Autumn Apple Pie
Category: Desserts & Sweets | Blog URL: http://themoderngastronomer.blogspot.com/2009/10/love-for-autumn-part-2-apple-pie.html
This recipe was entered in The Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook contest, a compilation of the world’s best food blogs which was published in Fall 2010.
Photo: Christopher Testani
Well, there was no way I was going to spend all day picking apples and then fail to make apple pie this fall. There was only the question of how. I knew I wanted something traditional, with a nice balance of sweetness and tartness, aromatic spices, and a few out of the ordinary ingredients to add something special. And of course the crust had to be great - light, flaky, buttery and flavorful. After scouring all of my cookbooks, most of the internet, every inch of my pantry, I mixed, matched, hybridized and customized, until I came up with what I think is a pretty damn good apple pie that I would be proud to serve anywhere.
To begin with, I used the Northern Spy apples that I picked this month. I am convinced that hand-picked anything makes everything better, so if I'm taking the time to make a pie from scratch, my apples are coming straight from the tree, to my hands, into a pie. In my search, I didn't see any recipes call for or suggest Northern Spies. By far, most of the suggestions were for Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and sometimes Jonagolds mixed in. Unlike most of those apples, Northern Spies are not widely available outside their growing regions in the northeast U.S. I assume this is mainly due to certain qualities (easy bruising, irregular shape) making them less than ideal for long-distance shipping and supermarket retailing. Nonetheless, it's a shame because they make for great pies. The flesh is very crisp, firm and juicy, and its flavor predominately tart with a mild sweetness and a lovely aroma. In addition, they tend to store very well due to their late maturation.
The crust, of course, is a matter of intense debate and scrutiny. Everyone seems to have their own opinion and swears by it. Essentially, all the crust recipes consisted one of the following: all vegetable shortening, a shortening/butter mixture, all butter, all lard, or a lard/butter mixture, of varying ratios. Because the shortening adds no flavor, and tends to leave a greasy residue on the palate, I wanted a recipe with no shortening. I dearly wanted to try a lard or lard/butter recipe, since the online consensus was that lard gives the best flavor. But I just didn't have the time to seek out a supermarket that had good processed lard, and definitely didn't have time to spend rendering lard myself. Also I was a bit weary of getting too meaty/savory of a flavor in the crust. Perhaps another time I'll get to play with lard. For this one, I settled on an all-butter crust recipe I found on saveur.com, and used a high fat european-style butter (in this case, Plugra), and basic all-purpose flour.
In contrast to the fairly rigid procedures for making a good crust, coming up with the filling is a different matter, one where you can actually play around and have a bit of fun with the ingredients. Here, I didn't want to stray too far from tradition, or include other fruits, vegetables or anything that would alter the character of traditional apple pie filling too much. It had to be an honest apple pie. But I was surprised at how overly simple most of the filling recipes i came across were; most were comprised of only apples, some type of sugar (brown and/or white), cinnamon and sometimes nutmeg, and either flour or cornstarch as a thickening agent. Some included lemon juice or a similar acidic element. All of that certainly amounted to a good starting point, but I wanted to elevate that by adding more complexity and layers of flavor, while still remaining true to it's essential character. So I started experimenting.
For the sweetening elements, I had two goals: it shouldn't be too sweet, and the sweet components needed to impart not only sugary sweetness, but flavor. So i used a combination of white sugar, brown sugar, and an italian chestnut honey, for extra flavor and a slightly bitter, amaro-like quality, which I think complements the apple nicely.
For spices, in addition to the basic cinnamon and nutmeg, I added clove, ground star anise, and cardamom. Again, here I wanted a spectrum of flavors and fragrances; the deep, pungent spice of the clove, the smoky, licorice-like mellowness of the star anise, the sweet, warm fragrance of the cinnamon, the nuttiness of the nutmeg, and the herbal, lemony undertones of the cardamom, all coming together, enhancing each other and the apples. I also added some salt to contrast the sweetness.
The apples themselves were nice and tart, but I still wanted to include some other subtle acidity and citrus flavors as well. For the citrus notes, i simply added lemon juice and some orange zest. For additional tartness, I added a mixture of fresh apple cider and apple cider vinegar, which also acted as a means to incorporate different apple flavors.
Finally, I wanted to include some liquor. I had a nice bottle of 8-year aged rum I brought back with me from Trinidad that fit the profile perfectly. Rum, being distilled from sugarcane molasses, seemed a natural choice, imparting a deep, caramel-vanilla quality. I also included some Cointreau for its bitter orange flavor, and an additional bit of sweetness.
It all adds up to a lot of ingredients and flavors playing together, so its really necessary to use them sparingly and avoid anything becoming too overpowering. Ok, maybe I could have left few things out and not really noticed. But they all had a distinct purpose, and the end result really paid off, with the subtleties and nuances all coming through, working together harmoniously and deliciously. Perfect? Probably not. I was more than happy with it, but the best endorsement was watching my girlfriend's empty pie plate being scraped clean before I could even get the words "how is it?" out of my mouth. That's good enough for me.