It is often said that cooking is art and baking is science. Cooking was so natural to a right-brained, artistic type like myself. I viewed a recipe as the canvas on which I would create my masterpiece. A blank space to which I would add my own color with a pinch of this, or a dash of that. If a recipe called for paprika, I could substitute white pepper, or cumin, of whatever I wanted. The resulting dish may not have resembled the original, but was capable of standing on its own merits.
So when I decided to try my hand at baking, I began with the same sort of “devil-may-care” attitude, playing fast and loose with the recipes. Here’s the deal folks: when it comes to baking, recipes are not mere guidelines. They are more like scientific formulas, where each ingredient plays a crucial role in the final outcome. Oh, you CAN substitute margarine for butter in a chocolate chip cookie, but you don’t get a whole new cookie creation. You simply get a weaker chocolate chip cookie. One lacking the full flavor and texture of its buttery counterpart. In baking, your ingredients must be fresh, the steps must be followed, and the ratios of dry to wet ingredients, or fats and leavening need to be respected. This holds especially true in bread and pastry. Stray from those ratios, or use poor quality ingredients and your soufflé will fall. In fact, it may never even rise.
After I had earned sufficient lumps in basic pastry and bread making, I figured I was perfectly equipped to take over the baking of the Holiday apple pies. My Grandma was not an especially notable cook, but had always made a fantastic apple pie. When her age and declining health made it impossible for her to continue to do so, and since it just isn’t possible to have Fourth of July, Memorial Day, or Labor Day without homemade apple pie, I decided to take up her rolling pin and forge ahead. I figured it would be a piece of cake. Oh, that it were that easy…
My first apple pie was a huge embarrassment of failure. My pastry was good, as I had whupped the pastry making years ago. And it looked beautiful. I guess it would have been lovely if we hadn’t actually had to cut it or try to eat it. The golden brown, flaky crust on the top gave way to a great runny mess underneath. Basically, half-raw apples swimming in spiced cider. I poured off juice a few times, and more would appear in its place. This not only made all of the flavors run down the drain with the juice, but made the bottom crust a rather gooey, glue-like mess.
I have always taken a scholarly approach to problems, and this was no different. I bought several books on the topic, and read voraciously. The biggest problem with apple pie, is apples.
You see,it appears, are all so different. This may seem elementary to you, but growing up I really only knew of three kinds. Red delicious, granny smith, and golden delicious. I had heard talk of McIntosh and Winesap, but never actually ate them. My youth and inexperience told me that apples were apples. They could be used interchangeably. The books told me something else. Apples, you see, are full of juice. Some have a lot more than others. Some apples hold their shape while baking, while others turn to mush. And here’s another little gem…Different varieties of apple taste different. Yep. Who knew? I honestly don’t know why I had to read that somewhere, but bless my blond-headed heart, I did.
I began buying every new apple variety that came out, and trying it. I go online and research it. Is it best eaten out of hand, or baked? Does it hold its shape? So whereas I only ate red and gold delicious apples twenty years ago, I don’t eat either now. Among my favorites for eating out of hand are Honey Crisp, Pink Lady and Fuji. For baking, I love Jona-Gold.
But my all time favorite, for any application, is the Tentation. Don’t go word-smithing me on that–that is how it is spelled. It is a bright gold variety from New Zealand, with a beautiful orange pink blush to it. The flesh is crisp, almost yellow, with a very strong, almost spicy sweet-tart flavor. It holds its shape well, and has a moderate amount of moisture. Bad news–it is only available three weeks in June, and doesn’t seem to be widely available. When they are available, I buy bushels full, peel them, slice them, and freeze them in ziplock bags so that I can make pies out of them during the holidays.
Anyway, that same year I decided to tackle apple pie, my annual county fair was holding its first ever apple pie bake off. I challenged myself to enter a winning pie. I spent three weeks baking pies, and entered the following recipe in the event, which won a blue ribbon, and the distinction of winning the First Annual Kendall County Fair Apple Pie Contest. I used Jona-Gold that year, but use Tentation when I can (as of this writing, HEB has some in stock). If you can’t find either, then use a mixture of Granny Smith and Gold Delicious.
I am including the alternative crumb topping for Dutch Apple Pie, as well.
ALL AMERICAN APPLE PIE
8 cups apples, peeled and sliced (Jona-Gold, or Tentation)
1 T cider vinegar
1/4 C brown sugar
1/4 C sugar
1/4 C flour
1/4 t salt
3/4 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
3 T heavy cream, divided
2 T coarse sugar, or sanding sugar (I used gold sanding sugar)
Recipe for 2 crust 9” pie pastry
Preheat oven to 425* and place oven rack in lowest position.
Place apples in large mixing bowl. Toss with vinegar. Mix together all dry ingredients and toss well into apples.
Roll one half of pastry into a 12” circle, and place in the bottom of a 9” pie pan. Pour filling in, making sure filling is tightly packed and higher in the center. Drizzle 2 T cream over the apples. Roll second dough into 12” circle and place over filling. Tuck the edges of the top crust under the bottom crust, and seal (crimp, pinch, etc..). Cut slits in top to vent steam. Bake at 425* for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and brush with remaining heavy cream, and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Return to oven and bake an additional 20-30 minutes, until golden brown and juices are thick and bubbly. Cool 3-4 hours before cutting.
Dutch Apple Pie–omit the second crust. Crush 1 sleeve of buttery round crackers into heavy crumbs. Mix with 1/4 cup sugar and 4 T softened butter, to form crumbles. After 30 minutes baking, sprinkle the crumb mixture on top of filling and finish baking.