Almost everyone is familiar with the phrase “easy as apple pie,” meant to suggest that a task couldn’t be simpler. But I suspect that most people, encountering those words, feel like saying something like, “Yeah, right!”
Many home cooks consider pie-making a difficult task. They’d rather just pick up a freshly prepared pie from their favorite local bakery or the supermarket’s baked-goods section, or maybe pop a frozen pie into the oven.
I think the time has come for a home pie-making revival. And apple pie is a perfect way to start. In fact, I’ll even dare to say that it’s easy, as you’ll see in the recipe I share with you here, and another different kind of apple pie I’ll serve up in my next column.
Ask most people to describe a perfect apple pie, and you’ll hear a combination of characteristics that sometimes sound to me like a yin and yang of food terms. They’ll describe their ideal pastry as flaky and crisp, yet tender. The filling, meanwhile, should feature sweet, yet tangy, apples that are perfectly cooked through and tender, yet still with a touch of firmness and crispness. Some people like the taste of cinnamon in the filling, too; others don’t. And there are those who insist on topping each serving with vanilla ice cream, while others (including those of us who grew up in Austria) opt for whipped cream, and some want their pie plain and simple. Then, there’s the English contingent, who like serving their apple pie accompanied by a wedge of sharp cheddar cheese.
Out of all these many characteristics and options, I’ve come up with a version of a traditional apple pie that, to my taste, balances all the yins and yangs. For the filling, I use good, well-balanced, crisp cooking apples such as the Granny Smith or Golden Delicious varieties. I precook the apples with butter and sugar (cinnamon optional), along with a splash of Calvados (apple brandy) to heighten their flavor, until the fruit is surrounded by a rich, golden caramel sauce.
For the crust, I’ve decided to add cheddar cheese right into the pastry. A touch of cider vinegar in the dough not only complements the flavor of the filling but also, through the vinegar’s acidity, makes the dough inherently more tender while it bakes to the desired golden-brown color.
All in all, the result is an apple pie that tastes familiar enough to please all the traditional-minded people out there, but with a complexity and depth of flavor that may, at first bite, open your eyes just a bit wider and make you feel as if you’re eating apple pie for the first time.
And making it all, believe or not, is as easy as apple pie!
APPLE PIE WITH CHEDDAR CRUST
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 ounces unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch chunks and chilled in the freezer for 15 minutes
1 1/2 cups shredded sharp or mild cheddar cheese
3/4 teaspoon apple-cider vinegar
1/3 to 1/2 cup ice water
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 medium-sized firm, tangy-sweet organic apples such as Granny Smith or Golden Delicious, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, optional
4 tablespoons Calvados (apple brandy) or applejack
1 large cage-free egg, beaten
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, for serving, optional
First, make the Cheddar Pastry: Put the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the stainless-steel blade. Pulse 5 or 6 times to combine. Add the chilled butter and process for 5 seconds. Add the cheddar and pulse the machine on and off 4 times to combine. In a measuring cup, combine the cider vinegar and 1/3 cup of ice water. With the machine running, pour the vinegar-water mixture through the feed tube; continue processing until a ball of dough forms. If the dough doesn’t come together, process in another 1 to 2 tablespoons of ice water.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured work surface. With clean hands, form the dough into an even ball. Cut the ball into 2 pieces, 1 slightly larger than the other. Pat each into a flattened disk. Wrap each disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Meanwhile, prepare the Apple Filling: Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and melt 6 tablespoons of the butter. When the butter turns light brown, add the apples and sprinkle with the sugar and, if you like, the cinnamon. Cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar has turned golden-brown, 10 to 15 minutes, but the apples are still firm. Stir in the Calvados and remove from the heat. Empty onto a sheet pan lined with aluminum foil. Set aside to cool to room temperature.
For the pie, preheat the oven to 400 degree, positioning a rack in the lower third of the oven.
Meanwhile, on a lightly floured work surface, with a floured rolling pin, roll out the smaller disk of dough to an even 11-inch circle. Gently fold the dough in half or quarters, transfer to a 9-inch pie pan, unfold, and gently ease into the pan’s contours. Roll out the larger disk to a 12-inch circle.
Fill the lined pie pan with the cooled apple mixture and dot with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter. Top with the larger pastry disk, tucking its edges under the rim of the bottom pastry. With your fingers, press down all around the rim to seal decoratively. With the tip of a small, sharp knife, cut 3 vents, each about 2 inches long, in the center of the top crust.
Bake the pie for 30 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 375 degrees, and bake 20 minutes longer. Remove from the oven, brush the top with the beaten egg, return to the oven, and bake until golden brown, about 5 minutes longer.
Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature, cut into wedges and accompanied, if you like, by whipped cream or ice cream.