leave your inhibitions at the door
In the ‘90s movie “Sleeping with the Enemy,” Julia Roberts plays a woman who fakes her death to escape an abusive husband. She moves to a small town under a new identity, rents a house, and then gets caught picking apples out of the tree of her neighbor, a handsome local teacher. The rest of the plot is predictable—romance ensues, scary husband hunts down Julia but dies a gruesome death in the end. Barely escaping their own demises, Julia and hottie teacher presumably live happily ever after.
But the one scene I remember from that bad movie was Julia Roberts picking apples with her pencil-thin limbs and gathering them in the skirt of her flowing, flowery dress, and then just a few hours later, with no sign of errant flour having escaped off countertops onto the floor, she pulls a perfect apple pie from the oven. I probably watched this wistful scene in my studio apartment in San Francisco while eating tomato soup from one of the Campbell cans that lined my kitchen cupboard like an Andy Warhol museum. Julia Roberts just looked so beautiful, feminine, and carefree, effortlessly baking an apple pie in her country kitchen. At that moment, I wanted to be that pie-baking girl.
Other than that, I never had any desire to make apple pie. I don’t even like apples that much. But just recently I picked up an apple pie from Wiard’s Orchard in Ypsilanti that was surprisingly good despite having been mass produced—likely because they used a mix of local, in-season apples, which made me think of making apple pie again. Then I got stuck with the dessert course for a big dinner at my parents’ house with all of my family in town. I tried to lobby for the appetizer course—“I’m not much of a baker, Mom”—but she held her ground on what she needed me to bring. It was time for my apple pie baking fantasy to finally come true.
I did some research and selected a well-reviewed apple pie recipe from Williams-Sonoma. I read some other blogs on the topic of apple pie and took the advice to use a combination of apples, as they compensate for each other’s weaknesses. (Makes sense to me.) I selected organic Braeburn, Pink Lady, and Granny Smith apples from big displays at the local Whole Foods Market here in Ann Arbor. They were impeccably fresh and I agree with another blogger on the topic that apple pie should only be made in fall or early winter, when they’re in season. Otherwise, you’re making a pie with months-old apples, or those grown in the southern hemisphere.
Even though I’ve never been big on apples, I began to appreciate them more while doing some taste testing during the slicing. My favorite was the Pink Lady, with an almost floral flavor. The Braeburn tastes like s classic fall apple, and the green Granny Smith offers the necessary tartness for pies but are too bland for snacking.
Peeling and slicing 6 lbs. of apples for two pies sounds like a lot, but it went fairly fast. Williams-Sonoma, of course, advertises a pricey apple corer with its recipe, but no need. I learned a lot of good techniques from a knife skills class I took at Kerrytown several years ago that came in handy here. For symmetrical produce with inner cores/seeds, first cut off the bottom so that the fruit sits flat. Then slice all four sides off the fruit close to the core. Then you can cut the sides into slices.
I cooked the apples in sugar and spices until just tender. Earlier in the day I had made the dough and put it in the fridge for a few hours to firm up. Now things were going to get interesting—working with the dough. To make my life more complicated, I had decided to use cute little autumn leaf dough cutters my husband used to make pumpkin pies many years ago. They had sat in a drawer ignored except for a brief stint as play doh cutters when my kids were young. It was time to use them for their real purpose again.
But when you start working with cute little cutters and drawing veins in leaves with toothpicks, and you are doing this with two pies, you are complicating your life. Dough is impossible to work with when it gets warm, and it gets warm fast. So there was a lot of fetching dough from the fridge, rolling out in four different disks, putting scraps back into fridge, putting cut-dough disks back into fridge, pulling dough scraps from the fridge, and rolling out dough for cutouts. (Tip: I put my MacGyver hat on and found that a “pizza peel” worked extremely well for lifting the pie crust in one piece off the rolling board it was sticking too.) I’m happy to report the pies came out extremely well, like . . . classic apple pies. Crust was nice and flakey. Williams-Sonoma’s recipe was good, but next time I’d add more cinnamon. But anyway, take a look:
In the end, I was glad I got stuck with the dessert course for the family dinner. I finally got to be the girl baking pies in the kitchen. But this was real life, not a Hollywood movie. As I was putting the pies into the oven my husband walked into the kitchen and laughed at the scene: flour all over the counters, flour on me; I had what they call in chef parlance a “messy station.” Then my husband said, I kid you not: “This looks like the scene out of a movie.” Yeah, it sure did. Although I know he was talking about a comedy starring Lucille Ball, not Julia Roberts.