GET READY to reset your inner clocks this weekend, and turn up your ovens. With the holidays less than a month away, we are transitioning to Apple Pie Time.
Many bakers have been preparing for weeks, including the 44 intrepid chefs who entered the 6th Annual Great New England Apple Pie Contest during AppleFest, a two-day celebration at Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, Massachusetts, in mid-October. Gerri Griswold, director of administration and development at White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, Connecticut, and a former professional chef, demonstrated her skill (and stamina) by baking one dozen pies for tasting at our apple presentation a week later.
I, too, have been preparing for apple pie season. I sampled all 44 pies in just over two hours as a judge at the Great New England Apple Pie Contest. I tasted six of Gerri’s pies at a more leisurely pace, each made using a single variety of apple.
In September I ate several of the single-serving apple pies made by Stacy Hawkins and her baking crew at Blossoming Acres in Southwick, Massachusetts, for our booth at the Eastern States Exposition (“the Big E”), in nearby West Springfield. We baked and sold more than 2,000 pies in 17 days, including 50 to one customer who returns every year.
I daresay that with the exception of New England Apple Association Executive Director Bar Lois Weeks, who appeared with me at all three events, I have tasted more apple pies baked by more chefs than anyone else in the region during these past few weeks.
This does not qualify me as an expert, of course. But as a judge in the Great New England Apple Pie contest for all six of its years, I have developed strong opinions about what makes an outstanding pie. Bar and I have had to give this issue plenty of thought over the years, too, as What Is The Best Pie Apple? is our most frequently asked question.
There is no single, or simple, answer. Many bakers swear by single-variety pies, and have their favorites. The early season heirloom Gravenstein comes immediately to mind, as it inspires great passion. A newer, early season apple, PaulaRed, was used in our pies at the Big E, and they were outstanding, with McIntosh-like flavor.
Gerri Griswold featured mostly mid-season varieties in her pies, including McIntosh and three of its offspring, Cortland, Empire, and Macoun.
One of her pies was made with a late-season apple, Golden Delicious. Another late-season yellow apple of note is Mutsu (also known as Crispin), and pie bakers have long raved about the hard-to-find heirlooms Baldwin and Northern Spy, among others. Idared is also considered a good pie apple — but not until winter, as its flavor improves in storage.
These are some of the best pie apples, but everyone has their favorite, and almost any apple can excel in a pie. Some of the best pies I have tasted used a mix of varieties rather than just one.
Gerri’s pies were all good, but the surprising winner was made with Honeycrisp. Honeycrisp has made a huge splash since its release in 1991, but it is a mostly sweet apple best known for fresh eating. Its sweetness apparently appealed to the majority, but it left me (and Gerri and Bar) wanting more apple flavor.
For the purposes of our tasting, Gerri makes each pie the same, using the basic recipe from Joy of Cooking. Normally she would make her own crust, for but consistency’s sake she used the same commercial pastry on each of her 12 pies. Each pie was cooked at the same temperature, for the same amount of time.
Naturally there was a McIntosh pie, and its influence was evident in the three pies made with “Mac babies,” Cortland (a cross of McIntosh with Ben Davis), Empire (McIntosh with Red Delicious), and Macoun (McIntosh with Jersey Black). They all had great apple flavor.
While McIntosh has the reputation of breaking down when baked, there was nothing mushy about Gerri’s McIntosh pie. I had a hard time choosing between it and the Cortland pie as my favorite. Call me a traditionalist, but in the end I picked McIntosh.
The surprise, if there was one, was the Macoun pie. Like Honeycrisp, Macoun is best known for its excellence as a fresh-eating apple. Macoun has more complexity and bite than Honeycrisp, retaining some of McIntosh’s distinctive sweet-tart flavor while adding unique characteristics of its own. Macoun is not generally praised as a cooking apple, but it excelled in Gerri’s pie, which was Bar’s favorite.
Cortland fared best in the 2015 Great New England Apple Pie Contest, featured in the winning pie for the third time. Tracy Sheffield of Worcester, Massachusetts, used all Cortland apples in her award-winning pie.
