by Ann Jaramillo
Here is my mom’s recipe for apple pie:
2 C. flour
2/3 C. shortening
1 tsp. salt
Mix 1/3 C of the above flour with ¼ C water.
Makes 1 double pie crust. Can be doubled, tripled, quadrupled.
Mix a mound of apples with heaping ¼ C of flour, 1 tsp. of cinnamon, 1 ½ C. sugar.
Bake at 450 for 15 minutes. Then 350 for 45 minutes.
Here’s what the recipe does not say:
- It really doesn’t make quite enough for a big glass pie plate. You sort of need to double the recipe. Roll out the leftovers, sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, and bake with the pie.
- About 90% of the time, an extra dab of shortening helps with the roll-out. I can’t tell you how much. It just has to feel right. The pie gods also have to be smiling down on you.
- Oh, yeah, you cut the shortening into the flour, then mix in the flour/water paste.
- Shortening means Crisco. Maybe it used to mean lard, but Mom never said it did.
- If you’re snooty about Crisco, go ahead and use part butter. You’ll get a different crust. It might, or might not, be better.
- The recipe might have come from someone in Kansas, or the old Joy of Cooking, or from my Grandma Petie. I don’t know now where Mom got it, and she’s gone, so I can’t ask.
- Sometimes you have to throw the dough away and start all over. This can happen if the weather is funky, or you’re crying because your brother died, or if you over-salted, or you wonder what the tiny crawly things are in the flour only to find your entire cupboard infected with tiny crawly things.
- One can eat a lot of uncooked pie dough. A lot. Be careful.
- Use your hands. Forget pastry tools. Feel the dough. When it’s right, you’ll know.
- It’s okay if the dough breaks and you have to do some patching. Some of the best tasting pie doesn’t look that pretty. “Pretty is as pretty does,” Mom always said. That applies to pie, too.
- After the first 15 minutes of cooking, take the pie out and put foil under it, unless you prefer a big smoking mess of bubbling pie juice on the bottom of your oven.
- Not-quite-ripe Gravenstein apples, picked straight off the tree in the backyard in the morning when the grass is dewy, make an awfully good apple pie. You can throw in a couple of golden delicious if you’ve got them. When I was little, Petie would ask Grandpa J. W. to peel and slice the apples. He’d do it quietly and perfectly, a white dish towel tied around his ample middle. I could sample as many as I wanted. He’d just do more.
- Don’t bother with ice cream. It doesn’t need it.
- By the way, this dough also makes a killer blackberry pie. Use only wild blackberries: not the big-as-your-thumb dusty, seedy ones found next to any old road or ditch, but the small-as-your-pinkie-nail ones that only grow on the logged off areas on the mountain sides, in far-flung patches known only to a few. If you don’t have your own secret spot, you’ll have to meet a guy named Mitch up on Route 29 by the giant downed fir tree next to the abandoned U-Haul place, and you’ll have to pay a lot for a gallon of them, but they’re worth every cent. Use a pinch of lemon zest, and way more sugar than you think you’d need.
- When you serve the pie, cut good-sized pieces. This is not “just a sliver” pie.
- Make two or three extra pies and put them in the freezer. You can be snooty about that, too, if you want, and insist only on fresh. I’d rather have the taste of those gravensteins in the deep of December when it’s rained for eight days non-stop, and the only apples to be in the store had are mushy cold-storage red delicious which make nasty pie and only passable sauce.
- Give the recipe away, over and over. I’ve never kept it a secret, because there’s no reason to. Fruit pie lovers often ask for the recipe, but most just look longingly at the flaky crust and oozy sweet filling, and say, “I just can’t make pie.” Of course, that’s not true. Anybody can make pie. The key is practice, and more practice. But I know good cooks with plenty of persistence who won’t make pie. It doesn’t have to do with a good work ethic, or even skill in the kitchen.
What’s hard to take is the disappointment. No matter how much you practice, or how closely you follow the recipe, pies very often disappoint. You can’t count on them to turn out. The crust will be tough, even though you’ve barely handled it. The filling will be watery, refusing to thicken up, despite the usual amount of flour or cornstarch or tapioca. The apples will be rubbery and stubbornly hard, or mushed into a goopy mess, though they’ve been baked just as always.
The disillusionment of pie making can be too close to real life. We do all the right things, we follow the recipes, and for what? See how things turn out, despite our best efforts? But here’s what I know happens if I keep on baking. I get, when I least expect it, a perfect pie. It feels like a gift I don’t deserve. The serendipity of its perfection gives me hope, and sense of continuity. It’s happened before. Here it is now. It will happen again.
Ann Jaramillo is the author of a novel, La Línea.