Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Perfect Apple Pie

    I have been blessed to have been brought up in restaurants run by my parents, with each proficient and an expert in their respective kitchen areas. My Mom was the hardest working baker I have ever met and she never put out a dessert, pastry or bread products that weren't perfect. She did every single thing by scratch and, although it irked me in a childish way, she constantly washed her caked-on doughy hands in my clean dish water, it only meant that she used her sense of touch along with sight to properly prepare biscuits and pie doughs by hand.

   My Dad, as you all know, was my god-like idol as well. Even though he had his demons, and I had mine later in life, he was never-ending work-a-holic and knew more than any other man when it came to the kitchen. I think it had to do with him climbing the ladder to his position, rather than starting out at some high brow cooking school.

   The one attribute he had that I admired him for was his love of reading. Although he enjoyed reading fiction  mostly, he read nonfiction as well because he always told me to never stop learning.

   I never did enjoy reading fiction, but nonfiction...pile it on, especially if it had to do with how our ancestors cooked, the way they lived in backwoods New England and the daily bread they enjoyed. I admire them for the hard work involved when it came to something as simple as bread, cider, raising crops and the like because they didn't simply go to market to purchase ingredients to make pastries and pies, but grew their own wheat and made their own flour from the ground up. Much like how my Dad and I learned the four corners of the kitchen and restaurant. That is why I consider myself one of the most informed and knowledgeable New England food historians out there. If you choose what you read because you love to read about it, then the more you read and the more you WANT to read!

   So comes the purpose of this blog post. I have been blessed with opportunities my father would have adored to be part of, a food judge. In particular, a Yankee food judge. And especially an apple pie food judge.

   I just was invited to be a judge at the Great Maine Apple Day in Unity, Maine. And it was here that I decided to write my first article on apple pie because of the varied and delicious apple products that were available at this event. It was also here that I tasted what is the best apple pie I have ever tried and judged. Yup, in the middle of nowhere Maine, I took a bite of the most flavorfully balanced apple pie out of the 1000-plus pies I have judged. The reasons it was the best? Because they stuck to my Puritan ideals and preparation, which not many people do anymore. I hate to say it, but the closer you come to how apple pie was originally made, the better it will be. Never mind the fancy decorative crust or the new-fangled baking pan, if you stick with the following information, you will end up with a pie that our New England ancestors enjoyed and at the same time, conclude with the most delicious pie you have ever made.

1. First understand that apple pie was originally called apple tarts and had only 1 crust, and it was on top. They were called coffins for a long period of time as well. The crust was called a paste and as mentioned, only sat on top before baking. But obviously when entering a contest or even preparing an apple pie at home, you would want a bottom crust. There are so many handed down recipes for keeping the bottom crust from getting soggy during baking and, although some may say their way is fool proof, there truly is only one way of keeping it from getting soggy. And that is with the right pie pan. 
   Many bakers and even professional pastry chefs have their own "tricks" but honestly, by using the right pan is the only true method. Toss those earthenware pie plates right to the side! They do not conduct enough heat fast enough to prevent a soggy bottom. That basically leaves 2 types. An aluminum and glass. 

   If you have a glass pyrex pie pan, use it! It conducts heat quickly and evenly and browns the pie up almost perfectly. I can't say enough about glass cookware and especially when baking apple pie.

   Aluminum pans are my choice. There are two kinds of aluminum pans, disposable and non disposable. Each work great by for the BEST, use disposable because they are thin enough to heat up faster than any pan on the market but they have a con to it. Once baked, you are going to have a dickens of a time cutting the pie without cutting the pan itself. I simply put the pan in the earthern ware pie pan before cutting, hahahaha. Hey, found a use for that expensive pan after all. 

2. Apple sizes. Make sure you cut your apples thinly and with each piece as close to the same size as possible. That is half the reason(the other half below)why some of the apple pie is mushy while other bites are done perfectly. Never mind dicing or cutting huge chunks of apple. They will not cook at the same speed as you want your crust to brown.

3. The right apple or apples. While everyone and their mother will tell you to use Granny Smith, please try a different apple. There are a number or reasons why apples mush when baking, with the main being its cellular structure and ph level. Apples get mushy because of its pectin amount. You want the apple to hold its shape once it hits 184-degrees F because that is the temperature at which the cell walls start collapsing. Try Pink Lady, Braeburn, Honey Crisp, Cameo, Fuji and Granny Smiths. Try using 2, 3, 4 or more different apples in each pie. 
   Want to help prevent the cell walls from collapsing into mush? My secret it to prepare my apples, place in a large bowl or pot and pour boiling water over them. Immediately cover tightly and let sit for 15 minutes, then drain very well and cool enough to continue with recipe. This "pre-poaching" transforms the natural pectin into a more heat stable type and helps TREMENDOUSLY from turning to mush.

