As American as Apple Pie

What could be more American than apple pie? We have all grown up with the idea that the fruit-filled pastry represents America as much as the 4th of July and baseball. Sometimes reality flies in the face of perception or, at the very least, requires some clarification. In the same way that American society represents a melting pot of its composite components, so too does what we consider to be our native foods. As various immigrants and settlers fanned out across the United States, they brought with them their national traditions, which reinvented, recombined and reformulated into what we consider to be American cuisine. Which, in turn, leads us to that all-American apple pie.

Pies, in their original incarnations, were not generally considered as desserts. Many European cultures have a form of savory main dish pie somewhat along the lines of our potpies which were anything but dessert. Romans were known to encase meats in a flour and water paste, which would be baked, sealing the cooking juices within the “pastry shell”. The nursery rhyme that speaks of four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie was not far from the reality of the situation. English cuisine featured all manner of different meat pies, from the Scottish Bridies to English steak and kidney and Shepherd’s pies. Certainly these European main dish pies involved pastry with a filling, but that filling was not the stuff of desserts.

Then, of course, there is the apple itself. Despite our fascination with such folklore as Johnny Appleseed, in point of fact, the apple is anything but American. Apples were naturally indigenous to areas of central and southwest Asia, China, parts of Italy, Switzerland, and Greece. The fruit was brought by the Romans to England and by the Spaniards to Mexico and South America, but it did not appear in North America until the mid-1600’s, when the pilgrims brought seeds with them to Massachusetts. It wasn’t long before orchards were established, with the first American apple orchard reputed to have been in Boston on Beacon Hill. The apple, which could be stored in fruit cellars and contains a rich variety of vitamins, minerals and nutritious elements, became a staple in the American diet.

These were not the apples that we typically think of today. The hybrids we see in our grocery stores are specifically bred for appearance and shelf life. The original apples are now only found at specialty orchards that carry such heirlooms as the Winesap or Yellow Sweeting. These are apples that generally have a far superior taste and texture, but limited shelf life and an appearance which is not nearly as appealing to the eye as a perfectly formed Red Delicious apple.

So, the stage was set in America for the convergence of European pie with an imported fruit which had become an American mainstay. It is thought that the first fruit pies were probably the invention of the Pennsylvania Dutch, who changed the age-old idea of a savory food stuffed within pastry. They replaced the stewed mutton or kidneys with the apples they found they had in abundance. It became not only popular, but also somewhat of a status symbol, taking a European pastry, and turning it into something uniquely American. So we now celebrate it as a part of Americana, the apple pie: made from a fruit which is not native to North America with the pastry technology that began in ancient Rome spreading through the British Isles. In fact, we are celebrating a collaboration which found fertile ground among the components of our melting pot to create something new from diverse elements. What could better serve as the standard for representing Americana as a culinary treat than something that finds its roots in the melting pot which is America.

Recently LEAF had its fall harvest festival. People were invited to bring their favorite pie for tasting and judging. There were any number of wonderful confections, but as it should be, the favorite was a good-old American apple pie in the form of Heidy Hilty’s Harvest Apple Pie. Ms. Hilty has been good enough to provide the Lakewood Observer with her award-winning recipe, which follows. It is, indeed, apropos that this old American favorite is the winning entry as a demonstration of not only our national melting pot, but also our culinary consolidations.

Heidi’s Harvest Apple Pie

Basic pastry dough for 9-inch two-crust pie*

¼ cup packed brown sugar

½ cup sugar

½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. nutmeg

2 tbsp. flour

6 large apples (I used 2 each: Pink Lady, Honey Crisp, Granny Smith)

2 tbsp. butter

Preheat oven to 425º. Line 9-inch pie pan with half of the rolled out pastry dough. Mix the sugars, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and flour in a large bowl. Peel, core and slice the apples and toss them in the sugar mixture, coating well. Pile them in the lined pan and dot with butter. Roll out the top crust and cut in strips about ¾ inch wide (can vary thickness of lattice strips as preferred). Place the strips on the filled pie, weaving them in and out of each other. Fold the edge of the bottom crust up over the ends of the strips and press together. Crimp the edge all around. Bake 15 minutes on lowest rack of preheated oven (Fannie Farmer taught me that it makes for a crisper bottom crust this way), then lower heat to 350º and bake for 30-40 minutes, until top is nicely browned.

*Basic pastry dough recipe is from Fannie Farmer Cookbook (13th Edition), page 639. Pillsbury refrigerated roll-out pie crusts can be used for a convenient and tasty substitute.

Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 3, Issue 23, Posted 11:04 AM, 11.05.2007