Red Ribbon Apple Pie
Last week I lost an Apple Pie competition. My pie was many days in the making, but still it failed me. I was roundly beaten by Bryn, our department secretary and expert baker, whose beautiful speckled pie – “glory be to God for dappled things!” – ran off with the blue ribbon. Since Bryn took the job in the department, she has kept all of us in the most delicious scones, quiches and other baked goodies. We now turn up to department meetings – held at the cruel, cruel hour of 8:30 am – with a lightness of step and eagerness of eye that can only be conjured up that close to the crack of dawn when there are buttery, flaky treats awaiting. The ride into work is less morose and the meetings themselves are now faintly riotous affairs. Maple-iced oat and walnut scones turn departmental labours into veritable Morris Dances. Under the influence of Bryn’s baking, we are a merry band of fellows and disagreements have come to resemble the stylized conflict of the crossing of willow sticks and the brandishing of pig’s bladders. The plate of scones criss-crosses the table, and we skip back into formation, gaily shaking out our paper napkins and brushing crumbs from our shirtfronts.
This particular morning – the morning that my pie was awarded the bloody red ribbon for second place – was not only an early-to-rise department meeting morning, but also the morning of the recently-inaugurated “County Fair.” The college green had, for several years, hosted a modest spate of stalls with games and foods that go with ketchup. This year they decided to extend these campus revelries still further, even going so far as to hire an honest to goodness bluegrass band. Some eyebrows were raised, but I am a ready wench for fairs. I love them. I’m sure I am descended from a long line of hawkers and hucksters. Or perhaps the Pieman who met Simple Simon a-going to the fair was a progenitor of mine, but if so, I’m sure he’s turning in his pauper’s grave at the thought of my red ribbon. Yes, others might have eschewed the college fair as beneath their professorial dignity, either not attending or walking tweedily around the periphery. Not I. I threw myself in with a sturdy, ruddy-cheeked, milkmaidish, freckled kind of joy. I took hammers to see-saws that flung frogs the colour and feel of Wellington boots into Tupperware ponds. I won a fiercely-competed round of Bingo, rifled through the flea-market and wielded another hammer to crumple an empty soda can into a whimpering disc of its former self. All this while keeping my grip on a smoked turkey leg that was the size of my own femur.
But once I had done the rounds of the various entertainments, I found myself loitering beside the bake-off table, eyeing my yet-to-be-judged pie. Bryn loitered too. We approached each other with the brazen watchfulness of two-year olds in a sand pit (or, perhaps, of ladies at a bake-off). We had both worked out that there were a mere seven pies and that each other’s pie was most likely our stiffest competitor. Blankly, episodically, we exchanged cook’s notes. What kind of crust is that? Ah, all butter. No, no. Mine’s cream cheese. Ah. Much sugar? No, mine neither. Then Bryn asked what kind of apples I had used. When I told her “Cortland, Rhode Island Greening and Smokehouse,” our cool circlings broke down. Where had I found those?! she demanded.
The truth was that although I had woken at 5am – well, technically B had woken at 5am – to crank up the oven to bake the pie, preparations for this pie had begun several days earlier. B and I had traveled with our friends Pim and Lydie to a Pennsylvania National Park one hour west of us, called Hopewell Furnace. Hopewell Furnace is, indeed, a furnace: a foundry that produced iron and iron-products from the late eighteenth century well into the late nineteenth century. The furnace remains, as does the well-appointed owner’s house, and a handful of the smaller but equally musty worker’s cottages. The site also includes an ancient apple orchard – “Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow and plough.” How ancient? No one knows. Like the house that B and I bought in Philadelphia, estates can often only be dated imprecisely from the first bill of sale. Property, it seems, only accrues history when it is sold. Ownership throws the really interesting stuff – building and creating and living – into the shadows. Hopewell Furnace is a place of making, littered with decaying piles of wooden moulds with shapes inverse to their iron product – “And all trades, their gear, and tackle and trim.” But it is only in the first giving up of the full-grown orchard that we can infer its careful planting, some long ago spring. The first mention of the Hopewell Furnace orchard is found in an advertisement of sale placed in the Pennsylvania Gazette on April 2, 1788. The advert describes “an excellent young bearing orchard of about 250 apple trees of the best fruit.” That orchard, although not the same trees, still stands today. Pennsylvania, William Penn’s Woods, is home to some of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen, giants older (and longer-lived?) than the U.S. Constitution. But fruit trees do not live as long as oaks and sycamores. The park replanted the apple-trees in 1942, and then again in 1960. They preserved the style of an old orchard and also preserved over 25 historic varieties of apple. These apples look like fairy tales: red as blushes, or green as river-reeds and, unlike any store-bought apple, their beautiful skins are mottled – “rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.” Not bruised or blemished, but complex, almost sinister. Some of these apples are as small as a gasp, and all of them are crisp and tightly packed.
