As Jane Austen once said, on a break from plotting the betrothal of 19th century spinsters, “Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.” She might also have added that a good apple pie is considerably harder to find than a good husband.
Contemporary crimes against apple pie are numerous: pastry tough enough to break your teeth; bland filling, too slimy or too hard; medicinal levels of spice and, perhaps worst of all, the phrase “as American as apple pie”.
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Apple pie is, of course, one of England’s oldest dishes, with recipes recorded as early as 1381 when cooks were instructed to “tak gode Applys and gode Spycis and figys and do yt in a cofyn and do ye forth to bake wel”. “Cofyn”, incidentally, was a 14th century word for pastry case.
Also Read Pamela Timms’ earlier articles
By 1932, when Florence White, Britain’s first freelance food writer, wrote her book Good Things in England, apple pie-making was going downhill fast. In a typically withering aside, Miss White notes a habit of the time, “A horrible plan is frequently adopted in cheap or middle-class restaurants of simply stewing some apples, baking a sheet of pastry on a tin, and serving a wedge of it on the stewed apple and calling it apple pie. This is a direct insult to the real thing, and to the customer who knows better.”
It’s time for the pie Jane Austen loved—flavoursome apples encased in a light pastry—to return to our tables. And with an apple crop large enough to sink the entire British Isles, it’s high time India got a piece of it.
Now, and this should be obvious, but I’ll say it anyway, an apple pie is only as good as the apples and pastry it’s made from. The apples have to be tart, slightly sour—the flavour of the pie should come from the fruit and not heavy-handed additions of spices such as cinnamon.
I also prefer apples which become fluffy when cooked—in my mother’s kitchen this meant Bramleys, or cooking apples. In India, the closest variety is the Granny Smith which, thankfully, is starting to replace the ubiquitous but tasteless Red Delicious in some Himalayan orchards.
The pastry is the plainest, simplest of shortcrusts but, properly made, will provide the perfect, crumbly and buttery foil for the soft sweet apples nestling inside. Pastry and apples, as Jane Austen might have said—“a marriage made in heaven”.
Traditional apple pie
200g plain flour (maida)
A pinch of salt
100g butter, cut into small cubes
Iced water to mix—approx. 3-4 tbsp
For the filling
4 or 5 Granny Smith apples
3 tbsp vanilla or Demerara sugar
Juice of one lemon
1 egg beaten with a dash of milk for brushing
Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. You will need a 23cm-wide metal pie tin with a lip. Metal conducts heat better than other baking materials and helps crisp up the bottom layer of pastry.
First make the pastry. In my mother’s kitchen, there were two cardinal rules of pastry-making. Firstly, everything—fats, water, hands—has to be kept as cool as possible. In an Indian kitchen this can often be tricky so I keep my pastry-making fats in the freezer until needed. It is also essential to work quickly and lightly. Those heavy, hard pastries are ones which have been over-handled. For this reason, many people use a food processor. I still prefer to make my pastry by hand, imagining my mother’s beady eye over my shoulder.
To begin, measure out the flour and salt into a large bowl and add the butter. Quickly rub the fat and flour between thumb and fingertips until you have a mixture which resembles fine breadcrumbs. With a knife, stir in one tablespoon of iced water at a time until the mixture starts to bind together. Don’t be tempted to add too much water, this will make the pastry hard. Lightly form the pastry into a ball, cover with cling film and put in the fridge while you prepare the fruit.
Peel, core and cut each apple into eight pieces. Put the apple pieces in a small pan with the sugar and lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of water. Simmer for 5 minutes until the apples are tender but not disintegrating. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely.
Take the pastry out of the fridge and divide into two. On a floured work surface, roll out one half until about a quarter of an inch thick and large enough to cover the bottom of the tin. My mother used to pride herself on rolling her pastry much thinner than this but quarter of an inch is a good place to begin.
Carefully lift the pastry and place in the bottom of the pie tin. Pack the cooled apples into the pastry case. Roll out the other half of the pastry, large enough to go over the top of the apples. Brush a little egg wash on to the rim of the tin. Place the pastry lid on top of the apples, then pinch together the pastry edges. You can use any leftover pastry to make shapes to put on top of the pie. Cut a couple of holes in the lid of the pastry for steam to escape then brush all over with the egg wash.
Bake for about 45 minutes, until the top of the pie is nicely browned, with perhaps some caramelized apples peeking through the holes. Sprinkle with caster sugar, stand back and marvel—you’ve made a pie! The world of baking is now officially your oyster.
Serve hot with custard, cream or sour cream. Eat cold, guiltily, for breakfast.
Pamela Timms is a Delhi-based journalist and food writer. She blogs at http://eatanddust. wordpress.com
Write to Pamela at firstname.lastname@example.org