Celebrate the Fourth of July with an American classic: apple pie

kpurvis@charlotteobserver.comJuly 1, 2014 

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A sprinkle of hot cinnamon candies gives the Red Hot Apple Pie bursts of color and flavor.

T. ORTEGA GAINES — ogaines@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Our favorite apple pie tips

    • Recipes often call for “sliced peeled apples,” but they’re really peeled, cored, then sliced. Here’s how we do it: Peel all the apples, working around the stem. Cut them in halves from the stem to the blossom end, then into quarters. Use a paring knife to trim away the core on each quarter. Then cut each quarter across into 1/2-inch slices or lengthwise into wedges.

    • A bit of acidity, usually apple cider vinegar or lemon juice, in pie dough helps to relax the gluten and makes it easier to roll out.

    • When you make crust, keep it cold: Use cold fat (butter, lard or shortening) and ice water, then chill the crust for at least an hour before you roll it out.

    • If you have trouble with pie crust tearing, roll it out on plastic wrap or wax paper. It’s easy to turn it over onto the pie plate and move the crust into position. Peel away the plastic or paper and finish crimping the edge.

    • Warm pie is tempting, but if you cut a fruit pie too soon, all the juice runs out into a puddle. Let it stand several hours so the fruit reabsorbs the juice, then refrigerate to chill thoroughly before slicing. Reheat a slice if you want warm pie with your ice cream.

    • We prefer a glass pie plate. You can see when the bottom of the crust is brown, and it doesn’t get scratched and rusty like metal pie pans.

Shouldn’t we all be able to make a passable apple pie for July Fourth?

It’s the food that’s supposed to define our patriotism and the thing we claim to be: “As American as apple pie.”

Except that we aren’t, really. The American-apple pie connection has holes as big as the Grand Canyon.

There are no apples that are native to America. There were no apple trees growing here until European settlers planted them. And they mainly planted them to make cider, not pies.

Oh, those Americans knew apple pies, all right. The earliest recipe for apple pie – pears and apples flavored with saffron – dates to 1381 in England. A Dutch version of apple pie was printed in 1514. And the French, of course, have long had a well-known dish called tarte tatin, an upside-down apple pie baked in a crust-covered skillet and then flipped over.

So how did the apple pie get so hooked into the image of America? First, once apples were planted here, they thrived and quickly became a staple in areas like New England. Unlike the crisp, dry apples grown in England for cider, the apples grown in America tended to be sweet.

Second, apples also fit in with the American view of ourselves as a no-nonsense, farm-centered people. In “Apple Pie: An American Story,” John T. Edge quotes Henry Ward Beecher: “Of all fruits, no other can pretend to vie with the apple as the fruit of the common people.”

Those common people, though, delivered quite a blow to the apple farmers of America when Prohibition shut down cider-making in the early 20th century. According to some sources, the Apple Marketing Board of New York stepped in to start the campaign to get people to make pies with apples as the American thing to do.

Other sources say the first reference to apple pie as a definition of American values was in 1921, when a Chicago opera singer, Alice Gentle, was raising money for an opera that she said would be “as American as apple pie.” Fifty years later, the idea had become so entrenched that everyone understood the significance of Chevrolet’s catchy and kitschy advertising jingle, “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.” (If you’re old enough to remember 1971, it will probably take awhile to stop humming that.)

And all of that brings us back to the Fourth of July. Even though apple season is a few months away, the apple pie is still considered the traditional dessert, the perfect thing to go along with all those hot dogs.

Not exactly apple pies

American ingenuity could never be satisfied with something as simple as apples. Our apple pie history includes:

Mock apple pie. Thrifty cooks who didn’t have access to apples made “apple” pie using soda crackers mixed with butter, sugar and water. According to “The American Century Cookbook” by Jean Anderson, the original version dates to the late 19th century. In the 1930s, Nabisco developed a version using buttery Ritz crackers flavored with lemon juice and cinnamon.

Zucchini apple pie. If you’ve got too much zucchini, especially the big ones, peel them, scrape out the seeds and slice them into semicircles to use instead of apples. With enough sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, it tastes pretty close to real apples.

Hypocrite Pie. The apples hide under a top layer of custard. Beth Tartan, the 1950s-era food editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, popularized this recipe in her classic 1954 book, “North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery.”

