From Living Within, October (page 17).
My neighbour Barry happened to drop by the other day with a bag full of Bramley apples from the tree in his back garden. The apple harvest this year has been a paltry affair in many UK orchards, so I hear, our weather having interfered with the delicate timings in which the blossom might bloom and the bees might visit - wind and rain not being particularly conducive to either. But Barry brought some cheer with him as his tree is currently giving out a bumper crop, he also gave me the ingredient secrets to the success of his wife Jill’s apple pie and that was my cue to get out my pie pans and put this favourite back on the menu.
I like to think of apple pie as English. The French have probably rightly claimed the more showy tart(e), but the great US of A seems to hold apple pie dear too - something about “as American as …” springs to mind. Given that the American expression, if not the pie first favoured by its distant colonials, was only coined in the twentieth century, our claim might have an edge, a recipe having been recorded by Chaucer in 1381. But the Dutch and the Swedes make traditional versions too and the Germanic peoples have their strudel so I am not going to waste too much time wondering who has the best claim to ownership and will concentrate instead on what might make a good one.
An apple pie is a thing of simple parts - apples, sugar, pastry - the sophistication lies broadly in the choices you make within those three basic ingredients.
There are hundreds of varieties of apple differing not only in flavour, texture, acidity and sweetness but in how they behave when cooked. ‘Cookers’ are considered a bit of an English speciality, naturally sour they also have a tendency to disintegrate into a coarse puree on exposure to heat. 'Eaters’, by contrast, while varying from one to another, are sweet enough to eat in their natural state and, generally speaking, the sweeter they are the more inclined they will be to withstand heat without collapsing. Cookers are hence perfect for a pie or crumble or a sauce to accompany roast pork, for example, but are not the best apples to choose if you want to make a tart where the ability of the apple to hold its shape is an essential element of the finished presentation.
The most easily available cooker is the Bramley, large and green and misshapen, and with the beauty of being a little beaten out of shape if they are direct from the tree instead of the supermarket. If you want to spread your culinary wings and test your tastebuds a little, the RHS Gardens at Wisley are currently selling more unusual varieties outside their garden centre. There you can find irregular shaped and coloured rarities - cookers and eaters from their own trees for £1.50 per kg.
The pastry should be given due consideration. Shortcrust is my preference, unsweetened, but you could use puff as well. I have heard that it is a common thought that there is no need to make your own, and, if I am honest, there isn’t, but I am beholden to let you know that ready made shortcrust will not be the same as home made, and by that I mean that it will not be as good. I know that “life is too short …” but trust me, pastry is easy. Keep your ingredients well chilled before you use them, keep your touch light and give the dough time to 'rest’ - a half hour in the fridge after making and before rolling, and a little time after rolling and before assembly and cooking is all that is needed. Even the ready made stuff will benefit from a bit of a rest. Pastry making makes a bit of a mess, it requires a little skill (but not much), it benefits from you taking as little time and making as little effort as humanly possible and is almost infinitely reparable if you get into trouble. Ignore the phone, keep a cool head and enjoy the gentle therapy of getting your hands a little mucky; it will make the difference between an acceptable pie and a really good one and add a warm glow of pride to the whole affair.
Single crust (a lid on top of the fruit) or double (pastry lining the pie dish and sandwiching the fruit with a crust on top) - either is acceptable; some consider the former more English and the latter more star-spangled and others may even leave the pie topless (a step too far in my opinion). If choosing a double crust go all out to avoid an undercooked bottom; there are various tricks and tips for ensuring the pastry does not get too bogged down in excess liquid, but apples do contain some natural thickening agents so are easier than most fruit when attempting to avoid this crime against pie.
As for the sugar - almost any will do. Soft brown will add a caramel touch, white or slightly golden will give a cleaner sweetness. Sweeten according to your taste and that of the apples you have chosen but avoid overdoing it - a well flavoured apple will have acidity and its tart tones should not be overpowered by too much sugar. A little caster sugar can also be sprinkled over the top of the crust before baking (brushed first with a little milk, beaten egg, or melted butter) and add a glazed crunch to the top of the pie.
You can tinker a little as you will. Some add ground spice - cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, for example - and others consider this de trop. Some like additional fresh berries or autumn fruit - blackberries, blueberries, damsons - or dried sweetness in the form of raisins or sultanas, and some may add a dash of spirits - Brandy perhaps, or better still Calvados. Pile the fruit high below the crust; the fruit will shrink while cooking but the uncooked pie should have a nice dome that will set in place as it bakes. Once assembled, a few steam holes cut in the top crust to allow moisture to escape during cooking, the pie requires an oven hot enough to cook the pastry but not so hot that the outside crust browns before the fruit and the bottom have had sufficient time to cook - the fruit should be tender and the juices thick as they bubble up around it.
Fresh from the oven, wait until the pie calms down a little before serving; it can be served hot, warm or at room temperature with custard, cream or ice cream as you choose. Cold accompaniments provide a satisfying contrast to a warm pie and hot custard can liven up a cool one. Recipes are easy to find or come to a class and I will give you mine and a helping hand with it.
“good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness” ~Jane Austen