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The Decades-Long Transformation of an Apple Pie into a Crisp

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One of my earliest holiday memories is the sound and aroma of sweet apple juices bubbling over the rim of a pie and sizzling on the cookie sheet below, thickening into a chewy, candy-like puddle before they turned black.

I don’t know whether anyone that came to our house for Thanksgiving loved my mother’s apple pie as much as our immediate family did. I remember, once, my shock at seeing a piece of crust forsaken on a discarded plate, and thinking whoever didn’t eat that crust had no idea what was good and what was not. Admittedly, that crust was slightly more substantial than flakey and ethereal, but I’d eat it with pleasure today.

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You might imagine family loyalty and nostalgia have put a halo on that pie. In retrospect and with knowledge acquired over decades of my own baking (which rarely includes pies, I should add), I’m pretty sure one reason the pie was utterly delicious was because it was baked long enough. The crust had some color on top and on the bottom.

Truly Scrumptious Apple Pie
Truly Scrumptious Apple Pie

My mother baked pies in glass pie dishes. I recall seeing her carefully lift a hot pie high enough over her head to see if the crust was brown underneath. On the rare occasion I bake a pie, I also bake in glass and mimic that precarious pie lift to check doneness. I think of my mother when I do it. The amount of time it takes to get a pie crust browned on the bottom is also long enough to allow the apple juices to reduce and thicken without the addition of starch, flour, or tapioca. I had no idea at the time, and my mother surely didn’t know, that starch compromises the flavor and vibrancy of fruit. So, without any extra effort, my mother’s pies had big apple flavor. She leaned to crisp Pippins or sweet-yet-tart Jonathans (when that variety was really good), with their floral perfume and bright acidity. For her pies, no mushy, mealy apples need apply. At some point, she even stopped peeling the apples. This not only didn’t hurt a thing, it actually made the pie even more flavorful.

By the time I was in college, my parents moved from Los Angeles to the Central Coast of California. Going home for Thanksgiving sometimes meant a little drive to local apple farms to taste and select apples for the pies. Otherwise, we cajoled the produce guy in the supermarket into letting us try before we committed.

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In the earliest years, there might have been 18 or 20 at our Thanksgiving table, but my mother had to make 8 or 10 apple pies. That’s because our own family expected to eat what we called “leftover pie” at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and before bed if we could manage it—through the entire weekend. Apple pie times 10, plus turkey and sides was a major effort for a woman who didn’t love to cook and felt so scrutinized by her in-laws she tried to clean even the unseen portions of the house before they arrived. It got more taxing several years later when my father and youngest brother became vegetarians and a glorious, whole barbecued wild salmon and superb vegetarian stuffing were presented alongside the bird and its stuffing. My father cooked the fish, and I had stepped into the cooking fray as well, but still.

Don't do this! Keep those peels on.
Don't do this! Keep those peels on. Photo by James Ransom

Relatives wanted to help by bringing other pies. My father was extremely gracious about those offers. When we were old enough to appreciate the performance, he would throw a slew of accolades at the pumpkin and mince pies first, heaping them with lavish praise and urging guests to partake. He’d nod unsubtly in our direction, so we’d know he was making sure there would be more leftover apple pie for us. Everyone was on to him.

In the late 60’s my mother began to stray. One year she added whole wheat flour to the crust we loved. The teenage me rolled her eyes. Later, concern about fat and health ushered in a lighter pie—with just one crust on top and a bare bottom! This was too much for my younger brother, now well over 60 years old, who defiantly makes his Thanksgiving pies with both of their rightful crusts. He still points this out to any of us who will listen.

Bea's No-Peel Apple Crisp
Bea's No-Peel Apple Crisp

The crust on my mother’s apple pie suffered a final deathblow by the time my daughter and her cousins arrived. The pie became a crisp, with some changing details every year. I made peace with the crisp, because it was very good, and because I knew it was less work for my mother. One year it was particularly exceptional, with bits of dried apricot, orange juice and zest, and just the right amount of sugar. (Have I mentioned the quantity of sugar in pies was on a downward trend for several years, and all to the good?) I had the presence of mind to interrogate my mother and write that crisp recipe down, lest it morph later into something that might summon the teenager still within me.

The crisp survives to this day. Our daughters are all young adults and don’t even remember when it was a pie. At 94, my mother hasn’t made a crisp in a long time, but she loves the aroma of it baking in my house and lights up when leftovers are offered to take home. At Thanksgiving, I like to make the crisp with my daughter and with my mother at the kitchen table to help cut the apples—or just chat. It’s quick work regardless, because my mother was smart enough to stop peeling those apples long ago. And we never looked back.

There are several reasons why the crisp is good. The apples are firm and flavorful—I taste them each year before I buy, just like my mom did, and it bakes long enough for the topping to turn a deep golden brown, which is the right amount of time for the apple juices to thicken and concentrate without starch.

Lately, I’ve started to make changes. I’ve used different flours and made one that is gluten-free. I’ve swapped the apricots for ginger. I’m contemplating a version with lemon, cinnamon, and rose water. And, sometimes, I think about making a crust, but maybe just on top.

Alice Medrich is a Berkeley, California-based pastry chef, chocolatier, and cookbook author. You can read more about what she's up to here.

Tell us: Do you have a family recipe that started as one thing, but is now something entirely different?


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Tags: apple pie, apple crisp