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Friday, July 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Natural pie
Apples are in season and the crust is no-fuss


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It's so easy. Instant gratification. In the bakery section of your local grocer's, they line the shelf, stacked high, bearing stickers that claim authenticity as proof: Freshly Baked Apple Pie. It's $5, you can't resist - you buy, you rush home, you unwrap, you snarf. Minutes later, you're left to ponder the sticky residue on your taste buds: Did I just eat half that pie?

There's something to be said for easy, but there's more to be had with process. And if you'd consider for a moment the inherent simplicity of actually baking an apple pie from scratch, the delight is in the experience. With apple season in its prime, there's nothing more satisfying than picking your own apples, baking your own pie and then savoring the, ahem, fruits of your labor.

The Madison area is home to several pick-your-own orchards, and you can easily peruse pickins' at pickyourown.org, which lists orchards by county. Betty and Vern Forest, owners of Eplegaarden in Fitchburg, suggest selecting baking apple varieties based on preference of "sauciness." If you prefer a saucy pie, try MacIntosh. For a medium-firm pie, try Cortland or Melrose; Haralson and Northern Spy create a firm, dense pie. A mix of apple varieties is also sometimes recommended as the best approach.

"I encourage people to go to the fall markets and sample apples," says Liz Chapa, a pastry chef for Bon Appetit, who also sells pastries at the Northside Farmers' Market. She recommends creating a free-form crust or crustless pie for those who are rolling pin impaired. Georgia Finnerty, certified baker and bakery manager at Hubbard Avenue Diner, however, emphasizes the crust. "All of my favorite recipes consist of the following: apples, flour, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt...and a great piecrust," she says. "To have a really great pie, you need the perfect pie crust."

For variations on the standard ingredients, both Chapa and Finnerty offer a multitude of ideas. Want to change up the fruit selection? Add blackberries, blueberries or cranberries. Says Finnerty, "Use fresh or frozen fruit and add enough to your liking. Carefully fold into the pie filling." For a newfound twist on the old American classic, Chapa says a snipped fresh herb, like lemon thyme, "is awesome" in apple pie. She adds fresh goat cheese to a right-out-of-the-oven pie for a subtle combination of tangy and sweet.

Purists, take heart. You can bake yours any way you please, and enjoy in much the same manner.

"For me," says Finnerty, "I'll take mine warm with a big scoop of ice cream!"

Georgia's Almost Famous Pie Crust

As bakery manager at Hubbard Avenue Diner, Georgia Finnerty bakes, eats, sleeps and dreams pie for a living. Her quest for the perfect crust has led her to this recipe, which "is wonderful and does require some rolling, but it's very easy when done between two sheets of waxed paper," she says. "It requires no additional flour or magic ice water to do the trick, and it comes out great every time - nice and flaky."

(Makes one double, or two single crusts)

  • 1/2 cup butter at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup Crisco
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2-1/2 cups flour
  • 4 tablespoons orange juice

Mix together butter, Crisco, salt and flour with a pastry blender until crumbly. Add orange juice and continue to mix with a butter knife until well mixed. Put half of the dough between sheets of waxed paper and roll out.

Take off the top sheet of paper and flip over onto a pie plate. Carefully peel off the bottom sheet of the waxed paper. Crimp edges as needed for a single crust or leave plain to top pie with second crust. Repeat with the rest of the dough.

Vern and Betty Forest's Apple Pie

Vern and Betty Forest, owners of Eplegaarden in Fitchburg, know their apples; they offer dozens of varieties throughout the picking season. "Most local apples are good for pie; it depends if you want saucy or firm," says Betty. She and her husband enjoy a medium-firm pie, which relies on Jonathan and Melrose apples. For this recipe, she says, "I go back to my 4-H days in Minnesota, when I won the county pie contest. I was runner-up at the state fair!"

Crust (makes four; enough for two 9" pies)

  • 3 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon cold white vinegar
  • 1 cup Crisco or shortening
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Approximately 5 tablespoons cold milk

Combine flour and salt. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture results in pea-size pieces. In a separate bowl, lightly beat egg, vinegar and some of the milk with a fork. Use the fork to stir wet ingredients with the flour mixture until a soft dough takes shape. "It shouldn't be crumbly, and it shouldn't be wet," states Betty. "Add more milk as necessary." Form dough into a ball and divide into four equal pieces. Freeze two of the pieces for later use.

Roll out the bottom crust into a 10" circle. Pat into 9" pie tin.

Filling

  • 6-8 medium-size apples, peeled, cored & sliced uniformly
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • cinnamon-sugar for sprinkling

Mix sugar, cinnamon and flour together. Toss the apples with the sugar mixture and place in pie tin. The apples should be mounded ("They'll bake down, so you'll get a full pie," says Betty). Dot the apples with butter.

Roll out the top crust and gently place on top, crimping the edges to seal. Sprinkle the crust with cinnamon and sugar. Slit the top crust to let steam escape.

If you are worried about the pie boiling over, place on a baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for approximately 45 minutes; steam should be coming out, and the apples should feel soft when tested with a fork.

Liz Chapa's Free-form Crust Apple Pie

Liz Chapa says she worked an entire year at Bon Appetit before she got a "proper mixer," so if you don't own a stand mixer, don't fret: a hand mixer will do, but try to handle the dough as little as possible. The filling for this recipe is based on one from The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, but the crust is Chapa's own.

Crust (makes one double crust)

  • 2-2/3 cups flour
  • 4 ounces chilled, unsalted butter
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 ounces chilled lard or shortening
  • 3/4 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup cold water

Blend dry ingredients in stand mixer bowl. Turn speed dial to "2." Small dice the butter and scrape into the bowl. Mix on "2." Cut up lard or shortening into small pieces and add to mixture; increase speed to "4." Add enough cold water for the dough to come together. "As soon as the dough comes together," says Chapa, "that's it. You're done."

"A free-form crust means you don't need a special pie plate - just a cookie sheet," says Chapa. "Roll out the dough remembering that you will fold over 1/2" around the entire edge."

Filling

  • 1-1/2 pounds apples ("I like a mix of apples: Jonathan, Pink Lady, Fuji or Granny Smith"), peeled, cored and cut into 1/4" slices
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons fresh squeezed lemon juice ("Don't use the store-bought stuff - it does make a difference")
  • 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, toss the apples with the lemon juice. In a separate bowl, mix together the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Stir this mixture with the apples to coat. Allow apple mixture to stand for 20 minutes. Pour mixture into a colander and let the liquid drain into a non-aluminum saucepan; heat liquid until it is reduced by half.

Place the apples onto the crust, allowing for a 1/2" border; top with reduced liquid. Dot fruit mixture with butter. Working in 2" sections, overlap the crust all the way around the filling.

Brush the pie crust lightly with an egg wash (1 egg mixed with 1 tablespoon water) and sprinkle with sugar. Chill the pie for 15 minutes in the refrigerator. "In a pinch, I throw it in the freezer for five minutes," states Chapa. Bake for 20 minutes or until juices are bubbling. Cool 10 minutes before serving.

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