Last year, B and I had been led to Hopewell Furnace by our dear friend Jen Roder, a finish carpenter turned rebel silversmith, who knows all about the salvaging of good things. We’d gone late in the season and so had our pick of only the less punctual breeds: the syrupy Turley Winesaps and Staymans, and the thick-jacketed Roxbury Russets. This year, I was determined to make both an early and a late visit, so we could sample more apples. This time we found Cortlands and Gravensteins, Grimes Goldens and early Romes. Smokehouse apples, whose original tree grew up next to a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania smokehouse in 1837. These look like the whispery negative of the Kodachrome Granny Smith. They also look much like the Rhode Island Greening, which in addition to actually being green was started from seed in the 1650s by Mr. Green, the tavern owner in Green’s End, Rhode Island.
The park provides you with long poles with apple-grabbing baskets attached to their ends, and a map of all the trees. I handed over the business of orchard orienteering to B. She has a knack for navigation anyway, and when very little, she dealt with the bent-over benevolence of the adult inquiry, “and what do you want to be when you grow up?” by answering “an apple tree.” She led me and Pim and our buckets to a tree, and we chomped into a representative fruit to determine whether or not it was worth our attentions. If it was, B left me and Pim picking and tramped off to other rows, scouting out our next bounty. I most wanted her to find an apple tree called, simply, “Unknown.” The map showed only one of these trees, at the very edge of the orchard, and finally B found it. An antediluvian monster with only a few apples high up in its boughs, the tree was clearly in the act of spreading its venerable shade for the last time. But Pim reckoned that, like grape vines, a dying tree produces the sweetest of harvests. I had been particularly ambitious to collect these Unknowns, convinced that their mystery was assurance of their superiority, but Pim’s swan-song thesis is probably the right one. I bit into one of the pale yellow fruits, and it rewarded me with a lemony sharp tang and lingering vegetal afterglow unlike any other apple I’ve ever tried – “With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.”
Not that we could really keep track of our harvest. Despite my bureaucratic bag-arranging and wielding of a permanent marker, those tricky little apples would deceive us – “fickle, freckled – who knows how?” There would be a rogue tree not mapped, or the apple we were sure was the Grimes Golden first raised by Thomas Grimes in 1832 in Virginia, would turn out to be the Gravenstein, believed to have come from the private garden of the Duke of Augustenberg in Schleswig-Holstein. Dizzied by tastings, warmed by a September sun, we soon lost track of these most lost of breeds and simply picked and picked and picked some more. At only 75 cents a pound, we could think of no reason not to go completely hog wild. Meanwhile Lydie had wandered off into the woods and unearthed a single chanterelle and several Roman-purple mushrooms. In search of a Mother (the apple, not the parent), Pim stumbled on a multitude of black walnuts, and he and B gathered them all. B, who trotted into the woods after our picnic lunch in hopes of learning about mushrooms, found a small turtle burrowing under a fallen log. She did not bring him back for me to admire, but assured me that he could not possibly have been Herman.
Back at our row-house, I set about making pie. I used my beloved cream-cheese pastry recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s invaluable, if scarily comprehensive, Pie and Pastry Bible. This recipe is more complicated than you think pastry should be – much more fiddly than the floury pastry -making Sundays of my youth – but the better for it. The result is operatically flaky, and as Rose wisely intones, is crust not the whole point of pie? I grated nutmegs into stumps, and added a couple of pinches of clove to Rose’s recipe, to commemorate the vicious surprise of the whole cloves my mother would sink into her apple pies. I also held back on the cinnamon because I have never taken to the American habit of shoveling that spice into pies, sticky buns and chewing gum. My cinnamon reticence, along with my light hand with the sugar, B theorizes, may have cost me the blue ribbon; I was not appealing to an American palate. But B is merely trying to save my dignity. I will be more honest with you. My next move, I now believe, was the fatal one: after making the pie, and crimping down its lid, I froze it raw. Rose tells me that this is the secret to the crispest of all bottom crusts, and I have followed her loyally for peach pies, and strawberry rhubarb ones and berry pies of all kinds, and I know her to speak the truth. Rose’s crisp bottoms are a marvel. So I thumbed through her Pie Bible again to check that she recommended it for apple pies, and it seemed she did. I froze the pie. Baking it from frozen early that morning took an age, but it crisped perfectly and as we drove to college, I held it proudly on my lap, torturing my car-pool with its aroma.
