Though apples are native to Kazakhstan, and the first recorded apple pie recipe is from an English cookbook published in 1381, apple pie is thought of by many as the quintessential American dessert. Like so many other humble inventions, though the apple pie has roots elsewhere, it was American innovation that truly made it great. “Pie is the American synonym of prosperity… ” declared one New York Times editor in 1902, “no pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished.” With that bit of pie patriotism we venture to deconstruct the apple pie in search of the story behind each element, we take a look at how to make this basic dessert better and create a dish that is unique to your establishment.
What is an apple pie without the right apple? Some apples aren’t right for pies. They’re too sweet, too mealy, or too tart. Some disintegrate when cooked or release too much liquid, soaking the bottom crust. Braeburn apples have a sweet and mildly tart flavor with a unique citrus aroma, crisp texture and a little graininess. They soften fully while still retaining a good amount of texture when baked. Golden Delicious is another variety with characteristics that lend themselves well to being baked into a pie. The sweet, tart, almost buttery flavor is well balanced and rich, especially when cooked. Flavor and texture preferences vary so it’s best to experiment with the bounty of local and in-season varieties available in the Upstate New York region.
There are three basic ingredients in a pie crust: fat, flour, and water. The goal is to create a crust that’s substantial enough to repel juices from the filling, yet tender enough that it flakes into buttery shards.
The type of fat used will play a huge role in the finished crust. Lard makes an incredible pastry crust; it chills nicely and doesn’t break down under heat as quickly as butter. Though not as tasty as butter, lard makes for a relatively flaky crust but with a flavor less bland than shortening. Shortening has a very high melting point, which makes it easy to mix into pie crust. With shortening, there is less chance of over mixing or fat melting, ensuring flaky layers in the crust. However, while it’s the ideal ingredient from a texture perspective, it lacks the flavor of butter. The milk fats in butter allow crust to brown more than shortening or lard. Oil has a few benefits — as a fat in liquid form it can’t be melted and is easy to incorporate into dough. It’s also an excellent way to create a vegan-friendly dessert. Whatever fat you choose for your pie, it’s an opportunity to use local, organic ingredients.
For a tender piecrust, choose low protein wheat flour such as cake flour or pastry flour. All-purpose flour also works well for pie crust. Cold dough is essential for a flaky consistency. Refrigerate pie dough overnight before baking to allow the bran to rehydrate thoroughly. When choosing flour, aim for local and organic, and think of ingredients that follow food trends such as gluten-free diets.
SUGAR AND SPICE
The smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice conjure up memories of crisp fall days and warm baked apple pie. Before complex sea trade routes were established in the mid-1600s, apple pies were barely sugared and totally spiceless. After these items became more affordable, they were added to many food items, including pies. Spices and sweeteners are an excellent opportunity to create a signature flavor unique to a restaurant. Apple pie is a simple dessert that can really showcase a chef ’s ability to do basics better, setting their establishment apart from larger chains. Local, organic ingredients like lard, butter, honey, or maple syrup, and unique spice blends that vary from the traditional blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice, allow chefs to tell a story with pie, a story that will keep customers interested and coming back for more.
By Chef Eamon Lee, CEC