Quest for That Perfect Apple Dessert
“My mom makes the best apple pie!” “I bet her crust isn’t the perfect flaky consistency of my grandmother’s.”
“Oh, but you haven’t had my mom’s apple torte—it’s heaven!”
Have you heard or been part of that conversation? There’s something visceral about our connections to our food memories. And there’s no chance you can sway an opinion. After all, I too believe my grandmother made the best apple pie. Dare you disagree with me?
With fall in full swing and apple season upon us, apple pie is the quintessential dessert. There are probably as many apple pie recipes as there are varieties of apples. In fact, when I searched AllRecipes.com for “apple pie,” 508 recipes popped up. Can there really be that many iterations?
The answer is, decidedly, yes. It’s what I call similar, yet different. The recipes share very similar ingredients and techniques, but the stories associated with the recipes are what make them unique and memorable.
Let’s start with mine. My Nana did not operate in the world of written recipes unless forced to write them down to share with someone else. Her filling was trial and error: sliced apples, sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon, maybe some raisins—all to taste. And her crust was made just like her non-recipe for pasta: “some flour, a pinch of salt, butter and water. Mix until it was pie dough consistency.”
For me, that was a fairly useless recipe. I tried to replicate her pie but always failed. Then one day my mom, who also struggled to re-create Nana’s pie, decided to change things up. She said, “Forget the crust. I’ll make an apple torte with my cheesecake crust and a nod to my cheesecake with some cream cheese and apple filling.”
Here I’ve taken her recipe one step further and substituted almond meal for the flour to offer up a gluten-free version. Either way, if you are piecrust challenged, look no further!
Let’s get to some classic apple pie recipes.
When the Red Lion Inn reopened its doors in 1969 with the Fitzpatrick family at helm, the menu listed apple pie as one of the desserts.
Would it surprise you to know that the apple pie is a family recipe? Nancy Fitzpatrick’s Nana May (Mary Pratt) actually taught the chef how to make it. To this day Nana May’s apple pie is still offered as the featured dessert. The staying power of a recipe that connects us to the past is like a vise grip on our soul. And eating apple pie at the Red Lion Inn brings to life the idiom “like motherhood and apple pie”—it’s wholesome, homey and very American.
Lisa Newman, founder of Cookiehead Snacks, created her apple pie by mistake. One day when Lisa was a professional baker in Washington, DC, she was simultaneously making her apple pie filling and mixing a chocolate cake batter. While buzzing back and forth between tasks she accidentally added sour cream to her apple filling. “Oops,” she said, “that was supposed to go in my the chocolate cake.” She decided to bake the pie anyway. Not only was it delicious, her “Accidental Apple Pie” won a Julia Child award.
While many naïvely think of apple pie as being very American, its roots are actually in Great Britain, Europe and Eastern Europe. In fact, the apple itself dates back to ancient times and may be the most cultivated of all the fruits. Klara Sotonova, owner of Klara’s Gourmet Cookies, grew up in the Czech Republic where her family grew all their own produce. Klara says, “In my family, the apple was THE FOOD!”
The popular dessert in Eastern Europe isn’t apple pie, it’s apple strudel. But let’s face it, all the ingredients are the same, it’s the technique that is slightly different. Klara reminisces that when her great-grandmother Emilie Sundoba made the strudel, “It leaked and caramelized. And that sugary caramel was the best!” Klara admits that as a kid she took the abundance of strudel for granted and now, as an adult, when she makes strudel it transports her back to her great-grandmother’s kitchen.
Klara’s husband, Jefferson Diller, describes apple pie as a time machine. “It takes you to a place that is warm and safe.” He described his mother’s fluted terra-cotta-colored pie dish as “bubbly and sugary and all kinds of good.” But Jefferson has his own opinion on apple pie baking. He likes to use Honeycrisp apples. He proclaims, “They are the Ferraris of pie baking. They are slightly sweet with just the right amount of tartness.” Jefferson confesses that he had to make several hundred pies to perfect his skills. You can find his sugary bubbly perfection at the Windy Hill Farm gift shop.
Whether you are a pie baking aficionado or a humble home cook, nothing beats the aroma of caramelizing sugar and apples in the oven. We implore you to give pie baking a try—there’s an apple pie recipe out there just right for you, be it with a traditional piecrust or some permutation. And when you do, we would love to hear your take on the iconic apple pie.