Which apples?

Sweet or tart? We like tart for pies. They hold their shape without becoming mushy, and they’re higher in pectin, which helps thicken the filling. Our picks: Granny Smith, Braeburn, Cortland, Empire, Rome, Jonathan or Golden Delicious.

Red Hot Apple Pie

Adapted from “Apple Pie: An American Story,” by John T. Edge (Penguin, 2004). While you can make this with a full top crust, a lattice top (or stripes and stars of crust, as we did it) lets you see the bright red bursts of color from the melted candies.

Dough for a two-crust pie

3/4 cup sugar, divided

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out crust

1/8 teaspoon salt

5 tart apples

1/4 cup honey, divided

About 1/4 cup candy Red Hots, also known as cinnamon imperials

2 tablespoons butter

1 egg, beaten, or egg white left from the pie crust

PREHEAT oven to 400 degrees. Combine 1/2 cup sugar with flour and salt. Set aside.

PEEL the apples. Cut each apple in half lengthwise (stem to blossom end), then into quarters. Cut away the core and any peel remaining at the tips. Cut across each wedge into 1/2-inch slices.

FLOUR a work surface and rolling pin. Roll out half the dough into a circle, lifting and turning, until the circle is several inches wider than your pie plate. Ease the crust into the pan or plate.

PILE half the apples in the crust, moving the pieces around to fill any large gaps. Drizzle with half the honey, then sprinkle with half of the sugar/flour mixture. Mound on the remaining apples. Drizzle with the remaining honey and sprinkle with the remaining sugar/flour mixture.

SPACE the Red Hots around the filling, pushing some of them down among the apples. Cut the butter into bits and dot it over the filling. Put the top crust on the pie, or cut it into strips and weave into a lattice on the top. Brush the top with egg or egg white and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar.

PLACE the pie on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for 45 minutes, or until brown and bubbling.

COOL for several hours, then refrigerate before slicing.

Sour Cream Apple Pie

Before she became editor of the now-closed Gourmet magazine, Ruth Reichl wrote a little cookbook called “Mmmmmmm: A Feastiary” in 1972. She recently reran this recipe from it on www.ruthreichl.com.

3/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup packed light brown sugar, divided

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)

3/4 cup sour cream

6 apples, peeled, cored and sliced

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

Dough for a 1-crust pie

PREHEAT oven to 400 degrees.

MIX sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 2 tablespoons flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, lemon juice and sour cream in a large mixing bowl. Peel, core and slice the apples, then add to the bowl and mix well with a rubber spatula, turning to coat the apple pieces.

FIT the crust into a 9-inch pie plate. Pile the apple mixture in, mounding in the center.

COMBINE the remaining 1/2 cup flour with the remaining 1/2 cup brown sugar and mix. Add the butter and cut in, using a pastry blender or your fingers, until crumbly. Sprinkle over the apples.

PLACE on a baking sheet on the lowest shelf of the oven and bake 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for 35 to 40 minutes, until browned and bubbling.

COOL completely, then chill before slicing.

Vinegar Pie Crust

Adapted from “Apple Pie: An American Story.” Vinegar relaxes the gluten and makes a crust that’s easy to handle.

1 egg, separated (see note)

1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar

3/4 cup warm water, divided

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup lard (see note)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

PLACE the egg yolk in a liquid measuring cup. Stir in the vinegar, then stir in enough warm water to reach the 1/2 cup mark. Set aside.

WHISK together the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the lard (or butter) and cut into the flour with a pastry blender until crumbly. (Or place in a food processor and pulse until crumbly.) Add the egg mixture and stir with a fork until the dough comes together. It should be moist enough to hold its shape when you press some of it together.

DIVIDE in half and shape each half into a flattened disc. Wrap each disc with plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate at least an hour before using.

NOTE: You’ll just need the yolk for this recipe. Save the egg white and mix it with 1 tablespoon water to make an egg wash to brush the top of the pie. Good-quality rendered leaf lard, often found at farmers markets, makes the best crust, with a crispy texture. You also could use half butter and half lard, or transfat-free shortening.

Yield: 2 (9-inch) crusts.

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