(Writer’s note: I thought this would go unnoticed, but not by some astute readers. (Mom.) I am now going to post one article a week, Wednesday morning. I may on occasion write more, but I was beginning to feel pressured to put out two pieces weekly. (My own fault, I tend to be ambitious and committed to what I set out to do!) Rather than pass along two mediocre pieces, I will focus on just one for the time being. But winters in Vermont are long, so who knows!
A baker I am not, but when I read about the “Best Ever Apple Pie Contest” at our local harvest festival, a competitor I am! For the past couple of years, I’ve thought about entering this contest. While I have been making apple pie since I was about 12, it’s only been for friends and family. Could I win a blue ribbon from a panel of apple pie loving judges?
Like any good athlete, I went into training. Heck, it had been almost a year since I made my last apple pie, so I was rusty. I took Macintosh Apples, my usual butter crust, and made this one evening when I got home from work. The adage from the Joy of Cooking, “moisture out, dry air in,” is very true. The evening was just right, probably high 60s, and no humidity. The pie crust was gorgeous. The filling, according to my number one eater, was light on the sugar and cinnamon. I made a mental note to up both the next time. I also found it was a bit mushy, since Macs have a lot of water. The rest of the pie went off to a book club to be enjoyed.
Note: Two mistakes made here. One, I added the sugar and cinnamon to the apples when they were in the pie dish as opposed to mixing them in a bowl. This is the way I learned, but I don’t think you get the full incorporation of everything. Also, I used an apple corer. While this is really handy kitchen tool, it makes the apples almost instantaneously brown. Maybe I have a cheap model, but it won’t be used for pies again.
I decided to do some research and find out what is the best apple to make a pie. I think the jury is still out on that. Our local apple farmer said Macintosh and Cortlands; he told me the Sweet Williams I had just bought for Pie #2 were not going to do. I’ve never been picky about my apples for pie, I always figure if I have the right ratio of the sweet/tart of the apple to the sugar and spices, anything will taste good.
So, Pie #2 was with the errant Sweet Williams and a Crisco crust. Talking with friends–and eaters of Pie #1 Saturday morning–I was reminded some judges may be traditionalists, they’d want a lard or Crisco crust. Since I was on my way to the grocery store, I put Crisco on my list. They now make them in sticks, easier than the way I used to make it growing up, by glopping the white stuff into a measuring cup and taking two days to get the cup clean.
This is where I sometimes get myself in trouble in the kitchen. Two sticks of butter to two cups of flour for a butter crust. I swear I read two sticks of Crisco to two cups of flour. As I was mixing it up, I noticed there was way too much Crisco to the flour. I had misread it, it was supposed to be ¾ of one stick! To the compost pile I went, came back, made another crust with the correct ingredients, but I just couldn’t get it together. I thought it was too wet, added more flour, then it was too dry, added more water. It was a big mess and hence, didn’t leave the house it looked so horrible. Taste-wise, the crust was very flaky, and surprisingly enough, the Sweet Williams were a good apple for the pie. The upped sugar and cinnamon also were good.
I bought fixings for yet another pie, but didn’t get around to making it. The first-place pie wins $50, so I figured I didn’t want to spend that on just prepping, so I set everything aside for “the” pie.
Ready for the oven!
Pie day, I set the alarm for 6:45, but woke up a little after 6. Heck, that was sleeping in for me and plus, I was a little anxious. I heard the pitter patter of rain on the roof. Great. I thought I’d have to be doubly careful with the weather, but luckily the skies parted around 8.
Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “Write what you know,” and I’ll take that one step further, “Cook what you know.” Back to the butter crust I went and I used Cortlands. The apples were fairly large, so I used five instead of six. For sugar, Pie #1 had ¼ cup, Pie #2 was ½ cup. Tasting the Cortlands, they are a bit on the sweeter side, so I put in ⅓ cup of sugar, then got worried and added another tablespoon. One teaspoon of cinnamon, and once the pie was in the dish, added a spritz of lemon juice, and dotted it with one tablespoon of butter and freshly grated nutmeg.
I find it’s easier to prep the apples before making the crust, I don’t know if that’s the traditional way, but that’s how I like to do it. I should have taken the butter out to warm a little bit while I prepped the apples, but I didn’t. So I found myself doing the previous night’s dinner dishes and baking dishes while I let the butter warm a bit in the bowl before mixing the crust. I used my favorite bread-making bowl for good luck!
I’ve always wanted to make really fancy designs on my crust, but decided to go with my traditional “star,” which really isn’t a star, but more of what I like to think of as fancy air vents. No matter, when I pulled it out of the oven, one of the vents caved, plus my lovely crimping fell! I was less than pleased with the appearance of the pie, since that was 25 percent of my score, but there was nothing I could do about it now. I like to think of it as a rustic pie!
My final "rustic" apple pie.
* * * * *
We rushed into town, joking if we got pulled over by Sheriff George, he could give us a police escort. I got to the table with just minutes to spare and was given Number 4, which I thought was a good sign, because my birthday is in April. We stopped by on occasion to scope out the rest of the competition. There ended up being seven in total, two had crumble crusts; mine, in my opinion, was the most authentic looking.
Alas, I wish I could tell you I ended up winning the first-place apron and blue ribbon, but I didn’t. They only awarded first place, but was told only one point separated first from second. A little disappointed, we walked back to the car, holding my head high, knowing at least those close to me think I make a good apple pie, and that I stepped out of my comfort zone to participate; you will never know the outcome if you don’t take the risk!
I think the next time I want to either make or eat an apple pie will be Thanksgiving!
Chris’s Best Ever Apple Pie
• 5-6 Cortland apples
• ⅓ cup plus 1 Tablespoon white sugar
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• A spritz of lemon juice
• 1 Tablespoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 2 cups white flour (King Arthur preferred)
• 2 stick of salted butter
• Dash of salt
• 5-6 Tablespoons ice water (more or less depending on how much you need, go by the feel of the crust)
For the filling, cut the apples into fourths, cut out the core, peel and slice and put into a large mixing bowl. (Sometimes when I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll peel the entire apple, then cut and slice.) Add the sugar and cinnamon and mix.
With a pastry blender (my preference) or two forks, work the butter into the flour until it resembles pebbles or grain. Add the dash of salt. Sprinkle three tablespoons of water into the crust, mix and keep adding water until everything comes together. Cut in half. Add flour to your counter or pastry cloth. Form a circle with the dough, and start rolling it out, one way, then turning in a circle. Once it’s completely rolled out, place it in a buttered pie dish. Add the apples, lemon, butter, and nutmeg.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
Repeat with process with the top crust. (I put the top crust in the freezer while I was doing this, so it would be easier to work with.) Make some air vents toward the middle of the crust and crimp either with your fingers or a fork.
Bake a 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then 350 degrees for 30 minutes.