At its core, an old-time classic

Apple pie is a dessert that's easy to polish off

October 01, 2003|By Suzanne White | Suzanne White,Special to the Sun

If there's a standout in the parade of autumn desserts, it's apple pie. American in spirit and built on a seasonal favorite, this old-time classic infuses the kitchen with the sweet aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Apple pie is simple to make. Cooks should have at least one favorite recipe in their repertoire. Some decisions, such as the variety of apple to use, the kind of sugar and the type of fat to use in the dough, are a matter of individual taste.

Experimenting to find your perfect apple pie is a smart idea. Apples are in abundance in Maryland through Halloween, and barrels of the popular baking fruit are available at farmers' markets, roadside stands and grocery stores.

"This is the nicest crop I've seen in a few years because of the rain, which keeps apples juicy and gives them a good size," says Henry Allenberg, president of the Maryland Apple Promotion Board, whose mother, Ann, taught him to bake a winning apple pie.

Is apple pie American?

Nope. Sorry.

"It's of British origin, but we say American as apple pie," says Greg Patent, who wrote A Is for Apple (Broadway Books, 1999) with his wife, Dorothy.

So here are some Apple Pie 101 instructions for making the perfect apple pie. The recipe that follows can be embellished to suit personal tastes.

Choosing the apples

Volumes could be written on the subject of which apples to use. Melrose and Northern Spy apples are excellent for baked pies. Allenberg prefers the older Stayman variety because of its texture and tartness. Other tart apples, like Granny Smith and Golden Delicious, make an excellent pie, he says.

Patent prefers his apple pies to showcase a mixture. His winning formula consists of Granny Smith for tartness, Braeburn for a sweet-tart flavor and McIntosh for its balanced flavor and slight softness.

Avoid Red Delicious apples -- they are too watery.

To explore the many colorful variety of local apples, visit www.marylandapples.org. Pictures of apples and their uses are featured on this reference.

Adding the sweeteners

Not much debate here, except which kind of sugar works best or what extras can be added to the traditional filling.

For Patent, who has pulled thousands of apple pies from the oven and recently won the James Beard Award for his Baking in America: History of America Told Through Baking (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002, $35) cookbook, white sugar does the job.

"I like white sugar and a little bit of cinnamon," he says. "The pie has really got to taste of the apple, and people tend to put too much spice and brown sugar in it."

You may want to add one or more of the following - in small amounts, of course: lemon zest, ginger, splash of Calvados, pecans, raisins, cranberries, pears, rhubarb or chopped apricots.

Making the dough

Lard or no lard? This solid white block of rendered fat from the hog is not exactly the darling of the health-conscious crowd. But when it comes to the perfect pie crust, lard rules.

"For the best apple pie with a crisp, rich, old-fashioned crust, substitute lard for the shortening and butter in the dough," writes Rick Rodgers in his book, Thanksgiving 101 (Broadway Books, 1998, $15).

Rolling out the pastry crust can be challenging, but with practice the task becomes easier. Light rolling strokes from the center out do the job. Get fancy with a lattice top, which requires cutting the pastry into 1/2 -inch strips and crisscrossing them over the filling. If you made potholders as a child, you can create this striking top.

In these times of fast foods and convenience, naturally a shortcut has emerged - store-bought refrigerated pie crusts. Some cooks admit to their use, others smile, nod and let the compliments flow.

But for simplicity and flavor, these crusts cannot be beat.

"All the consumer needs is sugar and apples," says Peg Buchheit, assistant public-relations manager for Pillsbury Refrigerated Pie Crusts, whose crusts are made of partially hydrogenated lard. "The crust looks and tastes like homemade without all the work. People can even get creative and do a lattice pie crust."

According to Pillsbury, apple pie is the No. 1 pie flavor nationwide, and for this reason, the company is offering a free pre-mixed packet of flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt with each refrigerated pie-crusts package for a limited time.

So, whether you make this dessert from scratch or opt for speed and ease, serve it with coffee or top it with caramel sauce, a sliver of cheddar or vanilla ice cream, the popular apple pie is one of our favorite American symbols.

Apple Pie

Makes one 9-inch pie

CRUST:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

8 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening or lard

4 tablespoons chilled butter, cut in 1/4 -inch pieces

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons ice water

1 tablespoon melted and cooled butter

FILLING:

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon flour

6 cups peeled, cored and sliced apples, about 1/8 -inch thick (1 3/4 to 2 pounds)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

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