Friday, January 6, 2012

Bile or Pie?

Happy 2012!
Mini-pie with Northern Spy apples cut into big chunks
My original intention for this first blog of the New Year was a curmudgeonly attack on unscientific beliefs about food. However, I find it hard to display bad temper when 2012 promises to be a wonderful year. So instead of sarcasm and bile, I'm writing about apple pie.
Wait! Don’t go! This isn't a gooey, Ozzie-and-Harriet piece. I hate most apple pies. 
This proverbial all-American food is savaged by commercial production. Store-bought or restaurant apple pies are sticky spice-bouquets bundled with a tiny hint of apple. Too sweet, too thin, too laden with cornstarch, they're the kind of food that makes you want to wash out your mouth with truck stop coffee.
It doesn't have to be that way. Take the time to make an apple pie yourself, using the right kind of apples, and you'll have an exquisite treat. All it takes - really! - is obedience to that italicized phrase. 
Gold Rush apples from White House Farms, Canfield OH
I grew up in a family of apple-lovers. Mom would wax ecstatic over whatever species was ripe, and I learned the names Yellow Transparent, Northern Spy, Winesap and Jonathan before I toddled off to pre-school. Dad had a small orchard in the backyard -  raw eating varieties - and was obsessed about visual as well as taste perfection. It was a rare week in any season that didn't find him doing something out there: pruning, spraying, propping laden branches, harvesting. Our apples were definitely not organic - Dad believed in potent insecticides - but they were fresh, and therefore outrageously good. 
Ironically , apple pies were not a family favorite. Perhaps that's because Dad didn't grow the number-one best pie variety and Mom didn't see the point of making pies with number two. Once in a while a relative would show up with a peck of Northern Spy, however, and that's when the rolling pin, flour, shortening, sugar and spices would  get dragged from the cupboard. You see, Northern Spy are the sort of apple that makes pies worthwhile. Indeed they are one of the few.
I've experimented with a lot of apples over the years and can say with a bit of confidence there are only three that are worth the effort to turn into pies: Northern Spy (the hands-down best), Lodi, and Gold Rush. (These are northern/midwestern apples. There may be other good ones in your geographic area.  I’d appreciate hearing recommendations if you have them.)
Here's the thing about apples: they're like cherries. Those that taste wonderful raw are lousy cooked. Most grocery stores carry "double-duty" apple varieties, bred to be washed and eaten raw and maybe, just once-in-a-while, cooked. Some of these are terrific tasting fresh from the bin: Honey Crisp, MacIntosh, Macoun, Fuji. They'll make an acceptable applesauce, and cookbooks say they're OK for pies. But don't believe that. They're in the bins because the grocer can unload them at a quick enough pace to generate profit, and like most things generic and fast, they're disappointing when the chips come down.
The chips in this case are heat. The sweetness, crispy cell structure and cheery redness that make generic apples mouthwateringly good in the raw state get broken down and lost in the oven. What you need is an apple bred to hold up to temperature. Or even be enhanced by it. Raw taste and appearance be damned.
Pie apples are not pretty. Lodi, which mature in July and August, are huge green lumps that split in refrigerated storage. Northern Spy, ripe in the late fall, are dull green and streaked with red. Cut them and they turn immediately brown, and they bruise as easily as a hemophiliac. Gold Rush, a very late apple (December) is the exception. It's beautiful; speckled gold with yellow, non-browning flesh. The skin is tough however, and you'll find yourself sharpening your paring knife or your peeler-corer sooner than you'd like.
Mini-pies of Gold Rush apples

The big problem is finding and storing pie apples. It's the rare farmer who wants to grow them - not enough demand, and Northern Spy only produce every other year - and an even rarer grocer willing to sell them. Luckily there's enough demand in the crowded, urban Northeast (USA) so that greenmarkets in NYC and environs stock them. (Gold Rush are “in” through January, at farm markets that stock them.) With a bit of persistence you can find sellers - check this website. But if you are a pie lover and happen, like me, to have a small appetite and a small family, you'll be stuck with a conundrum: buying more than you can reasonably expect to eat.
Fortunately all the apples that make great pies are easy to freeze. I do this in two ways: A) Make a full pie and freeze it without baking; and, B) prep up the apples and freeze in a bag. When we're having guests for dinner I'll pull out a frozen pie and stick it straight in the oven. If Leslie and I start craving pies, I'll roll a bit of crust and make minis or micros from the bagged apples. 
I've also had success dehydrating Lodi (a tactic which makes the apartment smell wonderful) though I seem to never find enough Northern Spy or Gold Rush for this.

