Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hot Apple Pie and Crust Fit For A Queen, But 'A La Mode' is Really 'A La American'; Mr. Appleseed: Was He Fact or Fiction?

Apple pie with Gala apples in the background. (not used in pie)
Most of us think of apple pie as a traditional American dessert but it turns out that the only apple native to America is the crab apple. The real story of apples in America begins in the Kazakhstan mountains, their ancestral home. Ancient trade routes passed through this area and it's likely that travelers picked the fruit to take with them along the way. The seeds were discarded, sprouting into trees and mixed with native apples they eventually produced millions of different trees in Europe and Asia.

A very early pie recipe appeared in a 1390 cookbook by the culinary employees of King Richard II. It was presented to Queen Elizabeth and was one of the first recorded apple pie recipes that resemble the pie as we know it today.

The fruity confection evolved through the centuries and by the time pie eating Europeans arrived in America they discovered they needed to bring the apple seeds along with them since the native crab apples just didn't cut it, no pun intended, in a well-made pie. 

Since we're talking about apples, what about Johnny Appleseed? Yes, he did exist! A.K.A. John Chapman, he was really an American nurseryman who planted apple trees in large parts of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. He became an American legend because of his kind and generous ways, his leadership in conservation, and the importance he attributed to apples.

Of course Americans can never leave well enough alone. In the 1800s, a gentleman dining at the Cambridge Hotel in Washington County, New York, ordered vanilla ice cream with his apple pie. A nearby diner spying the concoction, christened the dish 'pie a la mode'. A uniquely American tradition was born!

Certain members of my family have had a love affair with a commercially made apple pie. I won't name the brand but for this amateur 'chef', it just doesn't cut it, pardon the pun. The crust has no crunch, the apples are over cooked and the juices are too syrupy for my taste. I just don't get it. I've made a few apple pies over the years and never had much luck with the crust. Turning to frozen pie crusts from the supermarket and even some from gourmet food stores, I compensated for my lack of pie crust proficiency by cheating in this way. All this to make the family happy!
Granny Smith Apple

So when I came across some fresh tart Granny Smith apples, I decided to give the crust another try. While using a can of pumpkin pulp last week, the inside label had a recipe that seemed rather simple. This recipe called for vegetable shortening instead of butter. It had been a while since my last attempt but I was sure I'd always used butter in the crust.

Final result, the crust worked nicely, rolled out without a problem and baked to a nice color and crispiness that stayed for a few days. This crust recipe's a keeper. The filling recipe is very traditional—I've used it before and it's not overly sweet and complements the tartness of the apples especially at this time of the year.

Traditional American Pie
Preheat oven to 425 degrees
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
8-10 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, sliced

  • Melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in flour to form a paste. Add water, sugars, and bring to a boil. Reduce temperature and let simmer. 
  • Place the bottom crust in your pan. Fill with sliced apples, creating a mound. 
  • Cut strips of pastry from remaining crust mix. Cover with a lattice work. 
  • Pour the sugary liquid slowly over the crust. Clean up spills. 
  • Bake 15 minutes in the preheated oven then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees. 
  • Continue baking for 35 to 45 minutes, until apples are soft. 
  • Dust with confectioners sugar and top with vanilla ice cream if you want 'a la mode.'
Homemade Pie Crust
Makes one 9-inch deep dish crust (Note: it was enough for a shallower pie and lattice strips for the top)
1 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
3-4 tablespoons cold water

  • Combine flour and salt in medium bowl, Cut in shortening with pastry blender or two knives until mixture is crumbly. 
  • Sprinkle with cold water and blend until mixture holds together. 
  • Shape into a ball and place on floured surface. Roll out dough to 1/8 inch thick with rolling pin. Line pie plate with dough. 
  • Re-roll scraps to make lattice strips at 1/2 wide.

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