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EatDrinkShopCook: 'A' is for amazing apple pie

Updated 8:56 am, Sunday, October 16, 2011

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  • A basket brimming with fresh Cortland apples at the Aspetuck Valley Apple Barn in Easton. Photo: Patti Woods / Westport News contributed
    A basket brimming with fresh Cortland apples at the Aspetuck Valley Apple Barn in Easton. Photo: Patti Woods

 

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I'm going to be perfectly frank and come right out with it: I don't like apple pie.

I know what you're thinking: "The terrorists have won." But hear me out.

Before my New Englander status gets revoked, let me say that I love apples. Give me any type -- Granny Smith, Macintosh, Honeycrisp, Macoun. As a snack, they're easy, tasty and cheap. But when you take a perfect piece of fruit and cook it, you're changing its essence and creating a whole different ingredient.

I'm willing to say that the reason I don't like apple pie is because, until recently, I'd never had truly good pie. Your average store pie, and I'd say even most bakery pies, are made with overly processed, apple-infused glop. No one should be eating that stuff. And so, for years, I've avoided apple pie. As karma would have it, however, my husband's all-time-favorite No. 1 dessert is apple pie. Thus, every fall, I hunker down and go into pie-baking mode.

As a general rule, I always use the same simple recipe. One day, "The New England Cookbook," by former Westporter Brooke Dojny, came across my desk and I was intrigued by the description for "Blue-Ribbon Harvest Apple Pie."

It said, "A classic apple pie like this one should taste like nothing more or less than the essence of the good apples with which it is made. Too much spice can muddy up the flavors."

Indeed! Let me say, there are no special ingredients in this recipe. It calls for the usual apples, sugar, traditional pie spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice). The only standout is the addition of lemon juice and lemon zest. But what really works here are the proportions. One of the easiest mistakes to make when baking a pie is to add too much sugar. This recipe offers a nice balance of sweetness from the sugar and tartness from the apples, accented by the lemon. This turned out to be the one and only apple pie I ever liked.

We're fortunate to have a number of orchards in southwestern Connecticut that offer a huge array of apple varieties. At Silverman's in Easton, Fuji, Nittany, Granny Smith and Cortland apples are all rated "superb" for pies, and the Mustu Crispin is "wonderful." At Beardsley's Cider Mill in Shelton, the Mutsu, Gold Blush and Enterprise apples are all highly rated for baking.

"There aren't too many apples that make a bad pie," said Bob Kosar, owner of the Aspetuck Apple Barn in Easton. For his tastes, he prefers a blend of Northern Spy, Mutsu and Cortland. "They aren't too sweet and they don't cook up and become mushy," he said. The best apples for pie come later in the season, said Kosar, so the time is just right to get cooking.

In addition to the apple variety, there are other things to take into consideration when making a stellar pie:

The crust. There will always be a debate about homemade vs. store-bought crust. The simple fact is that some people are intimidated by making crust or just don't have the time. There are several different store-bought crusts that taste very good. I personally find the rolled up in the refrigerated biscuit section are too artificial and chemical-tasting to me, but I have tried some frozen pie shells that taste pretty good. (Epicurious rated the Whole Foods brand 365 Organic Everyday Value crust as the number one choice.)

Texture and size. It's wise to stop and think how you like to have your apples cut when they're in a pie. Do you like small, bite-sized chunks or thin scallops of apple? It's a small thing, but important in the overall pie picture.

The spices. Again, the Blue Ribbon Pie recipe relies heavily on the perfect balance of spice to apple. But some people prefer a pie with heavy cinnamon. Others like a good dose of citrusy nutmeg. It's up to you. Just make sure your spices are fresh.

Toppings. Again, it's all a matter of preference. Some people like their pie naked, with no extra accoutrements. Others prefer a la mode. Whipped cream is another option (or, if you want to get really fancy, there's cinnamon whipped cream), and then there's the northern New England tradition of a slice of pie accompanied by a hunk of cheddar cheese.

No matter what your preferences are, a great apple pie starts with great apples. Unless, of course, you're making a Chemical Pie, that scientific oddity of Ritz Crackers, butter, sugar and cream of tartar which, when combined, create the illusion of apple pie. But that, of course, is a story for a different day.

THE SCOOP

- Start with: Great baking apple varieties include Cortland, Fuji, Granny Smith, Mutsu, Nittany and Northern Spy.

- Go to: Aspetuck Valley Apple Barn, 720 Black Rock Turnpike (Route 58), Easton. 203-268-9033. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Silverman's, 451 Sport Hill Road, Easton. 203-261-3306. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Beardsley Cider Mill, 278 Leavenworth Road (Route 110), Shelton. 203-926-1098. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

Jones Family Farms, 606 Walnut Tree Hill Road, Shelton. 203-929-8425. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

Blue Jay Orchards, 125 Plumtrees Road, Bethel. 203-748-0119. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

- Get rolling: Half-and-Half Flaky Pie Crust (makes a double crust)

2½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

¼ pound (1 stick) cold, unsalted butter, cut in ½-inch slices or chunks

½ cup cold solid vegetable shortening, cut in 1-inch chunks

6 to 8 tablespoons ice water

1. Pulse the flour with the salt and sugar in a food processor. Distribute the butter and shortening over the flour and pulse until most of the shortening is the size of small peas. Sprinkle 6 tablespoons of the ice water evenly over the flour mixture and pulse just until no dry flour remains and the dough begins to clump together in small balls. If the mixture is too dry to be pressed into a dough with your fingers, sprinkle on the remaining 2 tablespoons of water and pulse a few more times.

2. Divide the dough in half and turn out onto 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Shape and flatten into two 5-inch discs, wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or freeze. Remove from the refrigerator 10 minutes before rolling out. If frozen, thaw overnight in the refrigerator before using.

- Put it all together: Blue-Ribbon Harvest Apple Pie (makes a 9-inch pie)

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon fresh-grated nutmeg

Pinch ground allspice

3 cups cored, peeled and thinly sliced tart crisp apples, such as Granny Smith (about 1 pound)

3 cups cored, peeled and thinly sliced sweet juicy apples, such as McIntosh (about 1 pound)

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into several pieces

Half-and-Half Flaky Pie Crust

1. Roll half of the dough out on a lightly floured surface to a 12-inch round. Ease into a 9-inch pie plate. Roll out the second disc of dough and slip onto a rimless cookie sheet. Refrigerate while making the filling.

2. Whisk together the sugar, flour, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice in a large bowl. Add the apples, lemon juice, and lemon zest and toss to thoroughly coat the apples with the sugar mixture. Set aside for 15 minutes, until the apples soften slightly.

3. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven.

4. Spoon the apple mixture into the pie shell and distribute the butter over the apples. Cover with the top crust and trim the overhanging dough to ¾-inch all around. Turn the edges under flush with the rim of the pie plate, and crimp or flute to seal. Use a sharp knife to cut several steam vents.

5. Bake for 30 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake until the crust is a rich golden brown and juice bubbles through the vents, 25 to 35 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for at least one hour.

6. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.