By the way, a “full pie” for me is a 6” (most recipes call for 9”). To make mini-pies, I press the dough into cupcake tins. For micro-pies I use mini-cupcake tins; these are true one-bite desserts. Most pie doughs freeze quite nicely, so you can easily break down a full recipe into small units, bag and freeze these, and pull out what you need whenever you want some pie.
A trick to remember with cooking apples is restraint. To my taste, an error on the tart side is better than one on the sweet side. I like to use just enough sugar to maximize flavors and dash on the spices. (after all, these are great apples and you're not trying to do what commercial kitchens do with mediocre ones, hide the taste under sugar and spice). That said, I do add sugar to my dough - I find the bit of caramelized crunch it adds is worth the tiny bit of extra measuring.
Finally, I want to suggest you add one more tool to your kitchen: a hand-cranked peeler-corer. I know it sounds excessive, especially for a small household or one that rarely consumes apple pies, but peeler-corers do two extremely useful things: speed up the prep work by a major factor, and slice the apple into 1/8” flats. This latter allows you to stack layers in the pie shell with unprecedented tightness, which not only prevents the pie “lid” from collapsing but packs in extra flavor, too. (BTW I avoided buying one for years, but when I realized they were only $20 I grabbed one up and don’t regret a single penny.) 
Here’s my recipe for a 6” apple pie:
500 grams Northern Spy, Lodi or Gold Rush apples
2 - 4 TBLSP granulated sugar (2 for the Northern Spy, 4 for the Lodi and Gold Rush)
2 TBLSP cornstarch
2 TBLSP unsalted butter
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch salt
1) Preheat the oven to 425 F.
2) Make your pie shell and drape into the pan. If you are using a standard, 9” pan, you’ll have to re-proportion ingredients. My previous post on numbers will help.
3) Peel and core the apples. If you’ve not yet sprung for a peeler-corer, cut the apples into very thin slices. A peeler-corer will do this for you. If you do have a peeler-corer, stand the sliced apples on end (the slices tend to adhere) and cut the circular apple into sixths, making each thin slice into a miniature wedge.
4) Place the apple wedges in a large bowl. Add the sugar, cornstarch, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt. Stir vigorously until all the wedges are evenly coated and no solids remain in the bottom of the bowl.
5) Taking your time, lay the wedges flat in the shell, arranging for maximum tightness and minimum air and “doming” the apples. Divide the butter into lima-bean-sized pats and scatter over the apples. Place a dough “lid” on the pie, cut vent holes, seal edges, and place on a sheet of aluminum foil. Insert into oven.
6) Bake 10 min at 425 then reduce heat to 350 without opening oven. Set timer to 45 minutes. Check at that time. Vent holes should reveal bubbling apple syrup and the crust should be oak-brown. If not, continue baking until those conditions are met. Remove to a cooling rack and allow to cool before eating.


Anonymous said...

Hi. The pies in your photos look kind of "dry" and without the (not sure what to call it) "sauce" or semi-liquid filling or whatever. By that I mean that they look like they are simply slices of baked apples dropped into in a crust. Is this an illusion or is it really the case? If so, why is there no "sauce"? Curious.

Charles Luce said...

Hmm, I see what you mean. No they're not baked apples dropped into a crust, but there is in fact not the great puddle of goo you find in commercial apple pies. That's due to A) no lid on the pie; B) fresh, not frozen apples; C) a relatively small amount of sugar, and D) the varieties of apples. The apples in these pies were tender and juicy, with the moisture all retained within each individual apple piece. Not everyone's idea of a perfect pie, but I like them like this. Thanks for your comment.