From The Observer archives:
Shouldn't we all be able to make a passable apple pie for July Fourth?
It’s the food that's supposed to define our patriotism and the thing we claim to be: “As American as apple pie.”
Except that we aren’t, really. The American-apple pie connection has holes as big as the Grand Canyon.
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There are no apples that are native to America. There were no apple trees growing here until European settlers planted them. And they mainly planted them to make cider, not pies.
Oh, those Americans knew apple pies, all right. The earliest recipe for apple pie – pears and apples flavored with saffron – dates to 1381 in England. A Dutch version of apple pie was printed in 1514. And the French, of course, have long had tarte tatin, an upside-down apple pie baked in a crust-covered skillet and then flipped over.
So how did the apple pie get so hooked into the image of America? First, once apples were planted here, they thrived and quickly became a staple in areas like New England. Unlike the crisp, dry apples grown in England for cider, the apples grown in America tended to be sweet.
Second, apples fit in with the American view of ourselves as a no-nonsense, farm-centered people. In “Apple Pie: An American Story,” John T. Edge quotes Henry Ward Beecher: “Of all fruits, no other can pretend to vie with the apple as the fruit of the common people.”
Those common people, though, delivered quite a blow to the apple farmers of America when Prohibition shut down cider-making in the early 20th century. According to some sources, the Apple Marketing Board of New York stepped in to start the campaign to get people to make pies with apples as the American thing to do.
Other sources say the first reference to apple pie as a definition of American values was in 1921, when a Chicago opera singer, Alice Gentle, was raising money for an opera that she said would be “as American as apple pie.” Fifty years later, the idea had become so entrenched that everyone understood the significance of Chevrolet's catchy and kitschy advertising jingle, "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.” (If you're old enough to remember 1971, it will probably take awhile to stop humming that.)
And all of that brings us back to the Fourth of July. Even though apple season is a few months away, the apple pie is still considered the traditional dessert, the perfect thing to go along with all those hot dogs.
Red Hot Apple Pie
Adapted from “Apple Pie: An American Story,” by John T. Edge (Penguin, 2004). While you can make this with a full top crust, a lattice top (or stripes and stars of crust) lets you see the bright red bursts of color from the melted candies.
Dough for a two-crust pie (see recipe or use prepared crust)
3/4 cup sugar, divided
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out crust
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tart apples
1/4 cup honey, divided
About 1/4 cup candy Red Hots, also known as cinnamon imperials
2 tablespoons butter
1 egg, beaten, or egg white left from the pie crust
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine 1/2 cup sugar with flour and salt. Set aside.
Peel the apples. Cut each apple in half lengthwise (stem to blossom end), then into quarters. Cut away the core and any peel remaining at the tips. Cut across each wedge into 1/2-inch slices.
Flour a work surface and rolling pin. Roll out half the dough into a circle, lifting and turning, until the circle is several inches wider than your pie plate. Ease the crust into the pan or plate.
Pile half the apples in the crust, moving the pieces around to fill any large gaps. Drizzle with half the honey, then sprinkle with half of the sugar/flour mixture. Mound on the remaining apples. Drizzle with the remaining honey and sprinkle with the remaining sugar/flour mixture.
Space the Red Hots around the filling, pushing some of them down among the apples. Cut the butter into bits and dot it over the filling. Put the top crust on the pie, or cut it into strips and weave into a lattice on the top. Brush the top with egg or egg white and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup sugar.
Place the pie on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for 45 minutes, or until brown and bubbling.
Cool for several hours, then refrigerate before slicing.
Vinegar Pie Crust
Adapted from "Apple Pie: An American Story." Vinegar relaxes the gluten and makes a crust that's easy to handle.
1 egg, separated (see note)
1 1/2 teaspoons cider vinegar
3/4 cup warm water, divided
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup lard (see note)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
PLACE the egg yolk in a liquid measuring cup. Stir in the vinegar, then stir in enough warm water to reach the 1/2 cup mark. Set aside.
WHISK together the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the lard (or butter) and cut into the flour with a pastry blender until crumbly. (Or place in a food processor and pulse until crumbly.) Add the egg mixture and stir with a fork until the dough comes together. It should be moist enough to hold its shape when you press some of it together.
DIVIDE in half and shape each half into a flattened disc. Wrap each disc with plastic wrap or wax paper and refrigerate at least an hour before using.
NOTE: You'll just need the yolk for this recipe. Save the egg white and mix it with 1 tablespoon water to make an egg wash to brush the top of the pie. Good-quality rendered leaf lard, often found at farmers markets, makes the best crust, with a crispy texture. You also could use half butter and half lard, or transfat-free shortening.
Yield: 2 (9-inch) crusts.