When admitting to a tendency to sentimentalize, I sometimes hear an “old-timer” explain by saying “I can even cry over a good piece of apple pie”. I have been known to say it myself so as to mystify a great grand-kid or two who will have no idea what I am talking about. I try though not to use the worn out canard, “As American as Apple Pie” so as to avoid insult to our English cousins, because right up front I have to admit in fact that several of the world’s best pie-making apples came to our shores long ago thanks to our English forbears and their pomological sensibilities. Bramley’s Seedling, Cox’s Orange Pippin and Ashmead’s Kernel come quickly to mind, sought after today sadly by an educated but declining few.
As I revisit this subject so close to my heart after several writing-years of neglect I find it tantalizing to return to the oldest cook book on my shelf – in fact America’s first cook book – published by Amelia Simmons in the year 1796. There on Page 24 is her receipt for Apple Pie and under Puff Pastes for Tarts on Page 29 Paste # 3 is her recommended receipt for an appropriate crust.
As the weeks pass by and we approach that time of year when apples are ripening and coming of age, we start thinking of apple pies as a piece of family history. From grown children who are planning their visits, orders for “Mom’s apple pie” are already coming in. It brings to mind an old truism often repeated by cookbook authors and those who pursue “food history”. As new families take shape. the “Mom” of that family tends to make two family dishes just like HER Mom did. Meat gravy and PIE CRUST. Looking back on three generations of our own offspring we find that largely to be true. Both my mother and my wife Shirley’s mother were devoted pie-makers who took seriously their approach to “the perfect pie crust”. It must be flaky, but soft and buttery, and able to hold up to long baking times and a range of fillings.
Shirley and I determined years ago that the ideal apple pie should be filled with a blend of three complimenting apple varieties chosen for sweetness, tartness and juiciness respectively, yet each holding its shape in the baking process. We call it an “Orchard Pie”. A combination might include McIntosh, Rome Beauty and Golden Delicious. Back in my Mother’s day, it might have been Winesap, Rhode Island Greening and Northern Spy. I think Shirley’s mother would very likely have featured a Red Astrachan – one of which grew in her back yard – as one of her choices along with Macs which are a New England standby. If I were living back in the day when the choice was wider, I would choose Roxbury Russet, Bramley’s Seedling and Newtown Pippin.
And along with Shirley’s incomparable pie crust under it all, there must be a generous slab of aged 4-year old white cheddar cheese at room temperature on the side! Aaahhh.
: Grand-daughter Brittany (now a mother of two herself) gets a lesson in pie-making from Grandma Shirley. Photos by Al Cooper