As judges, we do not know the varieties when we taste the pies, but Cortland was the sole apple used in the winning entries in 2012 and 2014, too, making a strong case as the best pie apple. Like Macoun, Cortland has plenty of flavor from its McIntosh parent, but it is a little less tart. Cortland is heftier and firmer than McIntosh, so it is often preferred by bakers.
Cortland’s size and texture are assets in a pie, but a good pie begins with outstanding apple flavor, and in this Cortland also delivers. The sweeter the apple, the less distinctive it tends to be when baked, especially when sugar is added. I want my apple pie to taste like apple.
Toward that end, spicing should be light. The most common apple pie spices — cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg — are delicious but intense. Cinnamon in particular draws out the flavor of apples, but only in modest amounts. Too much, and the spice overpowers the apples. I do not want to taste nutmeg 20 minutes after I have finished my pie.
Undercooked apples are another distraction. The texture of an apple pie, like its spices, should complement the apple flavor, and not draw attention to itself. My fork should easily cut through filling and crust. There should not be any partially baked chunks, and the apple slices should not stick together.
Creating a flaky crust is the most challenging part of a pie. It is an art learned through experience; if the dough is worked too little or too much, it will not produce the desired flakiness. If the dough is rolled out too thick or the pie is not properly baked, the crust can get gummy. The pastry should retain little pieces of butter or other shortening, and the water added to it should be ice cold.
Most pie recipes begin baking at a higher temperature, usually 400°F or 425°F, for 10 or 15 minutes before turning the heat down to 350°F. This melts the shortening quickly, creating the small air pockets and layers that make a crust flaky.
The pie’s top crust is where a baker gets to show off her or his creativity. Many of the entries in this year’s pie contest were beautiful to behold, with intricate latticework or enticing designs, if for only a few short hours.
Flavor and texture are the most important qualities in a pie, obviously. But as fans of the PBS television program The Great British Baking Show appreciate, a beautifully prepared and presented pastry whets the appetite and heightens anticipation for the rich eating experience to follow.
Apples are known for their versatility, but some ideas do not translate well in a pie. In past years, pies that combined apples with peanut butter, grapes, and bacon fell flat.
This year, one entrant mixed Cheddar cheese in his or her dough. It seemed like a good match, since apple pie is often served with a slice of Cheddar on the side. The sharpness of the cheese contrasts nicely with the sweet pie. But the cheese in the crust made it brittle rather than flaky.
I was alone among the judges in liking one pie that mixed apples with dark chocolate. It was well baked and beautifully presented, but I did not expect to like it. Yet I was intrigued by this unusual combination, the bittersweet chocolate contrasting with the apple’s sweetness.
The chocolate apple pie was one of 10 entered in the “apple and other” category, featuring more than one ingredient in the filling (the other 34 pies were “apple only”). The winner among this group was not a pie at all, but a cheesecake, baked by Sandy Petrie with Honeycrisp apples — like the pie favored by Gerri Griswold’s tasters.
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“This is the most simple apple pie recipe!” says Tracy Sheffield of her award-winning “apple only” pie. The pie scored high in all three categories of crust, texture, and flavor. Its design was simple but elegant, and it was baked to perfection.
“My mother and grandmother, from Pennsylvania and Ohio, respectively, used this recipe. I don’t know what apples they used, but I’ve decided using all Cortland is best. Over the years I’ve tried changes like orange juice or vinegar in the crust in place of water, or butter in place of Crisco. I always come back to this.
“Nothing beats it.”
Here is her recipe:
Tracy Sheffield’s Apple Pie
Slice 5 heaping cups of Cortland apples
Mix in ¾ c sugar, 1 t cinnamon, and 1 T flour. Set aside and mix a couple more times before filling crust.
Put 2¼ c flour in a bowl with 1 t salt. Using a pastry cutter, cut ¾ c Crisco into the flour until very small and crumbly.
