Comfort food #3: Apple pie

In an early issue of the journal Bread, Wine and Thou, editor Yossi Klein reflects on the role of the ‘maternal’ in our table life and its connection to our need for comfort. He describes the maternal broadly as “things that make us yearn, make us whole” but includes the more particular “dishes that feel like a hug from your mum, and make you feel like hugging her.”

Right now, in the midst of a pandemic and all this social distancing, we Melbournians could do with a hug. Let’s be honest, a hug from mum would be even better. I might be nearing 60, but the thought still appeals. So in the absence of my mother, my comfort recipe #3 is mum’s apple pie. It’s not quite the same as her warm embrace, but close!

Truth be told, there is no recipe. Though mum made apple pie regularly, most often to follow a lamb roast, it was all in her head. I’ve hunted through her book and found nothing. I watched mum often enough though, and three things stand out.

First, I remember mum added only a spoonful of sugar to the pastry. Though I love a good sweet shortcust, the sweet was in the apples not the pastry. Second, she never pre-cooked her apples. I remember she would cut them up and douse them in sugar (lots of it), cinamon and lemon juice then let them sit (though not for long). Once her pastry case was ready she would pile them in, roll some pastry over the top and bung it in the oven. And that brings me to my third memory. Mum was not a careful pie maker. She favoured speed over detail. You can’t blame her I guess. With a busload of men to feed, a small kitchen and very little help, she learned to work quickly and with minimum fuss.

Recreating mum’s apple pie has taken some work. Mostly my failings have been in the pastry and my over-involvement. The secret to mum’s pie was in this lovely combination of the buttery and the crisp. The crisp part requires a light touch and I think I’ve finally mastered it.

So, here’s my version of mum’s apple pie.

Here’s what you need

For the pastry

  • 2 1/2 cups of plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • I tablespoon of sugar
  • 250 grams of cold butter, cut into little cubes
  • 1/2 cup of ice-cold water (ice-cold, not just cold)

For the apple filling

  • 7-8 apples, peeled, cored and sliced (apples that hold their shape when cooked are best — Granny Smiths always work well)
  • 1 teaspoon of lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup of caster sugar
  • 1/2 cup of dark brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 teaspooon of cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons of plain flour
  • 2 tablespoons of cornflour (cornstarch)

Here’s what you do

Make the pastry

  1. Combine the flour and the salt in (a) a food processor, (b) the bowl of your electric mixer with the dough paddle, or (c) a large mixing bowl.
  2. Add the cold butter to the flour. If you are using a food processor, pulse it for a minute or two so that you end up with pea-sized bits of butter evenly dispersed through the flour. If you are using an electric mixer with a dough paddle, do the same until the butter is evenly dispersed. If you are doing it by hand, simply rub the cold butter into the flour with you fingers until it feels a bit like breadcrumbs. Though the third option works well, it’s probably the least favoured of the three because of the heat in your hands tends to soften the butter which you don’t really want.
  3. Add the ice-cold water and mix it just enough for the dough to come together. It will still be a bit crumbly, but that’s fine. Tip the dough out on the bench top and simply press it together enough for it to combine. You don’t have to kneed it and if you still see little lumps of butter, all the better.
  4. Divide the dough into two, wrap each in plastic film and stick them in the fridge for an hour or so.

Meanwhile, make the pie filling

  1. Combine the apples, lemon juice and zest, caster sugar, brown sugar, salt and cinnamon in a large bowl. Toss it together until the sugars are dissolved and the apples evenly covered then set aside for around 30 minutes.
  2. Drain the apples, collecting the syrup in a small saucepan.
  3. Place the saucepan on the stovetop and bring it a boil. Continue simmering until the volume of liquid is reduced to around half the original volume. Be careful not to let the mixture burn. If you cook it too long it will turn into a sticky caramel which you don’t want. All that to say, keep your eye on it.
  4. Add both flours to the apples then add the syrup and toss it all together to combine. Set aside.

Construct your pie

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C and get your pie dish ready. Round is always lovely, about 25 centimetres across. I have one of those with a removable base so you can get the pie out of the dish when it’s done and set it on a platter to serve, but that’s not necessary. It’s just showing off really!
  2. With a little flour on the bench top, roll out one half of the dough to a round disc large enough to fill your pie dish.
  3. Create you pie shell with enough dough to hang slightly over the edges of the dish and cut away any excess dough. If you get any holes or tears in your pastry, fear not. Just patch them up with leftover pastry. There are no prizes for visual perfection at this stage and you don’t want any holes for the apple filling to seep through.
  4. Place a piece of baking paper into the shell and fill it with baking weights, dry rice or beans to help the pastry keep its shape.
  5. Place in the oven and bake for around 20 minutes.
  6. Take the baking paper and its filling out then place the pastry case back in the oven and cook for another 15 minutes or so until the pastry has a golden colour to it.
  7. Fill the baked pie shell with the apple mixture.
  8. Roll out you second pastry disc and cover the pie, trimming and crimping the edges to a neat finish. Make sure you cut a little hole in the top of the pastry to let any steam out as it cooks. And remember, keep mum in mind: near enough is good enough. A pretty pastry finish is lovely to look at but it does nothing to improve the taste!
  9. Brush the finished pie with a little milk or egg wash and sprinkle lightly with a spoonful of caster sugar.
  10. Place in the oven and bake for around 45-60 minutes or until the pastry top is a lovely golden colour. You might even see through a crack the apple filling bubbling inside.

Let the pie cool for a while before serving it up at the table. A big plastic tub of vanilla ice-cream is good and bottle of cream to pour over each portion. Remember, no fancy serving bowls or cream jugs allowed. Just like mum’s hugs (and her pies), they come as they are.

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