Thursday, April 15, 2004

The Simplest Apple Pie. Not.

"...Makes one 8-inch square apple pie, topped with crumbled, rich sweet pastry."

Well, ok, that statement is mostly correct. I would not call this the simplest apple pie. I made this the other day because I'm in search of The Perfect Apple Pie and a perfect crumble topping. This seemed like the best of both worlds. The recipe is from Home Baking, by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.*

2 Cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar, plus optional extra for apples
12 TBL unsalted butter, cut into small cubes, softened
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
3 TBL sour cream

Scant 1 tsp minced lemon zest (optional)
Up to 2 TBL cold water, if needed
About 3 TBL fine fresh bread crumbs (see page 333)
8 medium-to-large McIntosh apples (nearly four pounds)
2 TBL fresh lemon juice

Ok, it looks simple enough. The crust doesn't have to be rolled but pressed into the pan. The crust is also used for the topping. Ok. The addition of egg yolks and sour cream to the crust was intriguing. I didn't see the advantage of the bread crumbs and, after having made it, I still don't.

Apples are, by nature, time-consuming objects to core, peel, and slice or chop. I would go so far as to say it's a complete pain in the neck except that it's a means to a wonderfully sweet end. These apples, however, are grated. In all my baking experience I'd never had an opportunity to grate apples and I hope I never do again. Use a food processor fitted with a grating blade. If you don't have one then don't make this recipe. Hand grating (they recommend a box grater) is slow and messy. Although I considered it, using a mandolin seemed like too much work. I do love my little wooden-handled apple corer that came to us from Kent's grandmother. For this recipe I'd have liked one of those hand-crank apple peelers. For those of you looking for gifts for the cook who already has a bunch of gadgets, take note :)

Let's discuss the use of Macintosh apples, anyway. Mushy. Grainy. Like Red Delicious but not as sweet. Turns brown in fifteen seconds, not that that's a big deal in this case. I'd definitely use Granny Smith instead.

The theory (from the book): "...Use Macintosh apples so that the grated apples will melt as they cook." The reality: They don't melt. Let's talk about mouth feel. These slightly mushy grated apple strings had a weird mouth feel. Like sweet, sodden cotton yarn. The look reminded me disconcertingly of Playdoh pushed through one of those spaghetti string tools to make Playdoh grass or hair. Here's what I'll do next time. Like I said above, I'll use Granny Smith. But instead of grating it I'll slice it and saute the slices in a little butter, sugar, cinnamon, maybe a dash of cardammom, then dump it into pan. It's a tried and true technique and makes the kitchen smell great. Make extra because it does reduce in mass, plus you want some for nibbling or to go alongside pork chops. I've noticed, too, that when you do a little apple saute before baking that the filling ends up being firmer, less likely to fall apart when you cut into it.

What's with the breadcrumbs? "...Sprinkle the bottom generously with the fresh bread crumbs."

First of all, why fresh? Second, if you have to "see page 333" to make breadcrumbs you've definitely left Simple Food territory. Break up a piece of bread and process it in a food processor, coffee grinder if you have one, or simply used the rest of the can of plain breadcrumbs that you didn't use for that Chicken Parmagiana two months ago. Alternatively, toast a slice of bread and mash the hell out of it. I used a hot dog bun ground in a small coffee grinder.

But, I don't get the point of the breadcrumbs. Why? It doesn't add to the taste. It doesn't keep it from sticking - we've already up greased up the pan. From what I can tell it doesn't do a thing. The crust is pretty substantial and can stand up to the juices pretty well without the breadcrumbs, if that's what they are for.

"...Add water a little at a time if needed to make the dough come together, blending it in, then pull the dough together into a mass."

The crust. I think the crust has real potential but not in its current state and not using those instructions. My version: Add a little water to make it sort-of come together, then cover with plastic wrap and chill while you do the apples. Do not touch with hands. Don't "pull it together" because you'll want to mash it together like a normal pastry crust. Mashing it together has a kind of emulsifiying effect - warming and melting the butter, really getting things mixed together. No, no, no, that really isn't what you want here. This crumble wants to be crumbly. After mashing it and chilling it, well, it comes out just like any other dough. You may as well roll it out. I admit, though, I do like the richness of the egg/sour cream additions.

To this crust-with-potential I'd add some pecans, a handful, chopped but not too finely; barely a 1/2 tsp of salt because whoa was it bland. The "crust" is used for both bottom and top. On the top, sprinkle some sugar and cinnamon very lightly just to add a little top-crispiness.

Assembly. "...Press (1/2 the dough) evenly to cover the bottom; it will be less than 1/4 inch thick." But not much less.

By the way, I'd also make a double batch and use 1/4 to 1/3 on the bottom and the rest on the top. I like lots of crumble. I don't want to see my apples through the crumble. I want at least an inch of crumble. Otherwise what's the point?

Now, a year ago when my mom came to visit we had an apple pie "cake." That was something, a big hit. Never enough crumble. Wish I could find the recipe...

*if you'd like rest of the recipe, including all the instructions, let me know.