As Easy As Apple Pie
by Laura Praissman
There is always a day in September that may still be as hot and sticky as any summer day in July or August but you suddenly know that autumn is here. Summer is unofficially over and autumn has unofficially begun. The weather may not confirm the fact but the stores do. The remains of the new academic year’s school supplies are everywhere and the stores are filled with, as yet, untouched Halloween candy. Squash of every variety and color start appearing. Even a few small pumpkins can be had. But the most thrilling sight for me is the arrival of the new apples.
I’m so anxious to make my first apple pie of the season that my senses go into overdrive. I can imagine how beautiful the pie will look and how wonderful it will taste. I cannot wait to make the trip out to the east end of the Island to find the best of the new apples. This is knowing full well that I may be setting myself up for a huge disappointment. Who ever said making a great apple pie was easy? Certainly not me. Sure people like Martha Stewart and Ina Garten say it. They even show you how to do it. But to me they look like talented magicians who breeze effortlessly through these demonstrations producing only perfect results.
I’ve made dozens of apple pies over the years and many of them I have judged disappointing. I’ve made apple pies where the top crust concealed a large air space that was left when the apples cooked down. I’ve made apple pies where the juices ran out of the pie and onto the bottom of the oven where they burned to form an ugly Rorschach pattern while the pie was getting done. When the juices did not escape the pie while baking they would sometimes let go a flood of liquid as soon as I cut the first piece. I’ve made pies where the apples held their shape but did not cook thoroughly, retaining a slight crunch of raw apple and others that lost their shape almost entirely and ended up more like chunky applesauce. Pies have sometimes been either overly tart or cloyingly sweet and some had little, if any, real apple flavor.
There aren’t many ingredients in a classic two crust apple pie and the directions are not that complicated. So why can’t I consistently make a great apple pie? Having spent most of my adult life as a research scientist I knew what finally needed to be done and set out to solve the problem following well established scientific methods.
The short crust pie pastry was something I mastered a long time ago. That part of the pie I find relatively easy and consistently good. I know the apples from the east end of Long Island are the best. I can pick from any number of farms and orchards such as The Milk Pail, Woodside Orchards, Lewin Farms, Hanks Pumpkintown, Seven Ponds Orchard, Wickhams Fruit Farm, the list could go on and on. That leaves the pie filling. I needed to find the perfect ‘apple pie’ apple and adjust my other pie filling ingredients accordingly. I decided, therefore, to test fillings only and see if I could figure out exactly which apple, how much sugar, which thickener, how much lemon juice, how much cinnamon and how much cooking time and what temperature would produce the best filling for a perfect apple pie every time.
I’m lucky to live within driving distance of high quality, seasonal, local fruits and vegetables grown and sold at the orchards, farms and farm stands out on the east end of Long Island including both North and South Forks. Between late August and early November one can always count on a steady stream of first rate apples to choose from. With my classic apple pie recipe in hand I established a scaled down version of the apple pie filling by standardizing the amount of cored, peeled and sliced apples. I then standardized the other ingredients and fixed the oven temperature at375Fand the time to 15 minutes to adjust for the small sample size. Using four identical ceramic ramekins I was able to compare four different apple varieties at any one time. By standardizing everything but the apples I could simply compare apple varieties which I assumed would hold the key to solving my apple pie problem.