This article was published in the August 2014 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.
As the summer days wax into the high heat of August, farmers markets across Chicago fill with ever-ripening produce, from tomatoes to peaches, sweet corn to cucumbers. I especially look out for apples. Green and tart. Medium-sized.
If I’m lucky, I’ll find five to six perfect specimens for an apple pie. You should know, before I share how you, too, can bake a perfect apple pie from scratch, that my grandmother was an expert pie-maker.
Growing up, my grandmother made no fewer than three pies for Thanksgiving dinner: pecan, peach and apple. Sometimes she’d make rhubarb pie, too. The memory of these homemade pies stuck with me, so after I finished university, during a brief period when I moved back home, I took up pie-making for our ritual Sunday dinners.
To this day, my mom reminisces about how much she misses Grandma’s fresh and juicy desserts with their hand-rolled crusts. But she is grateful to me for carrying out that tradition. She frequently compares my pie to other apple pies, always proclaiming that mine is better. (Thanks, Mom!) Once my husband, Michael, discovered my talent, he would practically beg me to make a pie for even the dullest occasion.
In Ireland, years ago, I would bake a pie every Sunday. Tesco, a supermarket in Belfast, sold apples specifically for the purpose of baking. These apples were enormous, green and gnarly. They were so tart that without heat and sugar, they were inedible; my lips pucker just thinking about the time I made the mistake of biting into one. Michael would come home from work (in those days he worked on Sundays) to our apartment, which smelled like a tiny bakery, delighted to find a pie cooling on the stovetop. He jokes about how, in those moments, he fell more and more in love with me.
The best time for pie-making—I believe—is late summer or early fall. Finding ripe apples at the farmers market is a delight—so much so that I often purchase a dozen and make two pies. Once you start rolling out the crusts for one, you might as well get out two more sticks of butter to roll out a top and a bottom for pie number two.
Some bakers rely on contraptions to peel the apples. I’m of the old school. After experimenting with various peeling techniques, I settled on the one in which I grasp the peeler with one hand, the other free to guide the apple, holding it steady as the skin falls away underneath the sharp blade, filling the air with the aroma of freshly picked apples.
Once peeled, the apples are thinly sliced and collected in a bowl. In the same bowl, combine the slices with a bit of flour, sugar, a dash of cinnamon and just a small amount of freshly ground nutmeg. The apple slices are allowed to sit until they begin to settle on the bottom of the bowl. Once this happens, mix gently. Then, begin layering the pie dish, which should now contain the bottom pie crust.
Fill the pie dish layer by layer with the apples, until you get to the top. If you’re worried about transferring the top crust without running the appearance of the pie, fear not! Simply roll the crust around your rolling pin and then unroll it over your pie. Voila! Press the edges of the pie crust together. Etch a design in the top with a sharp knife and brush lightly with butter. You’re done!
Now your pie is ready for the oven. I recommend placing a baking tray on the rack underneath the pie dish, because the sticky apple-sugar syrup regularly bubbles over the edges and burns on the bottom of the oven. After baking for about 45 minutes, let the pie cool. Eat a slice with a bit of vanilla ice cream and a big late-summer smile.
Apple Pie (adapted slightly from the Betty Crocker Cook Book)
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup flour
½ tsp. cinnamon
dash freshly ground nutmeg
5-6 thinly sliced fresh tart apples
Preheat oven to 425 F
Bake 40-50 minutes until crust is golden brown
Makes one 9-inch single crust
1 and ½ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter (slightly cool)
3 tablespoons cold water
Combine flour and salt in a bowl. Blend butter in with your fingers until mixture is course. Add water 1 tablespoon at a time, and gently mix dough after each tablespoon of water until dough ball forms. Do not over-knead! Place dough on a lightly floured surface and roll into a 10- to 11-inch circle.