Using your hand, add 6 T cold water, two at a time. Scoop your fingers under the flour, letting the wet pieces fall through, and gently whittle the larger pieces apart with your thumb. Do not over mix.
After the water is added, push crust together in a ball and cut in half. Roll out one half between waxed paper and place in the bottom of a 9-inch Pyrex pie plate.
Fill with apple mix, and dot with butter.
Roll out top crust, make a few decorative cuts for venting, and cover the apples. Cut off excess dough all around. Dip your fingers in sugar repeatedly while fluting the crust, then sprinkle the entire top with sugar.
Place on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 400°F, then 45 minutes at 350°F.
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We welcome comments and recipes from our readers. If you have a great apple pie or other apple recipe, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This one was submitted by Ralmon Black, secretary of the Williamsburg, Massachusetts, Historical Society. He does not specify the type of apples, and here is what he said about why: “I didn’t specify a favorite variety for my best apple pie recipe, because it would depend on the season and availability. … I would go for a firm fruit. Granny Smith, Baldwin — russets — of all the varieties we had in the old orchard, those were best, as I remember. Anyway, Gramma said so!
Best Apple Pie Recipe
3 c all-purpose flour
1 t salt
1 T sugar
1½ sticks butter (cold)
⅓ c lard (cold)
½ c ice cold water
1 egg white
Blend flour, salt, sugar, butter, shortening until pea-sized. Pour on cold water, blending until pastry ball forms. Divide in two balls, chill for 30 min.
Roll one out on lightly-floured board, carefully transfer to 10-inch pie plate and brush egg white all around inside the crust. Refrigerate until the filling is prepared.
6-8 c apples, sliced
6 T butter
3 T all-purpose flour
¼ c water
⅓ c sugar
⅓ c packed brown sugar
1½ t cinnamon
½ t nutmeg
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Melt butter, stir in flour to form a smooth paste. Add water, sugar, spices and bring to a boil. Reduce temperature to simmer.
Place apples in a bowl, pour sauce over all, tossing to mix well.
Spoon apples into the crust, mounding up an inch or two above the rim. Do not add so much liquid that it runs out, and reserve 2 T for the glaze.
Brush egg white on bottom crust edge, cover with top crust, trim and seal. Cut steam vents and brush glaze of egg white and reserved liquid on top.
Cut leaves from scraps, arrange on the pie, and glaze leaves.
Cook for 20 minutes at 400°F, then turn down to 350°F for 40-45 minutes, until golden brown.
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TWO RECENT BOOKS by Russell Steven Powell, senior writer, and Bar Lois Weeks, executive director of the New England Apple Association, explore the history of apple growing in the region and look at the nation’s apple industry.
Apples of New England (Countryman Press) is an indispensable resource for anyone searching for apples in New England orchards, farm stands, or grocery stores — or trying to identify an apple tree in their own backyard.
The book contains color photographs by Weeks and descriptions of more than 200 apples discovered, grown, or sold in New England, accompanied by notes about flavor and texture, history, ripening time, storage quality, and best use. Apples of New England offers practical advice about rare heirlooms and newly discovered apples.
Apples of New England includes chapters on the rich tradition of apple growing in New England, and on the “fathers” of American apples, Massachusetts natives John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”) and Henry David Thoreau. Apples of New England presents the apple in all its splendor: as a biological wonder, as a super food, as a work of art, and as a cultural icon.
America’s Apple (Brook Hollow Press) tells a rich and detailed story about apple growing in America, from horticulture to history to culinary uses. Powell writes about the best ways to eat, drink, and cook with apples. He describes the orchard’s beauty and introduces readers to some of the family farms where apples are grown today, many of them spanning generations.
America’s Apple looks at how America’s orchards are changing as a result of the trend toward intensive planting and the trademarking of new varieties, and what that means to consumers. Powell also writes about the fragile underpinnings of modern agriculture: the honeybees needed to pollinate the crop and the labor required to pick it, plus new and exotic pests and increasingly volatile weather.
Apples of New England and America’s Apple are available in hardcover at fine bookstores and orchards and online. America’s Apple is also available in paperback.
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