Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, writers share the stories of dishes that are meaningful to them and their loved ones.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant -
Success in Circuit lies Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind,
The Truth must dazzle carefully
Or every man be blind –
—"Tell All the Truth but Tell it Slant" by Emily Dickinson
It has been a surprise to me, to embrace my husband’s family—that sometimes-forced relationship with people you might not love as much as your partner. And goodness knows they may feel ambivalent about you, too. I thought the relationship would be OK, kind of like an anthropological study, but I never imagined that I would actually like my extended family, and look to my father-in-law for counsel or comfort.
My father-in-law, Arthur, was from Brooklyn. He was a fussy eater and a straight shooter. It took developing some thicker skin—and when directed at me, involved making a lot of pie dough.
After my own father died a few years ago, I suppose something changed between me and Arthur. He was a wise person, and I found myself asking him for advice or to explain choices he made in his life as we ate lunch or drove to a doctor’s appointment. He was a singular lawyer who argued and won a historic case at the Supreme Court and was careful about every word he spoke or wrote. I never heard him yell or curse, and he made me feel like I was in civilized company. But while he was a gentleman, he could be churlish about trash cans and micromanage my driving routes. I made my peace with his ways long ago.
Still, when Arthur told me, in sotto, as he left Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago, that the pie I made wasn’t my best, I was hurt. I knew it was true—after all that crust was about a foot deep. I was indignant to friends and my immediate family, not that Arthur was right, but that he was honest.
I stewed on Arthur’s comment about the pie for more time than I’d like to admit, and then got out of my own way, deciding that I actually needed, and wanted, to crack this whole pie thing. I signed up for a course at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, where I learned a remarkable thing: “Don’t be afraid of the crust.” When it falls apart, “smack it back together” (my instructor’s exact words), wrap it in plastic, and throw it in the fridge for 20 minutes. And then try again and don’t be a baby about it.
Of course, when a professional is watching (and helping), there’s always a happy ending—but I had the benefit of learning that crust failure isn’t the end of the story and that I could bring that mix of butter, flour, sugar, and salt back from the brink. I returned home bragging to friends about my triumph; when fall arrived again, I resumed my pie quest in time for Thanksgiving. By this time, my family was really sick of hearing about crust.
I called my friend Elizabeth and asked her what her favorite apple pie recipe was. Elizabeth is a writer and teacher and previously worked in the pastry kitchen at Lespinasse in New York City. She modestly told me she’d just made 15 of Rose Levy Berenbaum’s apple pies for friends, and that’s what I should do, too. She sent me the recipe and instructed me to make the pie that day, then put in the fridge and cook tomorrow. And, oh, to put on an egg wash topped with demerara sugar before I baked it. Just like that, I had an expert in my corner again. I knew it would be great because I’d have Elizabeth over my shoulder, smiling from her kitchen across the country.
Begin again—and this time, it worked. Flour all over the floor, but the pie was beautiful. And Arthur ate every bite with his customary chocolate ice cream.
I miss my father and my father-in law both fiercely. I long to hear their gravelly voices and stories always, but especially during this crisis. I think about them often when I cook now, referencing my Arkansas-raised father’s recipe for skillet cornbread, and passing along the images of his handwritten instructions to girlfriends who are spread across the country.
Arthur demanded excellence and achievement in his own life and for his children and grandchildren. For some silly reason, making a great pie became my brass ring. I knew he respected and loved me, but I was eager to deliver this important bit of pastry to satisfy myself and please him.
Arthur passed away last year at age 92 and I loved him. I will always think about him when I make a pie, and continue to bolster myself against those simple yet formidable ingredients.
Adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Best All-American Apple Pie, in The Baking Bible
Ingredients for the filling:
- 2 1/2 pounds tart baking apples (@ 6 medium or 8 cups), peeled, cored, sliced 1/4-inch
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
Ingredients for the crust:
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) very cold unsalted butter
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/3 cup very cold vegetable shortening
- 1/2 cup ice water
Prepare the crust:
- Cut the butter in ½ inch diced bits and refrigerate.
- Place the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse a few times to mix. Add the butter and shortening. Pulse 7 to 12 times, until butter is the size of a small peanut. With the machine running, pour the ice water down the feed tube and pulse the machine until dough just begins to ball.
- Tip mixture onto a floured board and roll into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for ~30 minutes. Dough will keep in the fridge for a week.
- Remove dough from the refrigerator and cut it in half. The first half will be your bottom crust. Leave one half of the dough in the refrigerator and roll the other half on a well-floured board into a circle at least 1 inch larger than the pie pan, rolling from the center to the edge, turning and flouring the dough so it doesn’t stick to the board. (You should see bits of butter in the dough.)
- Fold the dough in half, ease it into the pie pan, and unfold to fit the pan. Exhale. With a small sharp paring knife, cut the dough so it is @1 inch longer and even-ish from the edge of the pie plate.
- Fold the edge of the dough under and crimp the edges with either your fingers or the tines of a fork. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Prepare the filling:
- In a large bowl, combine the apples, lemon juice, sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and toss to mix. Allow the apples to sit at room temperature for a minimum of 30 minutes to 3 hours.
- Transfer the apples and their juices to a colander suspended over a bowl to capture the liquid. The mixture should release at least 1/2 cup of liquid.
- In a small saucepan (preferably nonstick), over medium-high heat, boil down this liquid, with the butter, to about 1/3 cup (a little more if you started with more than 1/2 cup of liquid), or until syrupy and lightly caramelized. Swirl the liquid but do not stir it. (Alternatively, spray a 4-cup heat proof measure with non-stick vegetable spray, add the liquid and butter, and heat in the microwave, 6 to 7 minutes on high.)
- Transfer the apples to a bowl and toss them with the cornstarch until all traces of it have disappeared. Pour the syrup over the apples, tossing gently. (Do not be concerned if the liquid hardens on contact with the apples; it will dissolve during baking.)
- Take another piece of dough out of the refrigerator and roll it out large enough to cut a 12-inch circle. Use a cardboard template and a sharp knife as a guide to cut the circle.
- Transfer the apple mixture to the bottom pie shell that has been in the refrigerator. Moisten the border of the bottom crust lightly with water and place the top crust over the fruit. Tuck the overhang under the bottom crust border and press down all around the top to seal it.
- Crimp the border using a fork or your fingers and make about 5 evenly spaced 2-inch slashes starting about 1 inch from the center and radiating toward the edge.
- Cover the pie loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 1 hour before baking to chill and relax the pastry. This will maintain flakiness and help to keep the crust from shrinking. You can let it sit in the refrigerator overnight also.
Bake the Pie:
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit at least 20 minutes before baking.
- Set an oven rack at the lowest level and place a baking stone or baking sheet on it before preheating. Place a large piece of greased foil on top to catch any juices.
- Set the pie directly on the foil-topped baking stone and bake for 45 to 55 minutes or until the juices bubble through the slashes and the apples feel tender but not mushy when a cake tester or small sharp knife is inserted through a slash. After 30 minutes, protect the edges from overbrowning by covering them with a foil ring.
- Cool the pie on a rack for at least 4 hours before cutting. Serve warm or at room temperature. Enjoy with chocolate ice cream, if you like.
What's your favorite pie trick or technique? Let us know in the comments.