Sunday, October 11, 2009

Apple Pie!

Ever since fall started to hit I've been thinking of apple season, cider, and apple pie. Growing up we lived near orchards so in the fall we'd go through and pick the apples that had been left on the trees unripe at picking time and were now ripe and occasionally a little bit punchy with fermentation. Unfortunately I'm not in an apple orchard area now, so I have to wait for the grocery store shelves to overflow with the onslaught of apple harvests.

This is usually the only time of year that I make pie. Its a lot of work and for most things a crisp is just fine, but for apples it is just so much better as pie. I learned how to bake when I was a kid (I went crazy for a few months when I figured out you could MAKE candy!) so I figure it'd be charitable of me to share my essential tips to those who don't do it often enough to perfect their own technique, not to mention my secret ingredient for ultra yumminess :-) I think my main motivation for sharing is that I downright hate badly done apple pie. Apple jelly + Crisco crust does NOT make a real apple pie and shouldn't even be allowed to bear the name "Apple Pie". If you intend to use this as an actual recipe, please read to the bottom before starting.

First off is the crust. Most recipes are pretty basic: flour, shortening, water, salt, and maybe a touch of sugar. Here is one that is close enough: I always use butter instead of shortening. It makes a huge difference in the texture and flavor. A half and half mixture of butter and shortening is also acceptable. The IMPORTANT thing in making a crust is not to knead or process it too much, as it loses its crumbly flakiness and becomes tough. The first step to make sure it isn't over kneaded is to very thoroughly cut in the butter to the flour (with a pastry cutter, fork & knife, or food processor) until the whole mixture has a bit of crumbliness to it. When adding water in the next step, I end up using more water than is called for (depending on the recipe) to avoid kneading the dough. Mix the watered dough very carefully until at least 95% of the mix is sticking in what usually looks like shredded clumps. Gather everything together and press it with your hands a bit to get it to stick together. Knead the dough 3-4 times (DON'T over knead) before putting it in the fridge and eventually rolling it out, rolling the flattened circle back onto the rolling pin, and then unrolling the dough over the pie pan. Be careful to have lots of flour on the dough as you roll it out, because the extra water makes the dough slightly stickier.

Now for the apple filling. The best apples for pie are Jonathans, Jonagold, or similar. They are also great to mix in with other apples, such as Golden delicious. Do NOT use Granny Smiths or Fuji apples. These varieties are too hard and take too long to cook, leaving you with a potentially burnt crust (they can be used if you cook them down a bit first on the stove like you would apple sauce). Peel and cut the apples into roughly quarter inch slices (the harder the apple, the thinner you should make your slice). If you make pies more than once a year, an apple corer/peeler/slicer is a great little tool to make this go faster. If you aren't sure how many apples to use, pile the apples into the empty pie pan until it looks like about the height you want it. Put all the cut apples into a large bowl and add about a teaspoon of cinnamon, a teaspoon or more of nutmeg (I LOVE fresh ground nutmeg), sprinkle in a quarter cup or so of brown sugar (the brown sugar gives the apples a bit of caramel flavor but you can use white or turbinado sugar if you prefer), and a bit of flour or corn starch (guess 2 Tbsp flour or 1/2 Tbsp corn starch). Mix it all up, then add a half cup of a sweet whiskey (Crown Royale or Seagrams work well, no smokey whiskeys though), toss, then cover and let sit for at least an hour, though I like to let it sit overnight.

No, this isn't going to make your apple pie alcoholic (it all cooks off) nor will it taste like whiskey (kind of like fondue doesn't taste like kirsch). What it does is help to soften the tartness and sweetness and bring out the caramel and thick cider-like flavor. Put it all together and bake at 350 F until a butter knife can be easily inserted into the apples. Take it out, let it cool a bit, and then enjoy! (Mine is cooling on the rack right now :-)

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