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.
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
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.