With Thanksgiving looming on the horizon, my thoughts the past few days have been centered on my favorite part of the holiday preparations- pie making. I’ll admit, I can spend hours upon hours in the “pie zone”- slowly but carefully making the pastry, rolling it out, crimping the edges and then finally filling the pie and baking it up.
There is just something that is so satisfying about baking a pie from scratch. The taste and flavor of a homemade pie are one bonus, but I think the best part is taking the pie out of the oven and beholding the beautiful creation you have spent hours making.
This year in pie making has had some good points, and some sad. The sad part was the state of the apple crop this year. As probably everyone living in upstate New York is aware, a large part of the apple crop was destroyed by a late freeze last spring. As a result, there were no apples on any of the many apple trees we commonly see in the Fall when you drive through the back roads of our part of the Adirondacks. People with trees in their yards had no apples as well. And the supply at local orchards was limited and quite expensive. This impacted us directly in that not only was my Fall not full of spending my days cooking the usual plentiful supply of apples I generally keep in my home in the months of September and October, but additionally we were unable to make hard apple cider. In years previous, there was such an abundance of apples people were practically begging us to take their apples- and of course we were able to glean dozens of bushels from trees growing wild alongside of the road. This year, nothing.
On the good side, making pie this year was significantly improved by the addition of a new activity in my life- pig raising! And no, not because I’m making pork pie- but rather because when you raise and slaughter your own hogs there is a wonderful side benefit- fresh lard. If anyone out there has ever had pastry made from lard, then I’m sure you already know that the end result is far tastier and flakier than a pastry made of Crisco and/or butter.
Lard is made, or more properly termed- rendered- by cooking pig fat at a low temperature for several hours, either on the stovetop or in the oven. It melts down during this time, and the inedible parts separate out. The end result is a beautiful mass of white, semi-solid cooking fat that smells and tastes faintly of bacon, but without bacon’s strong and distinctive flavor. And believe it or not, lard is actually good for you! I mean, in as far as as any fat can be “healthy”. It is a monounsaturated fat, which is of course more heart-healthy than saturated fat, in that it has a neutral effect on blood cholesterol levels. It also has a higher smoking point than other fats, allowing foods to absorb less grease when fried in it.
Why, then, you might ask, does lard have such a bad rap? Well, just this year I heard a really interesting piece on NPR discussing that very topic. In a nutshell, blame Proctor and Gamble. In 1907, a German chemist named E.C. Kayser, showed up at Procter & Gamble, then a candle and soap-making company, with what thought then to be an ingenious invention-hydrogenated cottonseed oil. It was excellent timing. Packaged as Crisco, the people of the United States couldn’t get enough of it. The U.S. was, at the time, caught up in a wave of fear and disgust concerning the state of the meat industry after the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair’s famous expose of the Chicago meat-packing industry The Jungle. The section on lard-making was particularly gruesome, and people were ready for an alternative, particularly one made in sterile and sanitary laboratories. We have of course since learned that the addition of hydrogenated fats to our diets has had a profoundly negative effect on the overall health of Americans.
But I digress. Back to pie making. I was able to get some very nice apples from Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, Vermont. Vermont is, of course, outside the Blue Line, but close enough to make it quite accessible for anyone living in the Lake George/ Lake Champlain region of the Adirondacks. If you are interested in buying Adirondack grown, I have been advised that Rulf’s Orchard in Peru is a fantastic place. Then of course there is Hick’s Orchard in Granville, NY, made famous by the Lake George superstar Rachel Ray.
I like a good, old-fashioned apple pie but I do have to say that my very favorite apple pie to make is one made of apples tossed in sour cream mixed with vanilla & sugar, and then topped with a walnut, brown sugar and cinnamon crumble. A lattice top is the placed over the pie. I have to say, when I make this, when it gets brought out to the table there is generally a lot of ooohing and ahhhing. And that is before people have even eaten it! The presentation is gorgeous- and the taste is amazing. if you are planning on going the extra mile and making pies from scratch this year, I highly suggest you give this one a try.
Sour Cream Apple Pie (adopted from The Silver Palate Cookbook)
Two 9-inch pie crusts- use your favorite recipe. Roll out pastry and line pie pan with 1 crust, set the other aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and prepare filling.
6-8 firm, tart apples-depending on size (I like Cortlands)
2/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 Tbsps all-purpose flour
Peel and core apples and thinly slice. Place in a bowl. I like to toss the apples in about a tablespoon of lemon juice to prevent browning; this is not absolutely necessary. In a separate bowl, whisk together sour cream, sugar, vanilla & flour. Pour mixture over apples, toss well to coat and then spoon apples into pastry-lined pie pan.
1 cup walnuts, chopped
3 Tbsps brown sugar
3 Tbsps granulated sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
Mix topping ingredients together and then sprinkle topping over apple filling.
Take your second crust and cut into 1/2 inch strips. Place the strips over the top of the apple filling in a lattice-style. Crimp edges of strips together with edges of bottom crust. Place pie in oven and bake for 50-60 minutes- you will know it is done when the juices are bubbling and the lattice is lightly browned. Allow to pie cool before cutting.