Baked Sunday Mornings: Rolling out a good ol’ apple pie

I’m highly suggestible when it comes to baking. Give me an appealing recipe, an enticing photo, a whiff of a good baking idea, and if I have a little time to myself (or even if I don’t), I’ll assemble the ingredients and be on my way.

You don’t need a reason to bake, though the reasons come. Someone’s birthday, a special occasion, a gift. This last week, I baked Dorie Greenspan’s Lemon-Spice Visiting Cake, tested out King Arthur Flour’s Chaidoodle Cookie mix and baked a Classic Apple Pie from “Baked: New Frontiers in Baking,” by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; 2008) as a part of the Baked Sunday Mornings online baking group challenge. There was no occasion — really — to bake any of these things, and yet there was every reason.
In the wake and the shadow of the Northern California wildfires that week (I live close to the Napa County line), my reason for baking turned out to be therapy. Feeling helpless to merely watch the destruction, and dealing with a smoke-and-ash-filled environment that caused all of us living here to close up in our houses and witness the devastation unfold, I decided I wanted the smell of baking — not smoke — to override anything else in my atmosphere. Here in my kitchen, cake wins. Cookies win. Pie wins.

It had been so long that I had baked an honest-to-goodness, two-crust apple pie (I had made an Apple Cream Pie that had a streusel topping for a recent magazine column), that something very pure and comforting pulled me toward this Baked Sunday Mornings project. I had baked from “Baked” books before (I’m a big fan of their unique take on baked goods and have been inspired by their fun food styling), and I have bookmarked many offerings in the books that are still on my to-be-fulfilled baking agenda. Studying the pie recipe in “Baked: New Frontiers in Baking,” I had no choice…the mere whiff of suggestion, the idea, the potential aromatherapy in my home (pie wins). I was done and gone. Classic Apple Pie I would make.

The Classic Pie Dough for this pie calls for significant chilling time, so I made it the night before. I loved the fact that it is an all-butter crust (another recipe I use regularly is, too). I generally don’t use a food processor for mixing pie dough, but I did here, appreciating the “hands-off” approach. I noticed the recipe called for what seemed like a high amount of ice water (3/4 cup) versus many pie dough recipes calling for a few tablespoons, but I was not too alarmed, given I usually have to add more water than called for, anyway.

This made a very nice, smooth, cohesive dough — moist with little chance of cracking (as some doughs do) during the rolling process. My dough disks went into the fridge. ’Til morning, then…

Just before dawn, I took a walk. The skies and air had cleared considerably. And on the horizon, a pie to bake.

Roll out that dough…it’s the labor that most people avoid, sending them to the grocery store freezer section or refrigerated sheets of Pillsbury. But I love the meditative and yes, physical side of this rhythmic process, lifting and turning the pastry circle as it grows with the force of my pin. This dough worked very smoothly. Good stuff!

The directions of crimping the bottom crust, then freezing was a new method to me. I followed the advice, looking ahead to that par-cooked apple filling to be put into the crust while warm and knowing the importance of cold pie pastry going into the oven, I didn’t question this time in the freezer.

My handy corer, peeler and slicer made short work of the beautiful Granny Smith apples I found at the market. I did dress the apple slices with a little lemon juice before starting the filling cooking process.
I loved that this was a pre-partially cooked filling. One of my pie pet peeves is underdone apples. This tenderizing process of sautéing part of the apples in butter, then the rest of the apples with a mixture of cornstarch, brown sugar (yes!) and cinnamon (I added a pinch of salt and substituted lemon juice for the teaspoon of whiskey…though I’d be curious as to what the whiskey adds in terms of flavor), was genius in not only ensuring the apples would be cooked, but that the filling would not significantly shrink down during the baking process leaving that top-of-the-pie pocket under the upper crust.

I put a little thought — and even a drawing — into my top-crust design. I thought about doing leaves (as illustrated in the book), but I really wanted an apple image and decided to try an apple cutout piece layered over its “shadow” with leaves on both “stems.” (Is this considered going “rogue”?) Both my drawing and finished look were a bit rudimentary, but I was still pleased (if one is making an apple pie from scratch, being disappointed in oneself in any way is unacceptable!).

Once the pie was in the oven, I made my way out into the backyard and the sun for a few. I do this when baking, so that when I come back into the house, I’m greeted by the tantalizing oven aroma. I was reminded how there’s a spot near the oven in my parents’ kitchen in Kansas that always smells like baking pie, all the years of pie-baking layered into the walls.

And I considered how I wanted my house, too, to have layers and layers of baking smells in what I hoped would be its long history. It is on its way. This flavorful tender-crusted pie, filled with those tart, perfectly cooked apples offering up a sweet hint of spice, would be a part of my kitchen’s perpetual perfume. The ultimate comfort.

Pie wins.

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