I am not prone to insomnia. But sometimes something in the darkness will wake me, and I will not be able to fall back asleep. There are some memories that are curled up in my heart, like ribbons, or snakes – it is at those moments, when I’m laying awake in deepest night, that they unfurl themselves.
The apples are one of those memories.
My mom could not really eat anything for months and months and months before she died. There was a mass blocking her from swallowing, and at any rate the chemo left her swimming in nausea. But for a long time she could fake it. And even when she couldn’t, she would still try. She would ask for something – ravioli, or pudding, or Thai veggie wraps. She would take a bite or two, and then she would set it aside. It would sit on the bedside or next to the couch and after a while Mom would say, I’ll just have a sweet potato instead.
Someone would retreat to the kitchen, turn on her beloved Wedgwood, start the roasting of yet another potato, which we kept in endless supply. We topped them with knobs of sweet butter, drizzles of maple syrup, whatever we could think of, because it seemed important to try. While it roasted I would throw away the ravioli or the pudding or the veggie wraps. And later, when my mom thought no one was looking, Dave would give the sweet potato to the dog, Charley. We would talk about something else.
My Aunt Linna couldn’t bear throwing the food away, or giving it to Charley, or talking about something else. This was her baby sister, her only sibling, her last surviving immediate family member. She kept after my mom to try, try, try – cheering her, threatening her, willing her to take one more bite.
One afternoon I came into the house and Linna told me my mom was in bed. The daily trip to the couch had become a lot recently, something for company, something that would exhaust Mom for the rest of the day. I went to her room and crawled up onto her big bed, feeling sprightly and light with my new postpartum belly. My mom gave me a huge smile. Her smile, once breathtaking in its beauty and light, was terrifying: skeletal, raw, something I could hardly bear.
“I’ve discovered a new favorite apple!”
“It’s called Honeycrisp. I can’t believe I’ve never had it before.”
“Apples are back in season. Aunt Linna went to the market and got me one of each kind so I could try them. Honeycrisp is my new favorite.”
“Does that mean your eating is getting better?”
And she gave me the gentlest look you can imagine.
“Oh, sweetie. No. It’s not. It’s not getting better.”
And then she showed me the pan, tucked under her quilt. It was filled with apple – tiny, tiny bites of apple. Bites that she had taken, and savored, and spit back out.
One of each kind that they had at the market.
Honeycrisp was her favorite.
This is adapted from The James Beard Cookbook (1961), another brilliant gift from my Aunt Linna. My friend Lori also deserves a word of thanks for her recent pie-inspiring text message from a Portland food cart: “1) turn on fave music 2) tie up your hair …”
This is slightly adapted from James Beard’s wonderful basic recipe. A few small tweaks: I cut the sugar in half, increased the butter and icewater in the pastry by a couple tablespoons, added a dash of lemon juice and a bit of thickener to the filling (I like my crisps with runny juices, but with pie you don’t want a soggy bottom crust!). I usually find fruit pies have too much crust and not enough filling: that is why this pie is heaped – heaped! – with apples, and uses a lattice crust over top instead of a full sheet. If you normally prefer a crisp or a crumble, this might be the pie for you.
A word about apples: if you can get your hands on Winesap or Gravenstein apples, use them (if you can stand not eating them out of hand!). We also love Pink Ladies. Something firm, juicy, tart but not too tart … And since you are slicing them anyway, I recommend tasting each apple to make sure it’s not mealy. I leave the skins on, preferring a more rustic and fruity experience … but that is up to you. We have a magic apple tree in our yard – grafted long ago, it grows four distinct, beautiful varieties. So we make mixed-apple pies, which I understand upsets the purists out there, but it works for us. (By the way – do you have a favorite pie apple? I’d love to hear about it!)
2 1/2 cups flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter (2 sticks) very cold (I put it in the freezer for about ten minutes before I begin)
6 tablespoons water in a cup with several ice cubes – I use the ice melt water, too as needed
10-12 apples, sliced
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2-3 tablespoons cornstarch or flour, depending on how firmly you want your pie to set up (I used 2 tablespoons flour for the pie in the photos)
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
And for baking: 2 tablespoons whole milk mixed with a pinch of sugar
Beard has good advice regarding pastry dough, clear and straight to the point as he so often is: “Handle the pastry as little as possible. Make it in a cool spot, using ice water and cold butter and be sure your fingers are as cool as possible.”
Whisk together flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Using a pastry blender, work the butter into the flour until the biggest pieces of butter are the size of small peas. Adding a tablespoon at a time, gently stir in the ice water, mixing until clumps start to hold together. It’s okay to use the extra water in your cup, but only if you need it: it should not form a ball on its own, but you should add just enough water that you can pinch it into a ball. Divide the dough in half, flatten the balls into discs, and wrap each disc in cling wrap. Beard says to chill for 20 minutes, but I find an hour in the fridge works better.
While it chills, preheat the oven to 450 F and prepare your filling: slice the apples and mix with the lemon juice. Add the sugars, salt, cinnamon, and thickener of choice. Mix well.
Once your dough has chilled: generously flour your counter and your rolling pin (and your three year old). Roll out one piece of dough, working from the center out and rotating as you go to get it fairly circular. It should be large enough in diameter to drape your pie dish, come up the edges, and have about an inch of overhang (13-14 inches diameter). Transfer to your pie dish, and then add the apples (include any accumulated juices). They should heap – really, heap! This is Beard’s word! – into a huge mound. Dot them with the little pieces of butter.
Roll out your top pie dough until it is 12 to 13 inches in diameter. Cut the pie dough into 1-inch wide strips. Arrange every other strip across your pie filling in one direction, spacing the strips evenly. Then do the strips in the other direction, starting with the longest remaining strip in the middle and working out in each direction. Gently lift the strips to weave them. Trim the lattice strip’s overhang to the diameter of the pie dish (you can bake scraps with the pie, or make mini-pies a la my friend Steph). Gently fold up the rim of the bottom crust over the lattice strip ends – let your three year old crimp decoratively.
Brush pie crust all over with the milk before baking.
Per Beard: “Bake in a hot oven – 450 F to 500 F – for about 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 400 F for another 20 minutes. Then turn it down to 350 F for the final 20 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned and the apples cooked through.”
He also adds: “Apple pie is best served warm … with a sharp cheese.” And here, Beard, we differ: because my favorite way to eat it is cold, for breakfast, with nothing but its own deliciously gloopy juices and the bright morning sun for company.
Happy apple season everyone!