Portland Oregon, early 1970’s:
My mother was a terrific baker. In Oregon we lived on a new big home on the old, and mostly sold off, homestead but she spent the spring planting the few acres left and the fruit trees were allowed to escape golf-lawn decimation. The rototiller, manned by an increasingly, impossibly deaf old man named Delbert Nodurft, came every year. We may have been his only remaining annual assignment.
We had a lot of very old fruit trees; Gravenstein apples, Newton Pippins, and one very old apple tree that I can’t recall. We also had several sour cherry trees. I love this fruit beyond measure. There was a black cherry, and a Royal Ann, which never bore well. I didn’t care for Royal Anns anyway. We grew raspberries and blueberries too. Blackberries grew wild in the back of the property. There was an ‘Italian Prune’ tree with the nicest plums ever, dusted in blue, very small and succulent. We could never ‘put up’ all of them, although we filled freezer after freezer and rooms with jam. There were pears and a peach that never bore well, and an ancient crab apple that did, although we didn’t do anything with the fruit. It was ‘ornamental’. Not to leave out the nuts. There were ‘filbert’ (hazelnut) trees lining the property, which we ignored, an English walnut tree, and an enormous black walnut tree which we tried to ignore. It may have been the most prolific black walnut in the world.
Mother planted the full acreage. To the east was a corn patch, and to the West, carrots and dill and basil and beans, beans, lettuces, tomatoes of every sort, and Lord remembers what else. I lost touch with it as I entered my violently urban teens. But this story is about her apple pie.
My memories of my childhood are shabby. I will have a strikingly clear one, and a year or two of none at all. I was a bullied child, at home and at school, and I guess I just didn’t want to recall that much in the future. But I remember making pies with my mother, and other dishes, in great detail. I suspect that these recollections come from before 1st grade started.
She used the Gravenstein apples, ugly by today’s ‘standards’ but unbelievably tasty. They are a green apple but the green apples in the store bear no resemblance to them at all. I pray that someone is rescuing that heirloom breed. Gravensteins are thin skinned, lumpy in appearance, and as sweet and sour as it is possible to be. Juicy. Some of them had what my mother called ‘watermarks,’ strange translucent streaks near the core that indicated a particularly tasty apple for plain eating. We ate a lot of apple pieces while making pie.
Mom did not peel the apples; the skin was very thin, and in the ‘70’s people believed that the skin held all the vitamins. I wonder what lazy Chef made that one up; anyway, it’s not true, but I don’t mind skin in some dishes.
Several cups of apples were peeled, cored and cut into little triangles. I wasn’t allowed to use a knife, so I peeled and then watched from my tall wooden stool. She set the apples aside and pulled out the cutting board, which was built-in, rare in modern kitchens.
She floured the board well and made the pie dough, carefully instructing me. She cut the butter into fine little pieces with a dinner fork. She frissaged it, a French method she had learned about from Julia Child, before patting the pastry into a little round flat discs which she quickly refrigerated in layers of ‘wax paper.’ She would explain that cold pastry and our mutually cold hands would make the pastry perfect.
She then tossed the apples with sugar, cinnamon, and a few tablespoons of flour, measuring everything by eye, then tossed the mixture until each little piece was totally coated, crunch with sugar and well scented with the cinnamon. I loved snacking on those little pieces of sweet apple.
Then we rolled out the dough, a little roll in one direction, turn and then roll the next a little, and so on, always turning until the bottom of the pan could be over covered more than completely with thick, almost perfectly round crust. We trimmed the edges off and used them to repair any accidental cracks along the rim by wetting our fingers to make a sort of glue. Then this crust went back into the fridge while the top piece was rolled out. She did not roll it in the parchment, only with a little flour on the large wooden board with her ancient wooden rolling pin.
Then she assembled the pies, heaping each pan with apples until it was as high as a haystack. She usually made two at a time and gave one away All of the apple pies I see anymore are flat, which make more sense for pumpkin or chocolate cream. The edges of the top crusts were carefully sealed with a fork, and then decorated with little vents, using a paring knife. The pies would cook for 15 minutes at 375 degrees and about 45 at 300.
I know the recipe by heart and I don’t keep it ‘secret’. The problem is that I find that it no longer works, at least in the South where I have spent my adulthood thus far. I’ve adapted her crust, because it seems that even the best butter I can use doesn’t work exactly like the butter she bought from Swenn’s, the local drive-through dairy. I think today’s flour is a little different too.
As for apples I cannot source good ones here. If you’re lucky enough to live someplace with great apples…well, the recipe is above.
For the crust, my mother used a cup of bread flour to a half cup of butter per crust, a pinch of salt, and a tablespoon of ice water. I honestly don’t know exactly how or why this worked.
I now use cold cream instead of water, skip the salt (health reasons) and find I have to add about 1/4 cup of cream to bind the mix. I switched to cream feeling that that much water would be too much and make a tough crust.
As for the apples where I now live, the problem isn’t solely that they lack flavor. After several tries I found that they lack pectin, for some reason. Gravenstein apples gelled in the mix but the ones I can buy now don’t.
I’ve never worked with pectin but when I try again I will, because I’m tired of making expensive, soupy pies. I’ve had the same trouble with today’s blueberries. One day I will research this but my current guess is that this has something to do with shipping qualities. Maybe the pectin was bred out by accident as apples were born to have thick skins and bruise less.
Nonetheless, take this as a warning and be prepared to add a lot of cornstarch if you care to try to make this pie with store bought green apples.