to come together in clumps.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead 2 or three times. Gather a little more than half of it in your hands and form it into a ball. Do the same with the smaller portion. Knead each ball one or twice then flatten each into a 3/4-inch-thick disk. Wrap each in plastic and refrigerate for at least a half hour.
8 cups peeled, and cored Granny Smith apples, cut in eighths
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (please don’t substitute bottled juice)
2/3 cup sugar
2½ tablespoons all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon cold unsalted butter, cut in small pieces
1 large egg white, slightly beaten with a teaspoon of water
About a tablespoon of raw sugar
- On a sheet of lightly floured wax paper, and with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the larger portion of dough into a 12-inch circle, slide your hand under the waxed paper, pick up the dough and turn it over into a standard (9-inch) pie plate. Gently ease the dough onto the bottom and sides, trying not to stretch it. Let the extra dough hang over the rim. Trim it so there is a generous inch left all around. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.
- As you cut up the apples, occasionally sprinkle the pieces with a little of the lemon juice, and gently toss them to coat. This step will both flavor the filling and prevent the apple slices from turning brown.
- Combine the sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and stir to combine well. I find that a whisk does the best job, but use what you have. Sprinkle over the apple pieces and gently toss to combine.
- Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F.
- Roll the second, smaller portion of dough as you did the first, but into a slightly smaller circle.
- Turn the apple filling into the chilled pie shell, and gently smooth the top with your hands. Lay down any pieces that are standing on end and might poke a hole in the top crust.
- Dot the top of the filling with the butter pieces.
- Using your finger or a pastry brush, moisten the rim of the pie shell with beaten egg white glaze. Invert the top dough onto the filling, center it and peel off the waxed paper. Press the top and bottom pieces together around the rim then, working from the inside of the rim to the outside, fold the edges over and tuck into the pie plate to form a ridge. You can leave it for a rustic look, or pinch and crimp it for a decorative edge.
- Make several small cuts in the top crust to vent steam. Cut at least one slit next to the crust. You’ll check there for bubbling juices that signal the end of baking time.
- Brush the entire top crust with the remaining egg white glaze and sprinkle generously with raw sugar.
- Put the pie in the oven on the center rack and bake for 30 minutes, then rotate it 180 degrees, or half a turn, and continue to bake until the juices bubbly thickly through the side vent(s).
- Take the pie out of the oven and cool on a rack for at least 2 hours. More time is better. Don’t give in to temptation and cut into it too soon, or the filling will collapse and ooze out from the crust.
Making such a pie is a pleasant distraction from whatever shade of gray that prevails, inside or out. Eating it is curative.
Pie and sky photos by Ric Bohy. Apples photo by Artotem.