Monday, October 13, 2014

Building a Better Apple (for Pie)

Easier than you might think.
But the inside is the important part.
It’s been a while since I’ve done a cooking post. I’ve been cooking; I just haven’t been writing about it. Now I’m trying to make up for that. I’ve been meaning to write this one up for a while.

It’s fall and that means apple pie, right? I mean, who makes apple pie in March when the apple trees are (presumably) in bloom. I think you can find some apples at the supermarket year-round, but no one is convincing me that apple pie season extends much beyond the boundaries of Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

It’s almost obvious to say that there are two main players in apple pie: the crust and the apples. The crust part is easy. Either you find a reliable pie dough recipe or you go to the supermarket and buy some pie dough. I’m a fan of making my own dough, but let’s face it: the pastry shell is just a case for baking the pie in; people eat it, but the compliments come for the filling.

In an apple pie, that means apples. But what’s best? Some apples aren’t really suitable for cooking. Others, aren’t really eating apples. Yet others, hold their shape enough for cooking, but are also sweet and juicy enough for eating (my favorites). Red Delicious would be clearly unsuitable pie. I’ve always felt that the “Delicious” name was an attempt by marketing to trump reality, and I don’t consider it suitable for eating either. They seem to have been bred to capture the cartoon version of an apple; a beautiful shape, uniformly red, but meant more for looking at than anything else.

What we have here is a chance
to compromise.
The classic cooking apple is the Granny Smith, but I find it a little dry and bland, and when a pie is made out of nothing but Granny Smiths, I find the result kinda ho-hum. And, of course, it’s too tart and dry for eating out of hand. I like Macintoshes (not just for their computer association; they were the apple I grew up with, as the local orchard grew nothing but). Ironically, I found some sites decry the use of Macintoshes, while on the other hand, it’s one of the apples Mark Bittman recommends in his apple pie recipe in How to Cook Everything.

I’m sure you could find for any variety that’s remotely suitable for baking both supporters and detractors. And that’s where the solution lies. Lots of people have their definition of the “perfect” cooking apple, but if you really want a great apple pie, with all the varieties out there, why would you restrict yourself to only one variety of apple?

An apple pie takes about six apples (the recipe I use, at least). If the supermarket has six varieties of cooking apples, I’m a happy man. For my most recent apple pie, most of the apples on hand were eating apples, although they did have Granny Smiths. I bought two Macintoshes, two Granny Smiths, a Fuji, and a Braeburn. (The cashier was fine with it.) There are other apples I like, Rome and Arkansas Black are two favorite for cooking, and when you start mixing them, you start going for a balance.

If you look carefully, you
can see the different textures.
Now stop drooling on
your keyboard.
Granny Smiths make a tart, dry pie, but if you balance that off with something softer and sweeter, you’re building the better apple. Then you end up with pieces of apple that are firm, and others that are soft. The whole mixture holds together better. You can amp up the flavor without worrying that the sweet juicy apples are going to turn your pie into applesauce pie (which doesn’t sound terrible, but it is nice to have those pieces of apple).

Finally, in my kitchen, the letter “WWJD?” mean “What Would Julia Do?” I know exactly what she would do, and it’s not that difficult. I’ve been decorating my pies. For a while, I would just make a series of cuts in the crust to decorate them, but it’s really easy to turn leftover scraps into decoration. Just play with a knife, and if you mess things up, toss it away.

But the important part is how it tastes. My pie, if I have to say so myself, taste great. But you can see what the ravening hoards did to that one.

It’s apple pie season! Get baking, but remember not to fixate on finding the perfect apple, when you can built it yourself.
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