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By Susan Accetura
“Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.” (Jane Austen)
It’s apple season here in Connecticut. From a pomologist’s perspective, this has been a challenging year. A mild winter resulted in apple blossoms swelling a bit early, subject to damaging spring frosts, and a rainy blossom time in May wasn’t motivating to the pollinating bee brigade. The summer drought has kept some varieties on the smaller side, but at least all of the crisp, delightful flavors have arrived. It’s time for apple picking, applesauce, apple crisp, apple dumplings and, of course, apple pies.
So what makes a perfect apple pie? Fresh apples and a gorgeous crust clearly help, but let’s face it, there is no one “perfect apple pie” any more than there is one perfect tossed salad. It is indeed a matter of taste, a matter of preference, a matter of upbringing, a matter of memories, and, as much as anything, perhaps a matter of dining companions. The variations of apple pie are as prolific as apple varietals, which number more than 60 in Connecticut alone.
For many, the perfect apple pie is quite simply the one that tastes most like Grandma’s. Did Grandma use lard in her crust? Or was it shortening, butter, a little sugar, maybe some cider vinegar or vodka? Did she cook the apples before baking the pie? Were they roughly chopped or thinly sliced? Tossed together casually? Or perhaps fanned out with precision like a tarte tatin pièce de résistance? And what of the spices — simple cinnamon, a grate of fresh nutmeg, allspice perhaps, zesty cloves, or maybe some mysterious McCormick’s Apple Pie Spice? And the crust construction; was it blanketed cozily like Grandma’s handmade afghan? Or carefully woven like the lattice fence in her flower garden? Maybe Grandma was extra sweet and rubbed together a scrumptious streusel topping with brown sugar, butter, oats and a little love, for a bit of Dutch apple magic.
To create your own perfect apple pie, you may need to recall your finest apple pie experience and consult with the creator. Maybe that’s Grandma, or Mom, or Auntie, or an innkeeper where you experienced the best one ever. Maybe put your faith in your favorite cookbook author (Ina, Nigella, Martha, Alton).
In a pinch, if you’re a novice, the recipe below is a very simple starting point for a basic apple pie. Make a few, learn the basics, then start experimenting. If you choose to make a Dutch apple pie with a crumbly streusel topping, make extra topping and keep it in the fridge for an easy last minute apple crisp this season. You’ll be glad you did.
Perfectly Simple Apple Pie
For the Crust:
3 cups all purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. salt
½ pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
½ cup (approx.) very cold water
Combine flour and salt in a medium sized bowl.
Using a fork, a pastry blender, or your fingers, mix the butter pieces into the flour until it resembles coarse crumbs with some flecks of butter; about the texture of steel-cut oatmeal and peas. You can also use a stand mixer with a flat beater or a food processor if you are careful not to over mix — just a few moments with a flat beater, or a few pulses of the processor.
Pour most of the cold water into the bowl and toss together lightly until the mixture just starts to come together.
Dump it all onto a clean counter and form it into a ball. Try not to overwork it, but a few schmears with the heel of your hand is OK if it’s a bit too crumbly. Divide the ball into two pieces, shape casually into discs, wrap in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes or more.
For the Filling:
This is a very basic uncooked filling, the most time-consuming part will be preparing the apples.
8 cups peeled, cored and sliced apples. Choose firmer apples like Northern Spy, Cortland, Granny Smith, etc. — or a blend. Softer apples are fine but will make a softer, saucier pie.
3 Tb. flour
½ cup sugar (granulated or brown or combination)
1 tsp. cinnamon
Toss all filling ingredients in a bowl and let rest while you roll out the crust.
Putting it all together:
Pre-heat oven to 425°.
Roll out one of the dough balls and lay it over the pie pan (9 or 10”), with about an inch overhang. Some folks struggle with rolling out pie dough; I believe that too much anxiety with the crust will result in a less-than-enjoyable apple pie experience. Don’t stress. Just keep practicing. Use a little flour on your work surface. Use a little more flour if your dough is too sticky. Sprinkle with a a few drops of cold water if your dough is too dry. And by all means, if you’re not having fun, there are plenty of perfectly suitable frozen crusts in the market. There’s nothing wrong with rolling out your crusts one day, lightly wrapping them and chilling in the fridge and finish assembling the next day with no pie dough angst.
Fill the crust with your apple mixture. Pile it high. Leftover apples make a tasty snack. Add a pat of butter on top of the apples.
Roll out your top crust and lay it over the apples. Leave enough hanging over the edge (about an inch) so you’ll be able to pinch it together with the bottom crust. Crimp the edges as desired. I just pinch and twist with my thumb and the inside knuckle of my index finger, or you can create some elaborate fluted work, or even just press it with the tines of a fork.
Sprinkle the top of the pie with a bit of cinnamon sugar and make a few small cuts in the top to vent the steam. Set it on sheet pan or cookie tray lined with foil or parchment to catch any drips and slide it into the oven.
Bake at 425° for about 25 minutes, then reduce heat to 350° for another 25 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a knife into the pie using one of the steam vents so you don’t mar your masterpiece. If your knife meets much resistance, you might choose to bake it a bit more, depending on how soft you like your apples.
Let the pie cool for about 30 minutes before cutting. It will still be toasty and warm, but the slices will hold their shape better if slightly cooled. Serve as is, or with some fresh whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, or do as the Vermonters do, with a wedge of sharp cheddar. Not my personal preference but far be it from me to stand in the way of anyone and their cheese. I do love an appetizer of Cortland apple wedges with slices of cheddar — a positively tasty combination.