It looked handsome on the judging table, which was ignored by all County Fair revelers, but staked out by Bryn and me. Looks, however, are not enough, or at least could give me no advantage here, since Bryn’s pie was stunning. Nor, apparently, do antique apples guarantee a girl an edge. In fact, it turns out that while I was mooning over the venerable names of my apples, Bryn had used an apple called “83”- a gift from an orcharding friend who had invented it. This new kid on the block turned out to be delicious, but failed to live up to the brutal shelf-life requirements of supermarket distributors and so was granted no name at all. It, too, is “Unknown,” perched, anonymous, at another chronological extremity. Bryn’s unbranded apple and her deft hand carried off the Blue Ribbon. Then that same deft hand hung the trophy on the office pinboard I pass every day. But we are not done yet, dear reader. If an orchard can last 200 hundred years, how much longer do baking rivalries? I have learned from my mistakes: I baked another two pies that week – one from frozen and one fresh. The moral was very plain: do not follow the freeze-first rule with apple pie! An apple pie must be baked from fresh to keep the texture of its apples and a chance of glory at next year’s County Fair.
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89).
SYLLABUS: RED RIBBON APPLE PIE
Unsalted butter, cold 6oz
Pastry flour 10oz
Salt 1/2 tsp
Baking powder 1/4 tsp
Cream cheese, cold 41/2 oz
Ice water 2-4 tblsp
Cider vinegar 1 tblsp
Cut butter into 3/4” cubes and freeze for at least 30 minutes.
Mix flour, salt and baking powder and freeze for at least 30 minutes.
Put flour mixture into food processor and process for a few seconds to combine.
Cut cream cheese into 4 pieces and add to flour. Process for about 10 seconds.
Add frozen butter cubes and pulse until none of the butter is larger than the size of a large pea.
Add water and vinegar, pulse until butter is reduced to the size of small peas. Adjust water until the mixture only just holds together when pinched (it will still be crumbly, and not holding together in a mass).
Spoon mixture into large plastic bag and squeeze and press with heal of hand or knuckles until it comes together in one piece.
Flatten into two discs, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes – or overnight.
Baking apples 21/2 pounds when peeled and cored
Lemon juice 1 tblsp
Light brown sugar 2 oz
Granulated sugar 13/4 oz
Ground cinnamon 1 tsp
Freshly grated nutmeg 1/2 tsp
Ground cloves 1/4 tsp
Salt 1/4 tsp
Unsalted butter 1 oz
Cornstarch 0.5 oz
Roll out bottom crust and line Pyrex pan. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Slice apples 1/4 inch thick. Thinly sliced apples fill the pie pan more neatly. In a large bowl, combine apples, lemon juice, sugars and spices and salt and toss to mix. Macerate for 30 mins-3 hrs. Collect the juices by putting apples in colander. Toss remaining apples with cornstarch until it disappears. The apples will have released about 1/2 cup liquid. In a small saucepan, boil down the juices and the butter, over medium-high heat. Swirl but do not stir. When it has caramelized and reduced to about 1/3 cup, remove from heat and pour over apples. Do not worry if it hardens, it will dissolve again during baking.
Put apples in bottom crust. Roll out top crust into a 12 inch circle and place on top. Wet the rim of the bottom crust and fold the top crust over the bottom rim, tucking it under. Crimp edges and make 5 slashes radiating out from the centre of the pie.
Pre-heat oven to 425F, cover a baking stone or baking sheet with foil and put it on a rack set at the lowest level. Set the pie directly on top of this foil and cook pie for 45-55 mins, or until pie is golden, including bottom crust, and the juices have bubbled up through the slashes. If the edges start to overbrown, protect with foil.
Cool the pie on a rack for at least 4 hours before cutting, so that it will hold its shape.