The happy surprises continue chez PTMYB. Thanks to the sharp, clever, witty and beautiful Juno, and her swell essays on bowl food, I’ve had a mindboggling number of hits over the past two days, as well as new friends and acquaintances saying hello, looking up recipes, and just generally reminding me why I started this silly little page in the first place. It has been four years—four years on December 1, actually—since I decided that what the world needed was 5,000-word monographs on Astoria, Queens and long rants about DeBeers ads and terrible poems by the former First Lady of Connecticut, and started PTMYB so that these essays would have a place to live. I can’t say that I’ve been happy with what I’ve done with the place, especially in 2007, but I also know that I’m not about to pack up and move out any time soon. Even when I am feeling dead boring and about as creative and inspirational as a lint screen, I do have fun here.
Speaking of fun, it’s been a little while since I turned out one of these:
Well, okay, it’s been about two weeks, if you count the pumpkin pie I made on Thanksgiving. If you don’t, then this is the first pie I’ve made since the end of sour cherry season in July, although I did turn out a batch of grape/hazelnut tarts in September, when local grapes were still in the market. I try to tell myself that it’s because Lloyd and I are trying to be better about eating our vegetables and giving the pastry a miss, but, no; I know when I’m fooling myself, or when I try to, anyway. I haven’t been baking pies because I’ve been off my baking feed. This is a shame, because I forget how much I love to bake them until I start a new one, flouring my pastry cloth and my rolling pin sleeve, patting out the chilled disk of dough, noticing with satisfaction that the butter hasn’t been overblended into the flour, but still remains in easily visible pats, the better to encourage flakiness in the final dough.
When I roll out a pie crust now, I think back to the first pies I ever made, some outright disasters, some disastrous in form but still edible, and occasionally even tasty, in content. Luckily, most of these pies were made after I met Lloyd, who is not only more than happy to eat a near-miss pie, but who is also more philosophical than I am about them. “There’s always a little learning curve when you bake something new,” he would say, kindly and reasonably. “Next time you’ll get it the way you want it.” I am ashamed to admit that I used to get peevish when he would say this to me. “But I’m not SUPPOSED to be on a learning curve. I’ve been doing this half my life. I should KNOW.” Why that dear fellow never stuck a fork into my forehead, I’ll never know. Now that I’m older, I realize that he’s right, and that really, there’s no shame in a learning curve. That said, I’m glad I’m over the pie curve. It’s a satisfying thing to blend butter and flour and sugar and salt and egg yolks and ice water together, and to know how much of each you need, and how much handling with which you can get away. Once upon a time, I used to flinch as I added water to the dough, convinced that I would add the teaspoon that would turn the whole thing into a chewy, tough, overdeveloped mess. I would bundle underhydrated crumbs into a general disk shape and send it to the fridge, loath to apply even the minutest pressure to it, lest I—gasp!—knead the dough. Three hours later I would try to roll it out, only to see it splinter into pieces and refuse to come together; the bits that would come together would develop a dark, waxy appearance, like old parchment. Stubbornly I would soldier on, pressing that unyielding crust into a pie plate, watching helplessly as new breaches would crack open, filling and baking the damn thing anyway, and then preparing for the next battle: sawing the caramelized bottom crust remnants off the floor of the pie plate. I don’t know how many hundreds of pies I made like this before I figured out that a) it is acceptable to test for hydration by squeezing some dough crumbs in your fist; b) if those crumbs don’t hold together, it is acceptable to add more water; c) once they do hold together, you can make a coherent disk out of them by pressing them together gently (you don’t want to knead them, exactly; just gather them and press them with the heel of your hand two or three times until a uniform dough just begins to form); and d) you can hedge your bets against overdeveloping the gluten by using pastry flour, but you can also use all-purpose flour and still turn out a fine, tender pie crust.
The peerless Yarn Harlot has written about the difference between process knitters and product knitters: Process knitters knit something for the thrill of the work-in-process; whether they are learning a new technique, or revisiting a technique they know well, the joy is in the work at hand. Product knitters may indeed enjoy the process as well, but for them, the real joy comes when the last stitches are bound off, the ends woven in, the whole worked blocked to size. I’m still a fence-sitter on what sort of knitter I am, but with baking, it’s no question: I’m definitely a process baker. I won’t say no to a slice of pie, of course—in fact, I’m waiting for the appropriate hour when I can say yes to this pie here—but I definitely bake a lot more than I can possible eat, even more than Lloyd and I can eat together, and end up sharing much of it with friends and coworkers. For me, the whole point of a pie is to roll out the crust and watch it behave; to mix fruit and sugar and spice and starch, or eggs and sugar and milk or buttermilk or chocolate; to pour them into the shell and admire how, even unbaked, the whole pie already comes together so beautifully, self-contained and self-assured; to notice the fragrance radiating from the kitchen and know that the pie is about ten minutes away from being perfectly done and ready to come out of the oven; and to pull that perfectly-done pie from the oven, knowing that once it’s cooled down all the way (hot-from-the-oven pie sounds really sexy, but really, you want to wait until it’s fully cooled down, even refrigerated in the case of some custard pies, before you cut into it), it will look as good as it tastes—and it’s going to taste great.
