There are few things as iconically Americana as apple pie. It’s the centerpiece at Thanksgiving, served up at summer barbecues, and remains the center of various familial debates about whether it should be served on its own or a la mode. Thousands of recipes exist both on the Internet and in the minds of home cooks throughout the nation as to what they constitute as the “World’s Best Apple Pie”, so I am not here to challenge those claims as I do not have the interest in challenging sacred family recipes. What I intend to do is show how the humble apple pie, while steeped in American lore, is much more than simply “All-American.”
When you look at the ingredients for apple pie, it seems relatively simple: a butter-based crust, sugar and spice and everything nice, and the namesake apple. But when one begins to look deeper into how these ingredients became connected, it shows a much more intricate tale of colonialism and international trade. Apple pie in its most basic form can often be traced back to the Dutch and English colonial empires; the Dutch spice trade and later, the British colonization of India and trade with the Ottoman Empire gave Europeans access to the spices and apples that are staples to the recipe.
So why is it “as American as apple pie”, when in fact the components are far from uniquely American? The term was coined in 1796 in the first American cookbook, American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons and has since gone on to become a key symbol in American culture, wartime propaganda, and marketing. At the end of the day, however, the idea that apple pie is created and born in the good old USA is like the fate of so many other components of what is assumed to be “American culture:” it is deeply ingrained in the tradition of colonialism and cultural cover-up to fit into what is considered “American.” So, when you make this recipe for a “traditional American classic.” I implore you to stop and think about the origins of your food. Who knows, maybe it’ll surprise you.
3 ¾ cups All-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons sugar (omit for savory pies)
1 ½ cups unsalted butter, frozen and cut into chunks
1/2 cup water + 1/2 cup vodka, chilled (vodka can be omitted and replaced with water)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 pounds baking apples (Honey Crisp, Granny Smith, Cortland), cored, peeled and sliced
⅔ cup sugar, plus additional for sprinkling on crust
¼ cup unsalted butter
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon all-spice
Pinch of ground nutmeg
1 large egg, beaten
For the dough:
- In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Making sure you work quickly, add in your cubed frozen butter and begin to work the butter into the flour mixture. You should have both large flakes of butter as well as smaller chunks, resulting in a very coarse texture.
- Slowly add the ice water/vodka mixture (you will not need all of it) and mix it into the flour and butter mixture. Add until the dough will hold its form when pressed together. You’ll probably need between around half a cup, but this can vary. If the butter is beginning to soften from heat, place in the freezer for five to ten minutes and then continue mixing.
- Shape the dough into a rectangle, and then divide into third. Stack them on top of each other and press down into a new rectangle. Repeat cutting them in thirds and stacking one more time.
- Divide the dough in two and place each half on a separate sheet of plastic wrap. Use the plastic wrap to press each half of the dough together. Wrap each half and press the dough into a disk. Refrigerate your dough for 1 hour or if you’re in a hurry, freeze 20 minutes.
For the filling:
- Preheat the oven to 350°F
- Add the lemon juice, apples, and sugar into a large mixing bowl, tossing to combine evenly.
- In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the apples, and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture begins to simmer. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until the apples soften and release most of their juices. Apples should be tender, but still retain their shape.
- Strain the apples in a colander over a new bowl to catch all the juice. Return the juices to the skillet, along with the spices, and simmer over medium heat until thickened and lightly caramelized. The syrup should coat the back of a spoon and not slide off easily.
- Return the apples to the large mixing bowl and combine with the syrup mixture evenly. Let cool completely for at least two hours, and up to over-night. The filling can be made up to a week in advance and refrigerated as well.
- Cut and shape the pie dough to fit into a 9 inch pie plate, as well as a second disk for the top. Fill the bottom of the pie with the apple mixture, mounding it to the center if possible. Place the second pie crust on the top, and crimp or flute edges as desired.
- Split the pie crust a few times in desired space for venting. Brush the crust with egg wash, and sprinkle with sugar if desired. Place in a preheated oven for 50 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling slightly. Cool on a rack before serving, and enjoy.
Pie crust adapted from Pâte Brisée by Jeremy Scheck
Filling adapted from Food Network Kitchen
Cover photo courtesy of King Arthur Baking