Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Nana's Apple Pie (The Last Apple Pie Recipe You'll Ever Need!)

There's a bit of a story behind the title of this post. You certainly don't have to read it. You can skip on ahead to the recipe instead and that's perfectly fine with me. You see, the "recipe" for this pie is not technically my own. It is my tried and tested interpretation of how I believe my grandmother (aka, Nana) made her apple pies. So, if you've decided that you want to learn the "behind the scenes" about the title of this post, then please read on.

My Nana (my dad's mom) made the best apple pie I've ever tasted. Honestly, there wasn't much that I can recall, that she didn't cook well. Her chicken and biscuits was to die for and her roast pork dinner with all of the "fixins", was just heavenly. Sadly, she was already quite elderly and had pretty much stopped making that type of "Sunday dinner" style food, by the time I was old enough to really take an interest in cooking. Although I never had the opportunity to sit in her kitchen and watch as she prepared those incredible meals, I did learn quite a bit from listening to my mother, aunts and cousins through the years, when they'd talk about what they had learned from her.

For instance... when I make chicken and dumplings, I cook my chicken the same way that Nana did when she made chicken and biscuits. I "fricassee" it, which is really just a fancy way of saying that I cook it low and slow. Instead of boiling it in water or broth, I pan fry or saute it over a medium low flame, until it's a rich (and tender) deep golden brown. Now, this method might take a little longer, but believe me... it's worth every second of any extra time that it takes and I honestly couldn't imagine cooking it any other way.

OK, what does chicken fricassee have to do with apple pie, you ask? Well, it's not so much about the dishes... it's about the woman who prepared them and it's about her cooking philosophy. She didn't use recipes and she didn't follow trends. She was the wife and mother of hard working, dairy farming men and she cooked the food that she knew would make her husband and three sons happy. Food that would keep them nourished and their stomachs full, as they worked all day and well into the night, to keep the family farm running. She cooked what they loved ...with love.

Her apple pie was no exception. My grandfather, my dad and his brothers liked their pie sweet and with lots of cinnamon and spices. Now, my Mom - God rest her - wasn't much of a baker, so she usually bought the "par-baked" Mrs. Smith's pies from the grocery store that you finished baking before serving. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with doing that.

But... (you knew that but was coming, right?) My Dad was a very picky eater. He was very much used to the way his mother cooked and I know he would have liked to see my mother follow in her mother-in-law's footsteps. He never openly shared his opinion about the store bought pies. He loved my mom and always appreciated what she did to keep the household running. He just wasn't one to openly criticize anyone. He did, however, have a, ahem... subtle way of making his feelings known about the pie.

He'd quietly go to the cupboard and get the sugar bowl and the cinnamon shaker. Then, when he got back to the table, he'd gently lift the top crust on the slice of pie on his plate and he'd sprinkle liberal amounts of both, all over the filling inside. When he was satisfied with the amount that he'd "enhanced" the pie's sweetness and the cinnamon content, he'd place the crust back on top and start eating his dessert. Of course my mother saw it, but she never got angry or upset about it. She never said a word at all. She knew that the last thing my Dad ever wanted to do was hurt her feelings. So, she'd just turn a blind eye and act as if nothing had happened and we'd all go on, happily eating our pie.

Anyone who knows me well, is aware that I was and always will be a bona fide, card carrying member of the DGS (Daddy's Girl Society). My Dad was (and still is) my hero, so when I started cooking in my early teens, the person who's praise I sought out the most and who I tried my hardest to make happy with the food that I cooked, was my Dad. So naturally, when I took on the challenge of making my first apple pie, I remembered that sugar bowl and cinnamon shaker and I set out to make an apple pie that my Dad would never need to quietly "doctor" up... ever again. What follows is the result of that mission - **with one little change.

I hope that you enjoy it, as much as he always did. :)

Nana's Apple Pie
(makes two 9 inch pies)
  • 10 Large Cortland, McIntosh or Empire Apples (I use a mixture)
  • 1 & 1/2 Cups Granulated Sugar (yes, that's the right amount)
  • 1 & 1/2 Tbls Ground Cinnamon (yes, that's right too!)
  • 1/2 Tsp Ground Allspice
  • 1/4 Tsp Ground Ginger
  • 1/4 Tsp Grated Nutmeg (fresh, if you have it)
  • 1/8 Tsp Ground Cloves
  • 4 Tbls Butter, (one half stick - sliced/cubed into eighths)
  • 2 Pkgs of 2-count refrigerated pie crusts** (or your own homemade)
** When I have the time, I will make my own pie crust dough. But let's face it... at Thanksgiving time, I have so many other dishes to prepare, that I need every extra second I can spare. And after several years of stressing over it, I eventually turned to the refrigerated pie crusts. (sorry, Nana!) I always use the brand shown in the ingredients photo above, so I can't vouch for any of the others out there. But I can say that this one comes pretty darned close to the real deal and to be honest, I've never had a single complaint. Not even from my very picky, very vocal husband!

If you'd like to make your own pie crust, I use (and highly recommend) Martha Stewart's Pate Brisee recipe. It's tender and flaky and it's easy to make! You can find it by clicking HERE! Just remember that you'll need to double the recipe for two 9" double crust pies.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F.