Well, that’s all lovely, Jen, but what about this pie? Why, I’m glad you asked. This particular pie is the Shaker Boiled Apple Cider Pie, from Ken Haedrich’s superb and satisfying Apple Pie Perfect. Ken Haedrich is one of my baking heroes: his pies (and soups and breads) are wonderful, and his recipes are about as close to foolproof as you can get. His magnum opus of pies, called, funnily enough, Pie, is pretty magnificent, too, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Apple Pie Perfect. I bought it in 2002, when I was enrolled in professional breadbaking classes at King Arthur Flour in Vermont, writing my business plan for my bakery, in love with production baking and prepared to work my heart out for it. After turning out hundreds of loaves of bread every day in class, I would come back to my hotel room and read through Ken Haedrich’s hundred apple pie recipes, vowing to try them all as soon as I got home. I haven’t tried them all yet, but I’m close.
But again, I digress. As an egg
nerd scholar, I have a soft spot for custard pies. I’m a particular fool for buttermilk pies, but really, anything that involves either dairy products or fruit juices, sweetened with sugar, thickened with eggs and poured into a pie shell, that’s a pie I want to meet. (Once upon a time, I began a conversation on Flickr with a fellow who was similarly impressed with the effect of milk, eggs and heat on each other; today, that fellow is a good friend, and he and I still pick each other’s brains about pie. It was he who engaged in the interstate chess-pie conspiracy with Ragnvaeig—and this gives me an excellent opportunity to clarify my previous post: the chess pie recipe was Amanda’s, but it bears a close resemblance, as chess pie variations often do, to Joel’s. But all other details are correct: Joel provided the technical assistance, Amanda provided the baking chops, and I was rewarded with the best chess pie I’d ever had.) This pie definitely falls into that continuum: you have eggs, you have butter, you have heat, and at the end of it all, you have pie. This particular pie, however, eschews milk and fruit juice for other liquids, namely maple syrup and boiled cider, magnificent stuff made from taking apple cider and reducing it to 1/7 of its original volume. You can certainly make it yourself, but I usually opt, as Ken Haedrich does, to buy a ready-made boiled cider produced by Wood’s Cider Mill in Springfield, Vermont. You can buy it directly from the mill (http://www.woodscidermill.com) or from the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Catalogue (http://www.kingarthurflour.com). The syrups are heated together with a little butter and enriched with egg yolks. The egg whites are beaten separately and folded into the mix, but not completely incorporated, resulting in a dense custard layer and a spongy, meringue-like top. The whole mix is poured into the pie shell over apples that have been sauteed in a little butter, just until tender—this keeps the apple pieces from floating to the top of the pie—and baked. The finished pie has terrific depth of flavor and resonance, thanks to the boiled cider, but it is also very, very sweet, thanks to that same boiled cider, as well as the maple syrup. Ken Haedrich recommends serving the pie with unsweetened whipped cream, which I think is a smart idea. Plain Greek yogurt is good, too.
Shaker Boiled Apple Cider Pie (from Apple Pie Perfect by Ken Haedrich)
makes one 9” pie
1 unbaked single-crust pie crust of your choice, rolled out, fitted to a pie plate, and frozen for at least 30 minutes
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 oz.) unsalted butter
2 large firm-textured apples, peeled, cored and sliced (Ken Haedrich recommends Golden Delicious; I used five very small Pink Lady apples I had in the fridge, which yielded about 2 1/2 cups)
3/4 cup (6 fluid oz.)boiled apple cider
3/4 cup (6 fluid oz.) pure maple syrup (I used grade B, which has a stronger maple flavor and is terrific for baking)
pinch of salt
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 eggs, separated
Preheat oven to 350F/160C/Gas Mark 4. Set an oven rack at the center of the oven.
In a skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and let it foam a bit. Add the apple slices and cook over medium heat until just tender, about 5 minutes. Take off the heat and leave the apples in the skillet while you prepare the custard.
In a saucepan, heat the cider, maple syrup and remaining butter just until the butter melts. The syrups will be very hot at this point; pour them into a bowl and let them cool for about ten minutes. If any scum forms on the surface, you can skim it off with a ladle—or you can just leave it be. Add the nutmeg and salt. Take a ladleful of the warm syrup and whisk it into the egg yolks, then whisk the tempered egg yolks into the remaining syrup.
Whip the egg whites to the soft-peak stage. Add the whites to the syrup mixture. Fold gently,but do not try to incorporate them fully. There will be a layer of syrup at the bottom of the bowl and a layer of egg white at the top of the bowl.
Remove the pie shell from the freezer and place on a sheet pan. (I usually put a silicone baking mat on the sheet pan to make cleanup easier; parchment paper works, too.) Spread the apple slices across the bottom of the pie shell. Gently pour the custard over the apples. Bake the pie for 45-55 minutes*, or until firm (i.e. it doesn’t ripple when you shake it gently). I usually like to turn the pie after about 35 minutes of baking; if you do this, just be gentle, as it’s easy to shake and slosh the pie. I learned this the hard way.
When the pie is fully baked, remove to a cooling rack and let cool to room temperature. Chill at least two hours. Chilling it overnight will firm the texture even more, and will help take an edge off the sweetness. Serve with unsweetened whipped cream or Greek yogurt.
*Edit: The pie has been cut into, tasted and deemed good by Lloyd. It is indeed a sweet and lovely pie, but it is also a bit underdone on the bottom crust. Although Ken Haedrich’s directions indicate baking the pie shell directly from the freezer for 45 minutes, adding another 5 minutes if the center is too liquid, I would hedge my bets and either bake the pie for an additional 10 minutes, or else blind-bake the crust for 15 minutes (10 minutes with pie weights, 5 minutes without, just until the bottom is dry to the touch). I sense that a Cooks-Illustrated-style test is in order.