4. The crust. Now I will tell you what made the pie at the Great Maine Apple Day exceptional. The baker knew that it wasn't the flakiness of the crust that made it perfect, but the time she took to cook the pie. This ultimate search for a flaky pie crust is something fairly new and played no role in apple pie making for centuries. Heck, even biscuits should NOT be flaky. It was the advent of machines and preparation techniques using these machines that flaky products first took hold because they could be made in layer upon layer upon layer without human hands, thereby shortening labor.

Can you mimic this(or close to it) on YOUR apple pie?

   No sir...the kind of crust you are after in an apple pie is the type of crust that reminds me of an artisan bread straight from hot oven. Dark brown, super crispy without tasting burnt and with the taste of what a true Maillard reaction should taste. The Maillard reacton is what happens when the natural sugars in a product turn the resulting food brown. It will never create a burnt taste. And to give your crust a soft and delectable texture, use an acid. Many chefs use vinegar or lemon juice with their water when making crust, and both are great. But I use ice cold orange juice...INSTEAD OF WATER. Perfect, perfect, perfect.  A true compliment to that artisan taste. And remember that it isn't just the edge, or rim, of the pie that should be dark brown, the entire top of the pie should be as well. The top of the pie should be irregular, not smooth. 
   I also think it is a form of cheating when you glaze the top with egg white, any dairy product or anything that will hasten the browning of the crust, even a spice. If you can bake an apple pie and believe in your talents, forgo these "cheats" and do it the right way.
   Having too many large bubbles popping up when baking? Only to be completely hollow when you slice into it? Be sure to properly vent to the top. This also helps in the pie liquid thickening and reducing. 

(Amelia Simmons in her cookbook only had two ingredients in her pie paste(crust). 2 pounds of flour to 3/4 pound of butter. 

5. Butter pats right on top of the apples. We Yankees have been adding butter to apple pie for millenia. If you add 6 teaspoon sized butter pats placed evenly around the top of the pie before the crust, it will taste like heaven. A HUGE difference.

6. Seasonings, seasonings, seasonings...wait, too many seasonings! Many, and I do mean many, cooks add so much seasoning, the apples get lost. I do understand that our day and age, sugar is found in every single thing, in one form or the other. Candy counters have more types of sugar-laden sweets than I ever thought possible when I was a child. Desserts, treats, pastries and more are easily obtainable at a cheap price now than when I was a child as well. That is why our palates are craving sugar at a much higher rate than in decades past. (This is why I came out with It's Just That Simple brand of products, but that is for another time)
   We tend to crave sugar and spices too much now. So when using cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves or nutmeg, just add enough to accent the apples, not bury them(Didn't Marc Antony once say that about apple pies....no, that was Caesar)
   I use only 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon per 5 cups thinly sliced apples per pie. I also add 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg and 1/8 teaspoon allspice. Try mace for a true Yankee flavor. Use the same amount as you would allspice and omit the nutmeg. Mace is almost exactly the same flavor profile as nutmeg, but more intense.
   (Want to know a little tidbit that will actually turn an apple pie into something special? Rose water. Yup, our ancestors used this in apple pies and it truly is a great addition. Yes, you can still buy real rosewater as well online.

   As for a thickener, I use cornstarch and a hair over a tablespoon per pie. I mix the cornstarch with the seasoning and toss the apples all together before putting them in the shell. If you prefer flour, use 1/4 cup per pie. I don't like using flour because there is much more of a chance you are going to have flour lumps in the pie.

   Now when I say that unfortunately I am a purist, a Puritan purist to be precise, it gives me pause at times. It makes me seem old fashioned and not ready for taste elevations that today's chefs may bring to the table. I really do like different tastes, originality and new flavor combinations. But I also want the true essence of the dish or main ingredient to shine through, as it should. I want to taste the centuries gone by when the sweetness of the fruit was in front of the sugar used. I want the flavor of the main ingredient to hit me before any other spice. I want a crust that is meant for an apple pie and if there is one thing out of all these ingredients and preparation methods that really should not change is the way the crust was "back in the day". After all, if it ain't broke, don't use duct tape on it...or something like that. 

   I could go on and on about that perfect apple pie, but it truly does take patience and trial and error to make a pie that you enjoy personally and one that will be a proud addition to your families heritage. But these are the basic precepts when making that phenomenal apple pie and these tips come from a long line of chefs and a true New England bookworm.