OK, let's begin! Wash and peel your apples and set them aside. I always peel all of the apples first and then core and slice them. Once I get started, I'm pretty quick with this part of the process, but if you end up with a bit of oxidation (the browning that occurs when peeled apples are exposed to the air) it won't matter in the finished pies. You'll never see it once the cinnamon and other spices are added to the filling and the apples cook down in the pie.

I can't recall ever making apple pies with a single type of apple. I like to use a mixture of two, or even three, different apple varieties. We have dozens and dozens of wonderful orchards here in the Northeast and the predominant apple varieties that you'll find at roadside stands and in grocery stores here in upstate NY are generally Cortland, McIntosh and Empire, so it's usually a combination of those apples.

What you want are apples that are sweet, juicy and will cook down easily. Now, you don't want to end up with applesauce in your pie, (there is actually such a thing though) but if there's anything that drives me nuts, it's an apple pie with undercooked or chewy apples in it. I understand that this is a personal preference and you might like to have a bit of bite left to the apples in your finished pie, but if you want to recreate this exact recipe, I'd recommend you use a combination of the apple varieties that I mentioned in this post.

If you can't find these particular varieties where you live, just ask a local produce professional which apple varieties are native to your area and would be best for making pies and they'll let you know just what to look for.

I start by making four cuts around the perimeter of the apple, getting as close as I can to the core, without picking up bits of the seeds or hard membrane that exists around it. You'll know if you've cut too close to the core because you'll see and feel the rigid membrane when you lightly run your finger over the cut side. If you do feel it, just take a very sharp knife and scrape the area, until you no longer feel it there. It shouldn't take much.

After you have the "meat" of the apple off, you can either toss the cores in your compost pile or give them to someone who has one. Or, you can put them in your freezer in zip-top bags to be used at a later time to make fragrant "simmer-pots" that will make your house smell like you've been baking, even when you don't have time! The aroma of apples, mixed with whole spices and maybe a bit of citrus peel, placed in a pot of barely simmering water on your stove top, can be a lovely thing to experience throughout the Fall and Winter seasons! Ahhhh...

When the apple is peeled and the larger pieces removed, lay those pieces, cut side down, on your cutting board and slice them into 1/4 to 1/2 inch slices. They don't have to match exactly. You just want to keep them all relatively close to the same thickness.

Once all of the apples are sliced, place them in a large mixing bowl that has plenty of room to stir them without the apples flying out of the bowl. lol

*Before adding the sugar and spices to your apples, prepare your pie plates by adding the bottom crusts to each one, so they'll be all ready for the filling and the top crusts.*

Add your sugar, cinnamon, allspice, ginger and cloves and give it all a good toss, making sure that all of the apple slices are well coated with the mixture.

Yes... I really do use that much cinnamon! Trust me.... it makes a wonderful pie!

When the spices are stirred in, sprinkle your AP flour over the top as evenly as you can. I don't add the flour with the sugar and spices because I find it has a tendency to clump up that way. Trust me... you do not want any big chunks of dry flour in your pies.

Add the pinch of salt (1/4 tsp?) and stir it all again to incorporate the flour and salt evenly. You'll find as you're stirring, that the apples will begin to exude some of their juice. This is a good thing. A small amount of juice, mixed with the sugar and spices and the flour, will help the apples cook down and will create a nice thick coating of sweet, cinnamon-y goodness throughout your pies.

On the flip-side, too much juice can result in a very thin runny filling that will pool up in the pan when you cut it later for serving - plus it can make the crust soggy. Now, that just isn't good pie. The key to making sure this doesn't happen, is to not let the mixture sit for too long before adding the filling to the pans. Not more than a couple of minutes, really.

Quickly (and as evenly as possible) pour your apples into your two prepared pie plates, mounding the filling ever so slightly, then dot the tops of each pie with 1/2 each of the butter slices/cubes.

With the refrigerated crusts, there's usually just enough extra that hangs over a 9" pie plate for me to tuck the top crust underneath the bottom and then pinch them gently together to seal it all up.

I then use my left thumb, placed in between my right thumb and index finger to flute the edges.

(I couldn't hold a camera and do this at the same time, so in case you've never done this before, I found the photo below at Eating Well's website. It's a single crust pie, but it's the same technique. Mine never looks quite this perfect, but remember... practice doesn't always make perfect and that's OK! Hope it helps!)

Photo Source: Eating Well

Then, using a sharp knife, I poke a hole in the center and make 4 slices at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o'clock, starting about 1/2 inch from the center hole and ending about 1/2 inch from the fluted edge. I then sometimes make shorter slits in between those. This is functional (by letting excess steam escape from the  filling) and it's also decorative.

Place the pies in your 425 degree preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes. I always put a sheet pan lined with foil on the bottom rack, to catch any juices that bubble over. Trust me... apple pie spillover is full of sugar and can be pretty nasty!

(Please excuse my very dirty oven - these photos were from last Thanksgiving and there had been 2 massive & very spattery - is that a word? - turkeys cooked in them just a short time before.)

Allow the pies to cool for at least 15 to 20 minutes before serving. This will allow the filling to set up a bit so that it doesn't run out all over the place when you cut a slice.

Slice up your pie as needed and serve on it's own - or with your favorite apple pie topping. Some like whipped cream, some like a big slice of cheddar cheese. Our absolute must around here is, hands down, a big scoop of vanilla ice cream!



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